As Stephen King acknowledges in his seminal book On Writing, it's the reader that makes the writer; you simply cannot become a writer without having a ceaseless capacity for and love of reading. Every single writer was a book-loving child, and then a book-loving teen, and is a book-loving adult. You cannot be one without the other; it's just not possible.
Considering who you are as a writer, then, necessitates a rumination of those you've read—and for International Women's Day, I thought I'd take a look at the female writers who've shaped who I am today. Are they my favourite writers? Not always. But I certainly wouldn't be a writer without their influence on my life.
You can't talk about this much-loved children's writer without acknowledging that her racial representation was total bullshit (yes, there really is a black character called Sooty LeNoir in some of the Famous Five books, and there's a pixie called Chinky in the Wishing Chair books. What the hell, Blyton?) and her class politics have always been suspect; even as a teen I knew that the sneering condescension with which Julian, Dick, Anne and George moved through the world would be the sort of thing I'd hate in real life (Timmy escapes as a pure being). And yet Enid Blyton books are the first ones that I can remember truly loving.
For me, it was Adventures of the Wishing Chair series and The Magic Faraway Tree series that were read to me before bed at night, and later, it was the Famous Five books that I read to myself. Of course, she also created Noddy, The Secret Seven and The Enchanted Wood, so it's no surprise that her works informed several generations of young readers—which is no mean feat, especially when you consider that some of these books were written fifty years before I was reading and falling in love with them.
And let's not forget George, the first tomboy character many of us tomboy gals ever read about. That stuff is important, and remains so to this day.
Before I turned double figures I was firmly a Jaqueline Wilson girl. Long before the likes of Tracy Beaker ended up on TV, we had the books; the unashamedly bright and vibrant covers of The Illustrated Mum, The Bed and Breakfast Star, Double Act and The Lottie Project. These books spoke to me about things I did not experience in my life—the realities of living in the care system, of having divorced parents, of being unsure where your next meal was coming from, or who you could really trust. Without being heavy handed they taught a lot of us about empathy, and caring about those who had less than us, and how to tell stories that need to be told. When we grew a wee bit more we had the Girls in Love/Girls Out Late/Girls Under Pressure series, talking to us about the nuances of growing older in a world where being a girl made you society's assumed property in a way that boys just weren't. Now, when I write, I try to write with the sort of boldness and empathy that Jaqueline Wilson wrote with when she told these stories. And somewhere, I've still got a signed copy of a hardback that I treasured as a kid.
I can't remember when I first read Wuthering Heights, but I can remember obsessing about it in college with my friend Allanah, and reading it and re-reading it, and falling totally in love with Heathcliff, and being able to see, really see Catherine at that window, and being able to imagine the house, and the moors, and feeling that strange sense of excitement knowing that this was the first book I'd ever read that was set where I was from. Perhaps that familiarity with the location set off my life-long love of this book, but more than that, it was the realisation that a woman from my part of the world, a part of the world often considered to be unintelligent and insular, could write a novel so powerful and gorgeous and enduring that almost two centuries later, it would still be cited as one of the favourite books of people across the globe. That's some powerful shit.
Simone de Beauvoir
At university, I did a double major—English Literature and Philosophy, which means that my reading lists were, as I imagine they almost all are, horrifically biased towards men. I studied chose Literature and Gender Studies, which threw a few women my way in the Literature portion of things, but the Philosophy lists were almost 100% men. Apart from Simone de Beauvoir.
It's still difficult to carve your name out as a woman in the field of philosophy, but Simon de Beauvoir did so with unapologetic determination. Refusing to be overshadowed by her superstar partner Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom much of her work overlapped, she produced the groundbreaking The Second Sex, which I poured over with highlighter and notebook at the dining table of my partner's family's house on my weekends away from uni. Her discussions around the basic systemic sexism inherent in most Western societies fundamentally changed the way I understood the world, and I still often think of what she wrote in that book. If I wasn't a feminist before, Simone de Beauvoir made me one.
