Of Indian origin, Sultana Raza’s poems have appeared in 100+ journals/anthologies, including Columbia Journal, The New Verse News, Vita Brevis, Entropy, London Grip, Classical Poetry Society, Dissident Voice, and Poetry24. Her fiction received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train Review, and has been published in Knot Magazine, Coldnoon Journal, Setu, impspired, and Entropy. She has read her fiction/poems in India, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, England, World Con Dublin, the PCA/ACA conf. (USA), and at CoNZealand.
Her creative non-fiction has appeared/will appear in numerous journals including Literary Yard, Literary Ladies Guide, Litro, Vector (BSFA), Focus (BSFA), and File770. Her 100+ articles (on art, theatre, film, and humanitarian issues) have appeared in English and French. An independent scholar, Sultana Raza has presented many papers related to Romanticism (Keats) and Fantasy (Tolkien) in international conferences.
Peeling the Pages/Layers/Onions of Contemporary Women Writers
Fans of YA author Holly Black were disappointed when she didn’t show up for a Panel at the 2020 CoNZealand held online. As she explained later on, family responsibilities had held her back. Though she’s a best-selling author, with a film to her credit, apparently family comes first. That’s both laudable, and indicative of additional responsibilities that women authors can’t shake off, no matter how successful. In fact, the question is: how on earth do they manage to write, revise, edit, finish, and then get their books published, since the majority of women have to earn a living, and still do chores related to cooking, cleaning, and caring for families.
Coming from privileged backgrounds female scribes in the last few centuries didn’t have to deal with household chores. But after WWII, with the spread of education, increasing numbers of women have their own unique stories to tell. They’re growing like mushrooms (as in Sylvia Plath’s poem of the same name). So how do they do it?
Juggling chores and writing
Most snatch pockets of writing time from a myriad of duties, (managing (grown up) children’s problems, and/or caring for elderly parents). They write because they’re compelled to do so. For example, Cornelia Funke started off as an illustrator, but decided to pen the kinds of books she wanted to read. Then she convinced a friend to translate them into English. Going a step further, she sent her YA novel, Inkheart to actor Brendan Fraser, and it became a film which she helped produce.
It wouldn’t be easy for most women with a small child to take the decision to stay on State Benefits in order to devote all their time to writing. But J.K. Rowling’s bet seems to have paid off more than handsomely in terms of books, films, video games, and even a theme park. A mini-industry of sorts.
But what about those with jobs, and families? For example, young Japanese female innovators started the trend of typing cell-phone (mainly romantic) novels while commuting, which were read by their fans on smart-phones too. Breaking the stereotype of ‘air-hostesses’ being air-heads, TJ Newman used both her experience, and time on the red-eye flights to plot her thriller, Falling. In her one-of-a-kind experience Robyn Davidson trekked with her dog and four camels across Australia and wrote about her adventures, trials, tribulations, and ultimately her achievement in her book, entitled Tracks, which provided the material for a film with a similar title in 2013.
Complexity, thy name is woman!
Lots of female novelists tend to tackle complex social issues. Examples include Margaret Atwood, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who explores race in the USA and the UK in her novel Americanah. Arundhati Roy, who won the 1997 Booker Prize for her novel, The God of Small Things has been a social activist, campaigning for human rights, and ecological preservation in India. Her international status has gone a long way to protect her from the wrath of corporate and governmental powers bent on exploiting her home country’s natural resources to the detriment of sustainability, and the environment. She’s a very vocal defendant of human rights too, specially those of tribal peoples, including vulnerable, and socially disadvantaged women and children.
Female writers explore all dimensions of the human experience in various ways/styles. Women Who Run with Wolves, by CP Estés excavates the female psyche through fairy-tales. AS Byatt continues to throw out intellectual challenges, as one needs to put one’s thinking hat on when reading her books. Philippa Gregory examines the themes of ladies of/in/and power in her (historically inaccurate) novels from a modern sensibility. Though initially inspired by a Scotsman in a kilt, Diana Gabaldon has used her scientific background (of being a nursing instructor, and teaching Human Anatomy) to do historical research and to add depth to her protagonist, Claire, (a doctor), in Outlander.
