Stories at the crossroads of female and cultural identities
Updated: Oct 7, 2020
By Anna Hardy
As a member of the EH*V Book Club, I would like to share three books on a topic we have discussed this week: exploring the intersections between female identity and cultural identity. The construction and performance of identity, and the conflicts that arise when the individual is poised between two identity spheres, is at the core of these three texts I’ve selected this week. All three problematise identity in ways I hadn’t previously thought about, but were nevertheless accessible, gripping and, at times, funny.
(I also would urge you all to buy these books, if interested and possible, from Waterstones or any other independent bookshops and not am***n, so I’ve put their Waterstones link below!)
‘Queenie’ by Candice Carty-Williams
Candice Carty-Williams’ debut novel, ‘Queenie’, tells the story of Queenie Jenkins, a young black, Jamaican-British woman living in South London. Always feeling like a modern and fresh narrative, it follows Queenie’s friendships, work life and relationships, but it is also an extremely accessible political fiction about race and gender. In this award-winning novel, Carty-Williams highlights a number of key issues as Queenie breaks up with her boyfriend and her mental health deteriorates. She explores the frequent fetishization many black women face by non-black men, the struggles of some Carribean families to accept poor mental health as something legitimate instead of something that is shameful and should be swept under the rug. In doing so, Carty-Williams highlights the cultural clash Queenie experiences by being raised in London and therefore having a slightly separate identity from her traditionally Jamaican grandparents who immigrated to the UK alongside the Windrush generation. At the same time, it highlights the casual racism that black people face by white British people as a whole, and often the reluctance by white people to accept this.
‘A Woman is No Man’ by Etaf Rum
The second is another debut, by Etaf Rum. ‘A Woman is No Man’ follows three generations of Palestinan women who end up living in New York, focusing on Isra and her daughter Deya. Rum herself is Palestinian American, born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents fleeing refugee camps, and was raised in a relatively conservative household where she entered into an arranged marriage and then had her first child at 19. Echoes of Rum’s own upbringing can therefore be seen in this novel. ‘A Woman is No Man’ helped me understand a culture I knew almost nothing about, and it did so in a genuinely rich voice that kept me hooked. The plot is written from alternating perspectives, with each chapter often changing time period, with Isra largely in the early 1990s and Deya in 2008 onwards. This narrative style significantly contributes to the success of the narrative: the reader discovers secrets and information from the characters as they go on, making it impossible to put down. In essence, the novel explores the struggles conservative Muslim women face in honouring their faith and culture outside of Palestine, and more broadly, the relationship between personal and collective identity. In doing so, Rum gives a voice to women who within their own home struggle to have one. It also shines light on the often oppressive and limiting environments some women are relegated to; a life that is dictated by men where being a wife and a mother are one’s only purposes, and the often detrimental effect this can have on one’s mental health. Rum herself shared some frustrations she felt growing up that she would be unable to pursue things she loved, simply because she was not a man. She said in a NPR Radio interview: “I maintained my education despite the pressures around me to stay home and take care of my kids, and slowly, as I educated myself… I began to realize my place in the community and the cycle of trauma and oppression that I [would] be giving my daughter—if I don't speak up for what I want to accomplish with my life, if I don't stand up for myself.” https://www.waterstones.com/book/a-woman-is-no-man/etaf-rum/9780008341060
‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ by Delia Owen
The strength of Delia Owen’s ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ is in the uniqueness of its setting and protagonist. Set in the dizzying labyrinthine marshlands of the North Carolina coast in the 1960s, ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ follows the story of Kya Clark, or as the inhabitants of the small town Barkley Cove call her, the ‘Marsh Girl’. This book is not only a beautifully written and atmospheric celebration of nature (fun fact: Owens is both a great novelist and a wildlife scientist!), but also a coming-of-age story about an abandoned girl who is ostracized by her community and is treated by almost everyone as ‘other’ and beastly. Therefore when Chase Andrews, the town’s heart-throb and ‘it-boy’, is found dead in the marsh, she is immediately suspected and tried. This book powerfully illustrates Kya’s resilience in the face of countless adversity - whether that be racism, a lack of education or abandonment from her family - and as a result is empowering to read.