When we first started Women We Read This Week, we were something very small: a community of six writers, living in different cities throughout the world, who came together to create a space where we could, quite simply, write whatever the hell we wanted. We weren’t really trying to be anything, but we were, without realizing it, trying to make something: not just a literary magazine, but a space where we could celebrate great writing by women in general. Over time, our work started to gain visibility. A loyal readership found us. Other writers found us. We opened up to submissions. And we started Women We Read This Week, a column in which we briefly review stand-out work by women that we’ve read each week.
It’s become one of our most defining columns. The communal spirit behind it is apparent in its effect: our stable of reviewers has grown tremendously, and each writer we review becomes a part of our community, making this space – which we hope retains its spirit of freedom, risk-taking, and inclusiveness – a little richer, bigger, and more exciting each week.
This is our 100th edition of the column, so we thought we’d do something a little bit different to celebrate: we put together a small list of some of our favorite work by women from the last thirty years. This is by no means an all-inclusive gathering (see our Unlisted List for something much more comprehensive); it’s just an effort to highlight a few great pieces we love so much we couldn’t help but sing their praises from the rooftops. Enjoy.
Gloria Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” from Borderlands
When I told my students recently that I hardly ever taught writing I truly loved, they asked what the exceptions were—“How to Tame a Wild Tongue” is one of them. I love to teach this essay because it breaks all the rules that students are taught in high school English (and sometimes college English), and relies instead on implicit connections, scenes, argument and poetry to explore Spanish language oppression and hierarchy in America. And I love this essay myself because as Anzaldúa does this, she neither shies from complexities of gender, race, language or sexual discrimination, nor does she temper her rightful frustration. It is powerful, powerful work.
Sonia Nazario’s “Enrique’s Journey” in The LA Times
Sonia Nazario’s Pulitzer Prize-winning six-part LA Times Story “Enrique’s Journey” is the best kind of journalism. The ground level story of Enrique’s journey from Honduras to the U.S. in search of his mother is enough to justify the read, but what really makes this piece stand out is what it took to get the story. It reads easily, like it took nothing at all to write—as though the recreated scenes, immersive reporting, and research were just lined up neatly ready to be written. Of course, that wasn’t at all the case, which only makes the final story even more astonishing.
Melissa Febos’s“Call My Name” in Prairie Schooner
We writers have such a love for, and fascination with, words, so often sprinkling even our sparsest prose with etymology porn or slow, lyrical guides to pronunciation. One can grow wary of it, and yet “Call My Name” transforms those moves and makes them new. I always thought Sandra Cisneros was the only one who could stretch so much out of a single name, but I was wrong. I love all of Febos’s writing for the way it is both strong and supple, assertive and questioning. Here she meditates on her name, where it comes from, and the implications of both heritages lost, and inheritances resisted.
Leanne Shapton’s “Size” in The Paris Review
Maybe this is cheating, because this piece is actually excerpted from Shapton’s wonderful book Swimming Studies (which I love and I think everyone should read). But I came to the book through the piece, and it’s as good on its own as it is in context. Part photo-essay, part memoir, it floats effortlessly along, exploring ideas about bodies, discipline, relationships to food, to stuff, to self, without ever lapsing into unwieldy exposition. It is, to appropriate Shapton’s own description of the body in water, heavy and light at the same time, weightless yet strong.
Rebecca Solnit’s “The Faraway Nearby” in Guernica
Cheating again: this is an excerpt from Solnit’s book (of the same title). I’ve long admired her ability to weave together so many different threads, to draw or imply connections without making it seem labored. She’s a master, and this piece – about the story of journeys, the journey of stories, the story as journey – proves it.
Sarah C R Bee’s “This is How You Healthcare: American Death in London” on NSFWCORP
Every time I read this I think: God damn. Bee’s account of her American father’s death in a British hospital is one of those rare pieces of writing that sticks in your heart and your head. It’s about death, about politics, about care, kindness, family, illness. It is bold but measured, emotionally complex, funny, heartbreaking: a beautiful example of how to write about what’s difficult.
Eula Biss’s “Time and Distance Overcome” from Notes from No Man’s Land
This piece has stuck with me since I read it in a workshop a couple years ago. From her 2009 essay collection, Notes From No Man’s Land, Biss manages to weave seemingly disparate histories to craft a haunting tale of two American inventions. Telephone poles will never look the same again.
