In Celebration of Women Writers


In celebration of International Women’s Day and PEN International’s 90th Anniversary, PEN International asked PEN members to nominate one piece of writing by a woman that they greatly admire. We received nominations for a very diverse range of texts, many of them contemporary, including poetry, drama, novels, short stories and essays. These texts, listed below, present just a snapshot of the literary achievements of women worldwide. We are proud to be able to present such a variety of international voices, but conscious that the list is far from comprehensive, and hope to stimulate debate. Which literary forms and genres are underrepresented? Which nationalities? What else should be on this list? Please do use the comment facility to tell us what you think about the nominations we received!

Chiyo-ni
‘Untitled Haiku’
on the ebb tide beach
everything we pick up
is alive
(1700s)

“Succinct, memorable, vital, exhilarating (all that sea-air!)”

Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda
‘Al partir’ / ‘On Leaving’

(1836)

“A moving poem about the poet’s emotions on leaving Cuba, a country she deeply loved”

Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić
Priče iz davnine / Croatian Tales of Long Ago

(1916)

“A short story collection of fairy tales inspired by Slavic mythology”

Gabriela Mistral
Desolación / Desolation

(1922)

“A poetry collection from the first Latin American woman to win a Nobel Prize for Literature; the poems touch on topics ranging from motherhood to religion”

Nina Berberova
The Tattered Cloak and Other Stories

(1930s)

“Evocative stories depicting the lives and underlying sense of dislocation of Russian exiles living in Paris just before the outbreak of the Second World War”

Virginia Woolf
The Waves

(1931)

“For its extraordinary poeticism”

Zora Neale Hurston
‘What White Publishers Won’t Print’

(1950)

“An essay critiquing the stereotyping of race in literary representation”

Fumiko Enchi
Onna zaka / The Waiting Years

“Winner of the Noma Literary Prize, the novel examines the entrapping nature of the concubine system”

Jessie Kesson
The White Bird Passes

(1958)

“The memoir of a wretched, deprived and neglected childhood, transformed by love”

Ingrid Jonker
‘Die kind wat dood geskiet is deur soldate by Nyanga’ / ‘The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga’

(1960)

“A harrowing poem, subsequently quoted by Nelson Mandela upon his opening of the first democratic parliament in South Africa, 1944”

Olivia Manning
Friends and Heroes, Fortunes of War, Balkan Trilogy

(1965)

“I admire all six of the volumes in this WWII series: this, set in Athens in 1940-41, is perhaps most appropriate for our times: ‘the heroes of Epirus … the survivors had undergone more than any man should be asked to undergo. They had triumphed and at last, unjustly defeated, here they were wandering back, lost in their own city, begging for bread’”

Jean Rhys
Wide Sargasso Sea

(1966)

“The famous re-imagination of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre

Flora Nwapa
Efuru

(1966)

“A clever, witty snapshot of Nigerian life during an historic moment when previous colonies were gaining independence. The first novel to be published by a Nigerian female writer – Nwapa’s tale is all the more pertinent as it not only deals with the question of colonialism and independence, but also because it challenges gender and tradition”


Bessie Head
A Question of Power

(1974)

“For the courage it took to write of suffering and confusion, but also it was unlike anything I’d read [in the 1980s] blending and blurring fantasy and reality, questioning the nature of reality (is one person’s reality another’s pure fantasy?), its scalpel-precision honesty, and her wonderful use of language”

Hélène Cixous
‘Le rire de la méduse’ / ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’

(1975)

“A seminal text challenging phallogocentrism”

Wisława Szymborska
‘Psalm’

(1976)

“I chose this one for its message that national frontiers are man-made; as animals and plants know, in nature there are none. Even in translation, this is a beautifully crafted poem by a Nobel prizewinner and recipient of the Polish PEN award.”

Clarice Lispector
A hora da Estrela / The Hour of the Star / L’Heure de l’étoile

(1977)

“L’Heure de l’étoile (A Hora da Estrela) de la Brésilienne Clarice Lispector, le dernier roman, en portugais, d’une des découvertes majeures de la littérature mondiale du 20e siècle, et publié l’année de sa mort en 1977. Le roman raconte « l’histoire d’une innocence meurtrie, d’une misère anonyme », celle d’une jeune fille pauvre, originaire du Nordeste du Brésil, émigrée dans la grande ville de Rio de Janeiro.”

