If you are anything like me, anxiety and despair are running on overdrive these days given the state of the world and our country. It’s hard not to feel hopeless and helpless. What can we do? What should we do? And does diving into a great book have any value? Spoiler alert: you won’t be shocked to hear that my answer is a resounding YES, but allow me to offer some thoughts on the matter…
I often say most of what I “know” about the world I learned from novels. I was never much of a history student—the facts and figures didn’t stick with me. I loved psychology, but theories were never as interesting to me as the people. Science solved some important mysteries, but I often forgot what I’d learned because I had no emotional connection to it. The most important things I’ve come to learn about how the world operates often arrived in the form of an engrossing story, usually a fictitious one.
The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe caused me to consider the existence of worlds outside our immediate grasp, and to contemplate the excruciating beauty of sacrifice. Agatha Christie taught me how devious self-interested people can be. Later, Ahab’s Wife and The Red Tent opened my eyes to the power of female connection, while The Power of One introduced me to South Africa and the seeds of apartheid. I’d never considered the lasting repercussions of the Armenian genocide until reading The Bastard of Instanbul, nor had I had any insight into the often solitary and painful lives of Chinese women in the 1800s until Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.
When I got to business school, the investment bankers and management consultants often thought they had it made. Unlike me (who had never taken so much as an economics class in college) they all understood a P&L and the workings of the stock market, so what else was there? Some found classes in Organizational Behavior or Interpersonal Dynamics to be “overly dramatic”—as if a company isn’t the sum of its (always complicated and often dramatic) people. I began to wonder If any of them had ever read a novel.
Great stories, fictional and true, share one thing in common—an access point to the source of human connection. They offer us the chance to release ourselves from our current reality so that we can try to understand people with lived experiences different from our own on their terms while we try to navigate their version of the world for a spell– all without having to leave the couch.
Eleven books that have (lately) helped ground me
In the last two years, as I have felt less and less able to navigate the noise of the news and the constant barrage of information (and disinformation), I’ve come to rely ever more on an inner “knowing,” a gut feel for what’s most important at the heart of important topics—which always centers on the people involved. There is no easier way to form that connection than through books.
THE BLACK EXPERIENCE IN AMERICA
An epic exploration of the impact of slavery on the generations of families that call a stretch of land in the south their home, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Dubois is a feminist masterwork about the task of overcoming inherited trauma and systemic racism in a society determined to keep black women down.
I gained an emotional connection to the plight of the environment within the pages of The Overstory. My favorite character is a tree (seriously), and I weep for it still. And for a sweeping contemplation of the sources and possible future of climate change, Cloud Cuckoo Land is remarkable (while also acting as a love letter to the importance of books and stories in general, so a win for me across the board).
LOVE, LOSS and FINDING HOPE
Great memoirs, for me, read just like excellent novels—with characters that become friends, dramatic twists and turns, tears of sorrow and yelps of triumph. Two memoirs in particular moved me deeply this year. Crying in H Mart tells the story of one woman’s quest to overcome the grief of losing her mother through a reconnection with her Korean roots, often through food. Another food-centered tale is the incredible story of restauranteur Erin French in her awe-inspiring memoir, Finding Freedom: Remaking a Life from Scratch. If you need a little reassurance that overcoming impossible odds is in fact possible, this one’s for you.
AN IMMIGRANT’S VIEW
I love everything Thirty Umrigar writes. I was moved this year by Honor, which takes on the complex perspective of an American reporter forced to confront her difficult childhood in India and her country’s sometimes brutal treatment of women.
THE COMPLEXITY OF LOVE AND FAMILY
Had a little too much of your own family under one roof? Escape into a few tales different than your own. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves contemplates the power of sibling bonds and our assumptions about what makes relationships valid in a remarkably singular way. The more recent The Paper Palace is a fabulous tangle of charged relationships. And for entertainment value, I highly recommend the audio version of Daisy Jones and the Six. It’s told by an amazing cast of performers and explores love, music, fame and the sources of our own self-worth.
ANCIENT HISTORY, RETOLD
In listing some of my favorite reads of the last year, I would be remiss not to include the latest from Sue Monk Kidd, The Book of Longings, a truly remarkable work of fiction which tells the story of a woman struggling against cultural norms to find artistic and personal freedom, a woman who just happens to meet and marry a carpenter named Jesus. This book gave me license to believe that ANY story can be reclaimed and shared from a new point of view.
I love historical fiction for its power to animate the “facts” of history, to infuse dates and names with the emotion behind them. I’m particularly drawn to historical fiction with a real person at its center, the kind of story that lets us explore the heart and mind of someone that had an indelible impact on the world.