Oh, Virginia. I can't remember whether I read Orlando or Mrs Dalloway first, but I do remember the spine-shiver produced by reading that opening line: "Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself." Bold, intense and personal, concerned with the beauty of the everyday, it contained within it everything that Virginia Woolf's work does best. Unlike a lot of other writers I enjoy, I've consumed her work slowly, over time, letting the books come to me as they felt they needed to. I read a second-hand copy of To The Lighthouse in my new favourite cafe when I'd just moved to Toronto; I read A Room of One's Own when I was trying to figure out what life as a writer might look like; I wrangled with the highly challenging prose of The Waves this past September, during a residency at Cove Park, when I was trying to write my own experimental novel. I revel in the fact that I haven't read everything that Virginia Woolf has to offer, and I look forward to the next time one of her books finds its way into my life, safe in the knowledge that it will have something new to teach me.
Beloved came to me, I believe, on a reading list for an American Studies course. That course was an introduction to the history of the marginalised communities in the States, and a lot of what I would later learn about racial struggles in America (and in the UK) took root in that class. What I remember most, though, is the shock of reading this story about motherhood and women, about the desperation of parenthood under the unspeakable pressures of slavery, about these very female experiences and the horror of them. This is the sort of thing that you cannot unread; the sort of story, that, in the words of J.G. Ballard, rubs humanity's face in its own vomit and forces it to look in the mirror. This book speaks the truth of experience, it speaks truth to power, and it quite rightly won the Nobel Prize for Fiction in 1988. Every other Toni Morrison work I've read since then has continued to educate and inform me, as well as letting me lose myself in the luxuriant prose that lulls you into a false sense of security that everything in this book might just be okay.
Life, for me, can be split into BAGIAHFT and AAGIAHFT: Before A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and After A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. A friend gifted me a signed copy of this short but genius book, and when I opened it to the first page, my entire conception of how to write changed. The first line: "For you. You'll soon. You'll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she'll wear you say." Fragmented and difficult and immersive and unique, it taught me about narrative distance and voice and the necessity of having total confidence in what you write and how you write it. Watching Eimear McBride read her own work at the Edinburgh International Book Festival two years later taught me the importance of performance to give your work the platform it deserves; her second book, The Lesser Bohemians, showed me that even the most precise and apparently extreme style can carry across novels and work just as well with levity as it can with darkness. She waited ten years to get her first novel published and god was it worth it. Eimear McBride is one of the most exciting writers alive.
It was 2015 and my kind, talented, inspirational friend Danielle was absolutely appalled to learn I'd never even heard of Geek Love. Days later, a copy of said book landed on my doormat (there's no doormat; it was the floor). I devoured it. Here was a woman writing about strangeness and dark love and the psychology of humans and family and cults and the sexualisation of women and oh my god it was a revelation. She was writing a world of the weird and wonderful but more so, she was writing about the harsh truths of the world we live in and, I realised, that was what and how I wanted to write.
I was in a bookshop in Bangalore, stocking up on reading material, and in amongst the Indian writers I was trying to introduce myself to, I saw Hanya Yanagihara's name. I picked up a copy of The People in The Trees with absolutely no idea what it was about, and with nothing to prepare me for the onslaught of unbelievably sharp writing coming my way. The People in The Trees is, perhaps, a perfect novel. A brilliant pastiche of the Western imperialist autobiography, it draws heavily on literary tradition and has an utterly believable voice its unreliable narrator, which is why the contents of the plot are so devastating. It's dark, but it's truly brilliant. Not resting on her laurels, though, Hanya Yanagihara went on to write the epic A Little Life, a book I've heard described as a grand gay opera, the sort of book that destroys every fibre of your heart and throws it on the floor, stamping on it until it's a mere puddle of matter. Hanya Yanagihara's books make you feel things—things you perhaps don't want to feel (I've two friends reading A Little Life at the moment, and both regularly WhatsApp me lamenting the agony the characters are going through) but holy shit, you can't forget you've read them. This is the impact that I want my work to have. I want what I write to be seared into your mind whether you like it not—and I only realised this thanks to Hanya Yanagihara.
Of course, this list is not exhaustive. I swim in an ocean of incredible contemporary female writers, who are as supportive as they are inspiring; there are simply too many to list here—but each one pushes me on further in my own writing and brings joy to my life with their work. They, hopefully, know who they are.
Which female writers influenced you the most? And which ones continue to? Feel free to let me know below.