Claribel Alegría
Sobrevivo / I Survive

(1978)

“A moving collection of poetry that women the Cuban Casa de las Américas Prize”

Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar
The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination

(1979)

“A key feminist work in which Gilbert and Gubar critique limited literary representations of female characters as the angel or the monster”

Angela Carter
The Bloody Chamber

(1979)

“A playful, witty and dark series of modern fairy tales…”

Louky Bersianik
“ailes” in “Ailes arrivent – II”, Axes et eau

(1984)

“Ce poème de Louky Bersianik est porteur d’espoir et de liberté pour toutes les femmes du monde du passé, du présent et de l’avenir”

Patricia Verdugo
Los Zarpazos del Puma / Clawings of the Puma

(1985)

“An candid and courageous text casting light on the murder of opposition members and political prisoners under Pinochet”

Mary Oliver
‘The Journey’

(1986)

“This one stanza poem, in the address form past tense, without preaching or imperatives speaks directly to the reader’s soul telling of the necessity to be true to oneself”

Toni Morrison
Beloved

(1987)

“The tragic and heart-rending story based on the true history of Margaret Garner, an African-American slave”


Duong Thu Huong
Những thiên đường mù / Paradise of the Blind

(1988)


“A novel memorable for its exploration of the Vietnamese culture, and the plight and courage of women”


Giaconda Belli
La Mujer Habitada / The Inhabited Woman

(1988)

“A semi-autobiographical novel about the fight for liberation, blending narratives of women’s emancipation and resistance to the Spanish in Central America”

Laura Esquivel
Como agua para chocolate / Like Water for Chocolate

(1989)

“The story of a young girl unable to marry her lover, instead having to care for her mother… The narrative is based around the kitchen, which becomes the centrepoint of emotion”

Julia Alvarez
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents

(1991)

“In a series of interrelated short stories, the novel narrates the lives of four sisters, who are uprooted from their home in the Dominican Republic and displaced to the US… the story powerfully expresses their sense of displacement and issues of identity”

Pat Barker
Regeneration

(1991)

“For the way it deals openly with shellshock; a heart-rending look at the impact of WWI”

Jung Chang
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

(1991)

“Winner of the 1992 NCR Book Award and the 1993 British Book of the Year, Wild Swans is an intimate memoir recounting the lives of three female generations in China, over the course of a century”

Elizabeth Grosz
Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism

(1994)

“A groundbreaking and innovative series of essays, deftly undoing traditional theories which elevate the mind over the body… Elizabeth Grosz imagines the body setting the parameters of experience, without falling into limited conceptions of gender”

Magda Szabó
The Door

(1995)

“An unusual and poignant semi-autobiographical story of the relationship between a young Hungarian writer and her cleaner”

Leena Krohn
‘Dona Quixote’ in Dona Quixote and Other Citizens

(1995)

“We think this little novella tells exactly how it is to be for help but not to be on stage when your help is not needed anymore. As Leena Krohn ends: “If they remembered me, they would remember their unhappiness”, she says.”

Arundhati Roy
The God of Small Things

(1997)

“Haunting, humorous and tragic, a controversial and beautifully written novel dealing with caste, religion, history, tradition and family life”

Jhumpa Lahiri
Interpreter of Maladies

(1999)

“A widely acclaimed collection of short stories about Indians and Indian Americans balancing between cultures and attempting to hold onto a sense of personal culture in the ‘New World’”

Vesna Aleksić
Ja se zozem Jelena Suman / My name is Jelena Šuman

(1998)

“A beautifully written novel about children who meet on a stairwell and discuss their thoughts and ideas – from simple daily troubles to philosophical reflections”


Adrienne Rich
The School among the Ruins: Poems, 2000-2004

(2004)

“Touching on events at the turn of the 21st century, a poetry collection addressing issues of displacement, war and modernity”

Vona Groarke
Windmill Hymns

“Warm, elegiac poems about place and loss”

Lucina Kathmann
‘The Woman Who Knows Latin’

“Self censorship and suicide among women writers are some of the issues she brings in these outstanding lines”


Alice Munro
Runaway

(2004)

“A book of short stories about women ‘runaways’ from situations that limit them”

Mia Yun
Translations of Beauty

(2004)

“A novel set in America/Italy about second generation immigrant Korean twins, with an intricate focus on personal relationships”

Andrea Levy
Small Island

(2004)

“A truly fantastic read, this novel’s use of multi voices to narrate a tale stretching across time and across the globe deserved every ounce of praise it received. The bold exploration of Empire, war, nationhood and the changes seen in the twentieth century are superbly interwoven with the basic human concerns of love, aspiration and identity”

Alice Oswald
Woods Etc

(2005)

“One of the the most interesting poets currently writing in English. Alice Oswald combines elements of folk song, avant garde poetry, and British Romantic nature poetry to create unique, elemental poetry”

Kiran Desai
The Inheritance of Loss

(2006)

“Exploring migration and the idea of living between different worlds and identities, the novel probes the reverberations of colonialism and an underlying sense of deep loss”

Niki Marangou
‘I did not take her flowers’

“A poem written for the writer’s mother, who died on Woman’s day”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Half of a Yellow Sun

(2006)