Women screen and TV writers
Cassandra Clare and Gabaldon (among others), have been embroiled in minor controversies, as they’re considered to be too involved in the production of their respective TV series, but hopefully, female writers will be taken more seriously in the entertainment industry in future. Though a lot of books by female novelists have been adapted for film/TV, very few women have walked away with major awards for script-writing for the big screen. Ditto for film composers, where female composers are few, and far between.
Besides convincingly portraying herself as an agonized writer in the 2006 film, Stranger Than Fiction, Emma Thompson has written screen-plays of about fifteen films/TV episodes. While women screen-writers have often had to struggle to be recognized, other notable screen-writers tend to be directors too, such as Sophia Coppola, Jane Campion, or Greta Gerwig. Or actors such as Maggie Gyllenhaal, or producers as well such as Philippa Boyens, or Sian Heder. Female screen-writers abound in TV, such as Shonda Rimes (Grey’s Anatomy), or Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls, & The Marvellous Mrs Maisel). Kim Eun-sook is a South Korean screenwriter of Secret Garden.
Pakistani script-writers stride ahead
Pakistani TV series are well-known in the Indian sub-continent and amongst the diaspora. In recent years, women screen-writers have exploded on the scene, penning popular soap operas. Most of these series deal with domestic issues between young women and their in-laws. However, a few explore social problems too. For example, Amna Mufti plunged into the plight of women in a maison clos in Pakistan in her 2021 screen-play entitled Dil Na Umeed To Nahi. There’s even a TV series about the problems faced by female TV screen-writers entitled, Digest Writer (2014), by Umera Ahmed. In her 2019 TV serial, Kaisa Hai Naseeba, screen-writer Sameena Aijaz explored the difficulties faced by a young woman in Malaysia after her marriage into a dodgy family.
Not only have women authors/script-writers (such as Umera Ahmed) changed the landscape of TV serials in Pakistan (by exploring female problems which have become very popular worldwide amongst Urdu/Hindi speakers), but also by flourishing in the Pakistani TV industry.
From all corners of the world
With widely different approaches/styles, popular novelists such as Ahdaf Soueif (Egyptian), Kenizé Mourad (Franco-Turkish), Jung Chan (Chinese), or Isabelle Allende (Chilean) have helped lift the veil of female povs/lives of their respective cultures.
Kenizé Mourad, a French writer of Turkish origin is unafraid of being quite candid in her memoir, The Gardens of Badalpour, in which she recounts the early part of her very dramatic life. After graduating from the Sorbonne, she was a reporter for Le Nouvel Observateur in the Middle East. After working as a journalist for 12 years, covering the tumultuous events in the Maghreb, she became discouraged as her works weren’t always accepted for publication.
She started writing fiction later in life, when she started working on her novels. (Note: Les Jardins de Badalpour) was the only novel I actually managed to finish reading in French, as it had some well-known figures from India). I even wrote to the author, urging her to get it published in English. I was pleasantly surprised to actually receive a reply from her, thanking me for my compliments, saying that it was up to a publishing house to publish it in English). Eventually, it was published in Spanish, but it remains to be seen when it will be published in English. With her usual candour, Kenizé Mourad wasn’t hesitant to say that the mainstream publishers and the media (in France) aren’t interested in her books because of her foreign, in this case Turkish, origins.
There’s been a drive to encourage POC writers due to the recent MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements. On the one hand, N.K. Jemisin’s novels winning the Hugo Award three times in a row is to be lauded. On the other, after winning a Hugo for Astounding Award For The Best New SF Writer in 2020, R.F. Kuanghighlighted the racist/sexist problems women authors of colour still face in publishing. Perhaps we have a long way to go.
Tech and techniques for gaining traction
However, some authors, e.g. Rupi Kaur, the best-selling insta-poet have managed to present their ‘exoticness’ as an asset. While some critics think the ‘girly’ poems of most insta-poets are likely to have a short shelf life in terms of decades, perhaps their savvy marketing techniques deserve an in-depth study by other writers. Due to social pressures, women are obliged to spend more hours on personal grooming, (taking away from writing time), as publishers/investors need them to look presentable/slim/pretty/cool/eye-catching/quirky (e.g. Amelie Nothomb’s top-hat) when making a public appearance.