Ariel Levy’s “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” in The New Yorker
This personal essay won the 2014 National Magazine Award for Essays & Criticism, and it’s not hard to see why. Levy’s rich prose captures the magic surrounding the adventure of child-bearing, as well as her deep moments of grief during and after a devastating trip to Mongolia. It is at once intimate and universal, heart-wrenching and hopeful–absolutely worth a read.
Jeanne Marie Laskas’s “Underworld” in GQ
In “Underworld,” a version of which eventually became part of her 2012 book, Hidden America, Jeanne Marie Laskas reminds us that “the earth isn’t some stupid rock,” and she shines a light—literally and figuratively—on some of the folks who work inside it, people whose occupation renders them mostly invisible. It is Laskas at her best: intrepid, funny, smart. Through her eyes, we learn about so much more than coal and what happens in a mine. With Laskas as our guide, we befriend the miners, and ultimately consider what it means to live on the periphery of death.
Ann Patchett’s “The Wall” from The Washington Post
I try to teach this essay with my students when I can. In it, Patchett recounts her attempt — both full-throated and half-hearted — to join the Los Angeles Police Department. It’s a model of how to write with restraint about personal failings and successes. I also enjoy that it’s about a father-daughter relationship that (at least to all appearances) seems loving and functional.
Tina Fey’s “Lessons From Late Night” in The New Yorker
I’m fairly fascinated by this piece, which does a nice job of a tricky thing: presenting a feminist at work, embodying her agenda instead of stating it. Fey looks back on her years working on “Saturday Night Live,” explaining how the show and its creator, Lorne Michaels, shaped her understanding of hard work, comedy and — key for me — letting go. It’s also very funny!
Anne Lamott’s “The Prayer of an Unconditional Family” in the New York Times
I could list dozens of Lamott’s writings here, as she’s been a strong influence on my writing voice for many years: she’s funny, smart and faithful in several senses. It’s always nice to see her work pop up, and this piece for Draft, a blog at the Times, is a gentle reminder of the importance of wonder. If Fey and Patchett remind me to work hard and keep trying, Lamott reminds me, as the acting exercise goes, to “hold on tightly, but let go loosely.”
Nikky Finney’s National Book Award for Poetry Acceptance Speech in National Book Awards Ceremony
This speech is an example of a moment that could have been nothing. But poet Nikky Finney, in a thunder of presence and poetics and justice, reminds us of the true power of the written word: “One: We begin with history. The Slave Codes of SC, 1739: ‘a fine of one hundred dollars and six months in prison will be imposed for anyone found teaching a slave to read, or write, and death is the penalty for circulating any incendiary literature.’”
This is not an essay in a literary journal, but good writing can be found in so many places, and I don’t ever want to forget that.
Casey N. Cep’s “The Textual” in Pacific Standard Magazine
I have long been a fan of Casey N. Cep’s writing. She has a unique ability to home in on the central theme of a story and align the details like stars in a beautiful constellation. I could point to any number of pieces—“Small, Good Things” in The Paris Review; “A Little Society” in Poetry Foundation Magazine; “Inheritance and Invention: Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal” in the New Yorker; or her short essays in Pacific Standard Magazine. I’ll focus here on “The Textual”, her meditation on pictures of texts. Specifically, she’s thinking about pictures of text one takes with an iPhone, and her essay begins with one such “screenshot” of an early printed book with its ink blots, strange cursive handwriting dimly scrawled across the bottom of the page, and ancient font.
Cep is a fan of these textual images—which she calls “textuals”—and she uses them in her research. Her phone contains “a warehouse for all sorts of other images like screenshots of text from the Web, pictures of poems from subway advertisements, screenshots of text from emails, and pictures of text in books and newspapers.” Textuals, she explains, are not new to the era of iPhone, Twitter, Pintrest, and Facebook, where they flourish as memes, but they have a special life in these mediums because “typography has always been as loyal to beauty as legibility.”
Cep’s essay references her earlier, related piece “A Thousand Words: Writing from Photographs” in the New Yorker. There, Cep lays out her process of writing from textuals. When I first read about her process, I took my own screenshot of her piece and sent it to my graduate students, who are currently reading hundreds of books in preparation for their exams in literature. I gave them the assignment of coming to class with just eight to ten textuals and then, in the class, I asked them to write for twenty minutes from those images. This was one assignment I did along with them. Afterward, we talked about the experience. What we learned was the valuable lesson of selection. Strangely, the technology that had made so much information available to us helped us limit that information. Limiting ourselves to a few snapshots of our research liberated us from the tyranny of quotations by experts, of “knowing everything,” and forced us to find our own words.