Extraordinary times call for extraordinary women. Here, renowned novelist and political scientist Elif Shafak selects 10 of the most important female writers in the UK today, and offers a specially curated list of their books to add to your reading list.
These are extraordinary times.
Across the world, we are undergoing a significant political, social and cultural transformation. Many of us are asking ourselves what kind of communities we want to live in and hand over to future generations. Debates about identity, memory, belonging, co-existence and integration are being dramatically reframed. Every day we are bombarded with thousands of images and information: it becomes increasingly difficult to detect the boundary between fact and falsehood.
Against this turbulent background, it’s more important than ever before to understand the power and the positive potential of words.
I feel truly privileged and honoured to join the National Centre for Writing and British Council in their effort to showcase 10 of the most exciting women writers working today in the UK. Their distinct voices speak both to our minds and to our hearts, calling us from diverse parts of Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England.
These 10 women bring clarity into the commotion of our times. Their words heal wounds, old and new. Their stories help us to understand not only other people’s pain and anger and resilience, but also our own.
This, of course, is not a definitive list. Nor is it a static one. Rather, I see my list as fluid – it’s expanding, flowing, changing, searching. If I could, I’d have made the list longer, much longer. Because after all, and very fortunately, despite all the madness going on in the world, there are many fabulous women writers and poets at work today. Women are not silent. And where better to hear their voices than in the universal art of storytelling?
Each writer is very different in terms of style and subject matter, and yet they all share a significant trait: a passionate commitment to the art and craft of storytelling. To the power and the positive potential of words.
Most importantly, they rehumanise those who have been dehumanised. Swimming against the tide of tribalism, they connect us across regions, religions, ethnicities and dialects.
When things are happening too fast, literature demands us to slow down, take a look within and restore our individuality. When the world is divided into “us” and “them”, literature bravely reminds us that there is no “us” and there is no “them”. It reminds us that “the other” is, in truth, my brother, my sister.
I see these 10 women writers as the voice of our conscience. Together and on their own, they work, they write, they resist and they renew our faith in humanity. They are all powerful writers who demand to be read, but more than this they are frequently active citizens who as editors, publishers and bookshop owners are giving a platform to other writers and fueling the whole literary ecology.
So stop what you are doing, find a quiet corner and settle down to read some brilliant works from these amazing writers…
Patience Agbabi is a poet and performer who tirelessly innovates a new relationship between the classics and the contemporary. In doing so, she shows us the power of words, whether they are written on the page or spoken in performance.
Read: Telling Tales
Lucy Caldwell was born in Belfast in 1981. As with a number of women on this list, she is also an editor and is helping to support new communities of writers and give a platform to others. She is the editor of Being Various: New Irish Short Stories (Faber, 2019). She writes across disciplines and has written three novels, a collection of short stories, and several plays and radio dramas. She writes with such sensitivity and humanity, and always encourages us to rethink what we already know.
As the former National Poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke is a towering figure in Welsh literature. She writes beautifully with a fierce music, exploring the local and the global. I urge you to seek out her work. Her tenth collection, Zoology, was published by Carcanet in 2017 and in 2020 Faber will publish her version of the book-long 7th century Welsh poem, Y Gododdin.
Read: Selected Poems
Jessie Greengrass makes words dance and makes me want to dance with them! She is a brilliant emerging talent. Her first novel Sight was published in 2017 and shortlisted for the Women’s Prize and for the Wellcome Prize.
Bernardine Evaristo is an Anglo-Nigerian award-winning author of eight books of fiction as well as reviews, essays and a BBC radio drama. In choosing this list I wanted to celebrate writers who make a difference, who are engaged in contemporary society. Bernardine is a true literary activist who has pioneered several arts inclusion projects. Her work speaks to the UK today and should be read by everyone, everywhere!
Read: Girl, Woman, Other
Charlotte Higgins orchestrates vast conversations about who we are today and why the stories we tell really matter. Her book Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain delves into Britain’s Roman past and examines its cultural significance across centuries of stories.
Read: Red Thread On Mazes & Labyrinths
Kapka Kassabova grew up in Bulgaria, emigrated to New Zealand and since 2005 has lived in Scotland. I like to say she writes with a scalpel – she is unflinching in excavating the deepest truths about the human soul. She looks at humanity in all its tragic and mysterious beauty.
Read: Border: A Journey to the edge of Europe
Writer, thinker and seeker Sara Maitland is one of our most articulate and probing intellects. She has the ability to make her reader want to look more closely at things. She moved back to Galloway in 2004 where she lives alone on a high moor, exploring the richness of silence and solitude.
Read: Be Alone
Denise Mina is a true tour de force. She takes crime writing to places it hasn’t been before. Her work is largely feminist crime fiction but she’s also written sci-fi and a performance poem about nationalism. She’s compassionate, outspoken and witty. Do seek out her work.
Read: The Long Drop
Evie Wyld lives in Peckham and part owns a small independent bookshop called Review. I love these writers who play an active part in the literary ecology encouraging other writers, exciting more readers. She was included on Granta’s once a decade Best of Young British Novelist lists in 2013. She is a bold and spectacular wordsmith. Look out for her third novel The Bass Rock coming in late 2019.
Read: All The Birds, Singing
Elif Shafak was commissioned by the National Centre for Writing and British Council to curate a list of 10 of the most exciting women writers working in the UK today for the International Literature Showcase #LitShowcase @WritersCentre @LitBritish www.nationalcentreforwriting.org.uk
Images: Unsplash, book covers courtesy of author