My new historical novel, LEAVING COY’S HILL, is inspired by the life of Lucy Stone, an abolitionist and pioneering women’s rights activist from the 1800s. When I stumbled across the basic facts of her life—she was the first woman to speak regularly about women’s rights and the person who inspired Susan B. Anthony to join the cause—I was shocked that I’d never heard of her before. Intrigued, I began to research her life, all with one key question in mind. Was her story enough for a novel?… read the rest of this post on Women Writers, Women’s Books
In honor of Women’s History Month, I decided to shine a light on 31 Women who, much like Lucy Stone, the protagonist of my second novel, LEAVING COY’S HILL, have been relegated to the shadows of history.
Since the beginning of time, women have been on the forefront of every movement, whether artistic, political or social, as renegades, leaders, rule-breakers, daredevils and role models for those who came after. 31 is a tiny number, but that is where I began. Rather than try to tell you everything about these pioneers myself, I have provided only a brief highlight of each, and pointed you in the direction of resources to learn more. The posts below each contain five of the women I highlighted during the month (in reverse order as they appeared throughout the month). The final woman I featured in the month of March, is where it all began for me, Lucy Stone.
LUCY STONE caught my eye when I was researching character names for a different novel and happened upon a statue in Boston that is part of the Women’s Memorial, a tribute to three enormously impactful women from Massachusetts: Abigail Adams (wife of President Adams), Phillis Wheatley (a slave housed in Boston who went on to become the first published African-American poet), and Lucy Stone. After learning that Lucy was the first woman in the country to actively speak out for women’s rights, the organizer of the first truly national convention on the topic, and the orator who inspired Susan B. Anthony to join the movement, I could not imagine why I had not heard of her before. Well, the answer to that question is an important part of my book!
My years of research of Lucy Stone’s life and legacy gave me a much greater understanding of the fate of so many courageous change-makers, champions of others, and visionaries who lead their communities and countries to a better place, and yet are too often forgotten. I hope my novel helps shed some light on Lucy’s extraordinary life. And with any luck, my 31 Women of March project might open the door of discovery for one of the other thirty women on the list, extraordinary all, and such a small sampling of the wonder of women everywhere. Snippets of each of their lives follow below.
A nuclear physicist, and the only Chinese-American believed to have worked on the Manhattan Project, Wu made many critical contributions to atomic science, none considered more important than the “Wu experiment,” designed to test a theory of parity held by fellow physicists Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang. While the experiment was named for her, the 1957 Nobel Prize was awarded to her male colleagues, ignoring her contribution entirely. She was not the only woman to be snubbed by the Nobel Committee in this way. In a telling commentary about American culture she said, “There is a misconception in America that women scientists are all dowdy spinsters. This is the fault of men. In Chinese society, a woman is valued for what she is, and men encourage her accomplishments, yet she remains eternally feminine.” Read more about the “first lady of physics” on the National Park Service site.
A beloved humanitarian, Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral was the first Latin American author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (1945). She was known for always taking the side of those she believed to be most mistreated by society: women, children, Indigenous people, Jews, war victims, the poor. Her work is known to be deeply emotional, exploring emotions often at odds, from love and jealousy to hope and fear. She said,“Many things can wait. Children cannot. Today their bones are being formed, their blood is being made, their senses are being developed. To them we cannot say ‘tomorrow.’ Their name is today.” Learn more about her at the Poetry Foundation. Read a selection of her poetry, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin.
A daredevil from a young age, flying airplanes by 13 and skydiving by 16, in 1977 Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500. Despite the intense harassment she received, including being greeted on a daily basis with a chant of “No Tits in the Pits,” Guthrie persevered to pursue the sport she loved, and over time her racing skills silenced her critics and opened the door for other women to enter the sport, including famed driver Danica Patrick. In reflecting on prsuing her passion despite the odds, she said, “It is a matter of spirit, not strength. It is a matter of doing your best each little moment. There’s never a break. You must have desire, a very intense desire to keep going.”
Among of hosts of “firsts,” Marin Alsop is the only conductor to ever win a MacArthur Fellowship. She was named the Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007, becoming the first woman to conduct a major metropolitan symphony in the US, and was later named the first female chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony. A believer that music can change the world, she is an advocate for education and access. In 2020 she spearheaded the “Global Ode to Joy,” celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday with an “invitation to the global community to share the call for tolerance, unity, and joy.” She said, “With so much need alongside so much possibility, I hope we can use any opportunities we get to set an example and inspire others to join us in trying to change the world.” Watch a quarantine interview from May 2020 with Alsop.
Born in 1910, Pauli Murray was a Black Queer civil rights lawyer and activist who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus 15 years before Rosa Parks did the same, and organized restaurant sit-ins 20 years before Greensboro. The descendant of slaves, free Blacks, Native Americans and slave owners, she was unapologetic about her gender fluidity, fought relentlessly against discrimination, was an advisor to FDR and Kennedy, and became the first female African-American priest. The Episcopal Church designated her a saint in 2012. She said,“If one could characterize in a single phrase the contribution of Black women to America, I think it would be ‘survival with dignity against incredible odds.’” Learn more about her.