Veterans with strong personalities, such as JC Oates, or CA Duffy, to mention a few, have demonstrated that the more extrovert a writer/artist is, the more successful are they likely to be in their own lifetimes. Many female authors/editors (including Gabaldon) have their own Facebook groups to engage directly with their community. For example, PJ Johnson Yukon welcomes/encourages other scribes in her Facebook group.
The New Age movement: boom or a boon?
Women writers have been quite successful when it comes to New Age writings. There are too many to be mentioned here. For example, Diana Cooper and Doreen Virtue offer not just books, but also Tarot Cards and other products to their readers, not to mention the opportunity to meet them in conferences or workshops. A popular author, seven of Marianne Williamson’s books have been on the New York Times best-seller lists. Caroline Myss’s books and workshops continue to be popular with New Agers. However, the unusual route taken to publication by Lorna Byrne is outlined in her first book, Angels in my Hair. Apparently, angels guided her to find the right person who could help her to publish her first book. Since it’s publication, she has appeared on many media channels. In 2019, she was named as one of the 100 Most Spiritually Influential Living People in the World. It’s impossible to mention all the popular New Age female authors, who’ve succeeded in building their own distinctive brands.
Esther Hicks co-wrote eight books with her husband, Jerry Hicks. However, after he passed away, she has continued to hold sessions some of which are on cruise ships. Author Julia Canon is continuing her mother, Dolores Canon’s work of helping people through past life regression. Apparently, Dolores stumbled onto past life regression by accident while doing hypnosis on a woman, and continued this work out of curiosity. Many New Age authors offer workshops, personal sessions, or other products in addition to their books. Many have developed networks of practitioners who offer one to one or group sessions to those who are wish to explore themselves via such activities. The books are the main platform, and attract seekers interested in their services/products/activities.
Non-fiction best-sellers & celebs
The world of diet and cookery is filled with successful women writers. For example, due to her TV program, Nigella Lawson has become a celebrity, making it easier to sell her books.
Sometimes women who become well-known in certain areas can leverage their capabilities, knowledge and celeb status to publish books. One such example is BBC news reader, Mishal Husain’s first book, The Skills, which outlines how women can achieve their career goals. Most famous actresses and politicians end up publishing their memoires, though it’s well-known that these books are usually written by ghost-writers. Marketing is key for the success of any book, and these celebrities have the upper hand here, since they’re already known to the public.
While the ‘Best Contemporary Women’s Fiction’ List is a moveable feast for the eyes, how valid are these claims will depend on the taste, and location of the readers. Women writers are publishing non-fiction books in almost every field, as increasing numbers of women are going into higher education, and many are excelling in their subjects. Publishers tend to seek easy to read books written for the public by all kinds of experts. Arielle Ford and Kathryn Alice are just two authors who seem to be popular when it comes to giving advice on attracting love in one’s life.
Romance binds readers
The romance market is dominated by women writers too, with popular pocketbooks published by Mills and Boon, or Harlequin in Canada. It’s rumoured that though most of the names are of female authors, some of them are penned by men who take on a female name. since these novels follow a formula, no matter which genre they’re published in, one can suppose, it’s not too difficult to adhere to the story structure for undercover male writers. Most writers have never been to the places they write about, but tend to do their research on the Internet. However, for their (teen) readers, it’s an easy way to discover other countries and cultures, or time periods in history.
The landscape of female writers is as wide, as it’s large. A perusal of The Who’s Who of Emerging Writers 2021 (published by Sweetycat Press) shows a wide spectrum of enthusiastic/motivated women poets/authors, who’ve shared their emotions/experiences rolled up in poems/stories. While there’re many challenges and competition for writers starting out on their journey, new opportunities abound as well.
Note: A shorter version of this article was published in The Who’s Who of Emerging Writers 2021 (published by Sweetycat Press) in 2021.