No boys allowed

A year ago, I found myself in a tiny little café-slash-bookshop in Budapest, drinking Turkish coffee. There was a display of books on the wall opposite me: books that looked interesting, books I thought maybe I’d like to read. But then I noticed something that got under my skin: every single one of them was written by a man.

Women are half of the world’s population. (Actually, we’re a hair more than half.) We’re not a minority in any society, language, or culture. We’re technically the fucking majority.

Why are all our stories told by men?

Don’t get me wrong, I love men. Ask anyone who knew me when I was twenty-one. I love straight white men. I even have some friends who are straight, cis, able-bodied white men (probably).

But I’m tired of that same point of view always being the default.

Books written only by women.
I ransacked my bookshelves and discovered I barely even have enough books written by women to fill a whole shelf. I’m not proud of that fact.

And so I decided to read only books written by women—for the entire year. It wasn’t a particularly revolutionary experiment or a novel (ahem) idea. It’s definitely been done before. But I was curious. Maybe reading more books written by women would help me be less of a female chauvinist pig. Maybe it would reignite the passionate feminism of my youth. Maybe I’d just get to read a bunch of great books.

Here’s what happened

I didn’t expect what actually happened: I rediscovered my love for books.

I’m something of a book snob. I spent part of my high school years in a special audition-only arts school, writing sexually-charged poetry and over-engineered fiction. (Please don’t ask for samples.) As a result, I tend to lean toward classics and literary fiction. But somewhere between being constantly busy and exhausted from work for years on end, I stopped reading very much. I stopped finishing books. According to my Goodreads profile, I read a whole *two* books in 2015 (both non-fiction) and I’ve been reading Sexus since 2010. (Maybe it’s time I switch to a shorter book.)

Somewhere along the line I had lost my passion for literature. Limiting my choices actually made me fall back in love with books again.

What I read

I read thirty-five books in total—not exactly the OED, but a definite improvement over two. (Interestingly, my shortest book and my longest book were both by the same author. Thanks, data nerds at Goodreads!) Ten of those books were by women of colour (28%), seven were by LBGTQ-identified women (20%), and eight were predominantly set in non-“Western” countries (23%). Compared to a quick scan of my bookshelves, this is reasonably more diverse than I’d usually end up with. Without really trying, my choices started being a lot more intersectional* and diverse, just by virtue of limiting gender.

*Footnote: Apparently my browser doesn’t think “intersectional” in a valid word. Clearly The Patriarchy is in charge of dictionaries, too.

What I loved

I used to always read Russian literature during the winter—Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Bulgakov. My theory was that they were always colder, drunker, and more depressed than I was. (Not always true, but often true.) Before this year, I wouldn’t have been able to name a single female Russian author. Turns out they’re amazing: The Dream Life of Sukhanov was a lyrical delight and The Slynx was a viciously inventive distortion on typical dystopian narratives.

Perseopolis (I can’t believe I’d never read this) kick-started a fascination with Iran, leading to The Cypress Tree. I finally read Anaïs Nin. (And, unlike with Henry Miller, I actually managed to get through her totally-a-reasonable-length book. Thanks for your brevity, girlfriend!) I fell in love with the incomparable Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half a Yellow Sun made me cry like a baby and finally call my temporarily-somewhat-estranged little sister while I was in Bali.) I read a lot of good plane books (YA dystopian fiction!) and (mostly) don’t feel guilty about it. I rediscovered my long-lost love for Margaret Atwood, who is always best when she’s dropping the convoluted plots and focussing on world-building instead.

What’s next

Toward the end of the year, I realised it would only be right to make 2017 my year of only reading people-of-colour. That’s a bit harder to define than “women”, depending on how you want to look at it, but I’m going to use my best common sense and follow how people self-identify. Given that I’m a white woman, I expect this to be a lot more eye-opening and perspective-shifting for me. I’m giving myself an opt-out for work-related books, mostly because there’s an SVG book I avoided all last year that I’d like to finally read, but everything else: no white perspectives.

Books by non-white authors.
All my books by people of colour didn’t fit on this shelf, which I think is a better sign. And yes, I have bookends shaped like a hippo and I absolutely love them. I also own a squirrel doorstop and a hat with ears. I swear I’m a grown-up.

So far, it’s been pretty great: the first six books I finished this year were all written by women (so it looks like that may stick) and I’ve found some books I’m really excited about. I’ve been discovering a lot of books by Korean authors and Nigerian authors in anticipation of visiting both those places later in the year. (I ended up having to cancel my Korea trip, but my fondness for strange Korean literature cannot be cancelled.)

Every time I finish a book, I add another three to my wish-list. The Amazon man is usually bringing me books instead of socks. (Remember when Amazon was for books?) And I feel like I’m learning more about the world without even leaving my house.

Maybe next year, I’ll finally read a book by an old white guy again. But I don’t think I’ll ever read as many as I used to, and I’m happy my world has become a little bigger.