After being one of only 4 female crew (out of 230) in the 1985/’86 Whitbread Round the World Race, Tracy Edwards became the first female Skipper in the nine-month, 33,000 mile competition when she put together an all-female crew for the 1989/’90 Race. Overcoming a persistent struggle to find any sponsors willing to support them, her boat Maidenshocked the world by finishing in second place, the best result by any British boat since 1977. Edwards is a straight shooter who doesn’t tend to romanticize the experience. She said, “Women have great stamina, so we just got used to it. I think also taking care of each other was something I had never seen on a big racing boat with men,” and, “The sea is very honest, and there’s no gossiping behind your back. It’s telling tales right in front of you, and what you see is what you get.” A wonderful documentary, called Maiden, was released in 2018 about the Whitbread experience. Definitely worth a watch.
In 1925, Sarojini Naidu followed Mahatma Ghandi as the President of the Indian National Congress, the first woman to hold that post. An active advocate of Ghandi’s Non-Cooperation Movement, she served three separate prison sentences for her anti-British activities. She was also a poet, publishing three volumes of poetry in her lifetime (one posthumously), and held influencial literary salons in Bombay. In 1947 she became the first woman to hold the post of state governor, a post she held for two years, until her death in 1949. She said, “A country’s greatness lies in its undying ideals of love and sacrifice that inspire the mothers of the race.” To read more about Sarojini, visit her biography in Britannica.
While her pacifist activities led to her selection as the first American woman Nobel Peace Prize recipient (1931), her true passion was working with inner city women and children in Chicago where she established daycare systems and training programs for working women, advocated for better urban sanitation, more kindergartens and playgrounds, and later lobbied for passage of the 1916 Federal Child Labor Law. Her work fighting for clean air and water in the poorest neighborhoods makes her one of the earliest environmental justice advocates in the country. She said, “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.” Learn more about her at PBS.org.
Born into a Quaker family on Nantucket in 1818, Maria Mitchell was the first American astronomer to discover a comet. She was only 29. A life-long advocate of women in science, Mitchell would go on to be the first woman elected to the Academy of Arts and Sciences, and instrumental in the formation of the American Association for the Advancement of Women. She was recruited to reach at Vassar which had the third largest telescope in the world, allowing her to extensively study the surfaces of Jupiter and Saturn. A crater on the moon was eventually named in her honor. She said, “We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.” A wonderful novel based on her life, The Movement of Stars, by Amy Brill, was published in 2014. Her house in Nantucket is now a historical tourist site.
After living through the Yugoslav Wars, Marijani Savic founded the first safehouse in Serbia for victims of gender-based violence and human trafficking. She founded Atina, an organization dedicated to helping survivors by expanding basic services to include long-term psychological and legal assistance. A tireless champion of women, in 2018 Savic was named to the Forbes list of eight awe-inspiring women around the globe focused on this issue. She said, “There are still women among us who are segregated entirely and are being blamed by the society for the violence they are suffering.” Here is an interview with Savic, and an article about what inspires her.
From L-R: Mamie Smith, Judith Hueman, Justice Motley, Christine Quintasket, Manal al-Sharif
A vaudeville entertainer from the age of 10, Mamie Smith made history by recording “Crazy Blues” in 1920, widely considered the first recorded Blues track, and the first recording by an African American artist. Not only did the record open a floodgate of interest in the Blues, its wild success surprised recording executives who had no idea there was such a huge market for Black Women vocalists, and it paved the way for future greats such as Ma Rainey, Bessey Smith and Billie Holiday. Mamie caught her break that day in 1920, not because of some forward-thinking producer, but because she was filling in for a white singer who was out sick. She said,“Human laws pattern divine laws, but divine laws use only originals.” Learn more about Mamie Smith at Black Past.
Nella Larsen, a critically acclaimed author of the Harlem Renaissance, was born in 1891 to a West Indian father and Danish mother. Shunned her entire life by her white relatives, she struggled to fit in anywhere, and explored both sexual identity and the concept of passing in her novels “Quicksand” and “Passing.” In 1930 she became the first Black woman to be awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. She said, “It’s funny about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.” Read more of her biography here
PATSY TAKEMOTO MINK
In 1964 Patsy Takemoto Mink, an Asian-American from Hawaii, became the first woman of color elected to the US Congress. A champion of education and childcare, her signature achievement, The Comprehensive Child Development Act, a national daycare system designed to support low-income households, which passed both houses in 1971, was vetoed by Nixon for giving “too many incentives” for women to work outside the home. We still have no comprehensive child-care system. She said,“It is easy enough to vote right and be consistently with the majority . . . but it is more often more important to be ahead of the majority and this means being willing to cut the first furrow in the ground and stand alone for a while if necessary.” For more about Patsy Mink and Congress in general
On May 16, 1975, only twelve days after being buried in an avalanche, Junko Tabei became the first woman to summit Everest. in the face of criticism that women should only be “raising children,” discrimination against female climbers was so severe in Japan that Tabei formed an all-female climbing team and raised her own funds for the climb. By 1992 she had become the first woman to complete the Seven Summits challenge, summiting the tallest mountain on all seven continents. She went on to climb the tallest mountains in 70 countries. She said, “Everest for me, and I believe for the world, is the physical and symbolic manifestation of overcoming odds to achieve a dream.” More about Junko here.