“Lauded by Chinua Achebe as a brave exploration of a painful chapter in Nigerian history, Half of a Yellow Sun deals with the complexities and tragedies of the Biafran Civil War. More than this Adichie tests human nature, tradition and social structures in moments of crisis: as she said herself “I didn’t want to just write about events… I wanted to put a human face on them. And I also wanted to explore class — the outsider and the insider — and how war changes all that””

Elif Şafak
Baba ve Piç / The Bastard of Istanbul

(2006)

“A novel of striking boldness, power and humour: it tells the story of two families, one Turkish and one Armenian American, struggling to create an identity in the wake of Turkey’s violent past”


Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill
‘A Recovered Memory of Water’

(2007)

“To see some Irish poetry in translation”

Inaam Kachachi
Al-Hafeeda al-Amreekiya / The American Granddaughter

(2008)

“An emotional narrative of a girl of Iraqi origin, who returns to her homeland as an interreter for the US Army. A tale of conflicting feelings and commitments, told in an open and fresh style”

Lynn Nottage
Ruined

(2008)

“A Pulitzer prize-winning play about women in Congo. A brave play which stages violence against women’s bodies against the backdrop of the violence in Congo. The audience has little time to digest the content or fully experience pity as they are directly confronted with Nottage’s women, who are survivors of conflict even if ‘ruined’.

Mariela Baeva
‘The Letter’
(2008)

“For being a heart-rending and poignant vignette for a period in the history of Europe that shaped the new horizons for the generations to come”

Karlo Mila
‘Mother-Of-Pearl’

(2008)

“This evocative celebration of the lives and struggle of Pacifica women in a new land, prosaic and lyrical, reminds me of the commonality of women’s struggle. A poem full of the hope and homesickness of immigrant women, its words dance in two cultures”

Farida Hossain
‘The Mask’

(2008)

“Farida Hossain is an illustrious figure in the literary world of Bangladesh. As a mark of her Contribution in the field of literature she was awarded the most prestigious National Award ÒEkushe Padak in 2004”


Kamila Shamsie
Burnt Shadows

(2009)

“A raw and complex set of interwoven narratives exploring how war affects individual lives and interpersonal relationships, spanning from the ‘40s to the 21st century”

Herta Müller
Atemschaukel / Everything I Possess I Carry With Me

(2009)

“The widely acclaimed novel, based on the experiences of survivors including the author’s own mother, unsparingly looks at the suffering of ethnic Germans in Romania, persecuted under the Stalinist regime and sent to forced labour camps in the Soviet Union”

Brigid Pasulka
A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True

(2009)

“Set in Poland, this story deals with two generations of two families – the first during WW2, and the second during the 90’s. A sentimental mix of coming of age and negotiating histories: its a pleasure to read because of its wit, lovable and crazy characters- but also because it is a tale from Poland about its own history, traditions and concerns”

Mary O’Donnell
The Ark Builders

(2009)

“A work of fine artistic merit in its own right and is memorable for the way in which O Donnell charts the inner and outer lives of women – exploring issues of aging, sexuality, endurance, fun & companionship, with quiet conviction, truth, and with a skilled and accurate and lyrical eye”

Aminatta Forna
The Memory of Love

(2010)

“Written with grace as such that demonstrates a genuine love for storytelling, Forna’a novel itself is the sum of characters reciting their own stories, and of characters trying piece together histories too. Set in both Sierra Leone and England, The Memory of Love focuses on the pain of the Sierra Leoneon Civil War, military rule and the themes of love and loss- particularly unique to this tale is the attention paid to the consequences of all this on mental health”

Sharmilla Beezmohum
Ecos de la tierra verde

“This book struck me because of the amazingly colourful and nostaligic way in which it deals with feelings of idenity and belonging”

Leila Aboulela
Lyrics Alley

(2011)

“A picture of Sudan in the ‘50s, on the eve of its independence – the story a family caught between old and new, faith and doubt, with a truly empathetic rendering of character”

Téa Obreht
The Tiger’s Wife

(2011)

“A haunting story mixing together several narratives, from that of a deathless man to a deaf girl who befriends an escaped tiger… The novel centres around the relationship between a young female doctor and her grandfather, as Obreht herself describes, a ‘family saga’”

Mona Savvidou Theodoulou
‘To Axiothea and every Cypriot woman’

“A poet, regardless gender, cannot but feel touched by the female characters who have been recorded in History, because of their capabilities, decisiveness, perception and actions”

Glorice Weinstein
‘Bertha Pappenheim, une femme pionnière’

(2012)

“On Berthe Pappenheim, a true pioneer”

Fouzia Rhissassi
‘A mother’s dream’

“A short story enjoyed by those at PEN Morocco”

Jocelyn Ortt-Saeed
‘How to celebrate your life?’

(2012)

“Published in the Dawn newspaper”