RAYMONDE de LAROCHE
Sometimes called the Baroness of Flight, In 1910, Raymonde de Laroche became the first female licensed pilot in the world. Surviving multiple plane and car crashes, she competed (and won) many aviation competitions. When she was barred from being a fighter pilot for France in WWI, she became a military driver, transporting soldiers to and from the front. She died in a plane crash at 33 years old. She wasn’t flying the plane. Read more about her flying exploits here.
In 1992, Deb Price debuted her column for the Detroit News as the first openly gay, nationally-syndicated columnist in the country. Her 900 weekly columns introduced heterosexual America to the very normal and sometimes extraordinary issues of gay life. When she and her long-time partner, Joyce Murdoch, were finally able to wed in 2003, theirs was the first gay marriage announcement published in the Washington Post. The last line of her first column was, “So tell me, America, how do I introduce Joyce?” Sadly, Joyce died in 2020. Read her obituary from the Washington Post
#6 GERDA TARO
Born in Germany in 1910, Gerda Taro became the first female photojournalist to cover war from the front lines, documenting the toll of the Spanish Civil War. Her journalism highlighted on the impact of war on ordinary citizens, often women and children. Sadly, Taro also became the first female war correspondent to die on the front lines at the age of 26.
Read more bout Gerda and see some of her photos (Scroll halfway down the page)
#7 JACKIE MITCHELL
A member of the Chatanooga Lookouts in 1931, Jackie Mitchell faced the NY Yankees famed “murders row” and struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig– swinging! While employing a female pitcher was initially considered a publicity stunt, the two legends had no interest in being struck out. Her contract was cancelled soon after, the powers that be deeming that women were “too fragile” for baseball.
Read more about the skepticism Jackie faced
#8 DELORES HUERTA
One of the most important labor activists of our time, Dolores Huerta has never stopped fighting for the rights of farm workers, immigrants and women. Co-founder of what became the United Farm Workers Union she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. She said, “Every moment is an organizing opportunity, every person a potential activist, every minute a chance to change the world.”
Read more about Delores’ career
#9 QUI JIN
A national hero in China, Qui Jin, a poet, activist and warrior born in 1875, broke with thousands of years of tradition by questioning patriarchal society, cross-dressing, speaking against foot binding and learning martial arts. She was executed in 1907 at the age of 32, for her part in a failed attempt to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. She said, “Don’t tell me women are not the stuff of heroes.”
Read Qui Jin’s poetry
#10 EMILY WARREN ROEBLING
When Washington Roebling, the Chief Engineer overseeing all aspects of building the Brooklyn Bridge became incapacitated in 1872, his wife, Emily Warren Roebling took over, ostensibly as a conveyor of messages from her husband to the crew. But it soon became clear that she was acting Chief Engineer in charge of the masterful bridge, from calculating catenary curves to contract negotiation to day-to-day supervision until its completion in 1893. She was the first to ride across the bridge, with a celebratory rooster at her side. She said, “I have more brains, common sense and know-how generally than have any two engineers, civil or uncivil.”
The novel, The Engineer’s Wife by Tracey Enerson Wood, is based on her life.
When I think about the process of writing a novel, I’m reminded of Michael Angelo’s famous description of sculpting—that the figure resides within the stone, and his job is to free it. Each novel (for me) starts with an unwieldy boulder of an idea: some kind of premise, theme, character, time or place, and before I can turn it into a viable book, I must discover the story. To do this, I work to answer three key questions: what is the main conflict, who are the key characters critical to the conflict (not their names, but who they are as people, how they think and how they change), and what are the defining moments/scenes/turning points around which the drama revolves? That’s the story.
Biographical fiction presents its own unique challenge. Much like writing a memoir, when sorting through the particulars of an entire life, the trick is to find the small and large moments that, when strung together, create compelling drama. For Leaving Coy’s Hill, I started by learning as much about Lucy Stone’s life as possible, and to make sense of it, laid out the expanse of it visually. The different colors represent various angles on the material: basic facts, key life events, possible scenes, and important themes. After many an hour staring at this wall, the shape of the story emerged, a truly immersive tale of one woman’s quest to live a life of consequence and live it by her own rules. I can’t wait to share it with all of you!