Elena Medel: Five Women to Read in Women’s History Month
Posted 9th March 2022 by Elena Medel
In The Wonders, Elena Medel explores the lives of two working-class women, María and Alicia, against the backdrop of over fifty years of feminist struggle in Spain. Here she recommends five female authors to read during Women’s History Month and beyond.
The Wonders by Elena Medel, translated by Lizzie Davis and Thomas Bunstead, is out now!
I am a feminist. I am not afraid to define myself in this way: I am a feminist. I understand feminism as an ideology that permeates all my actions and all my words, and that of course runs through everything I write. I understood it naturally, in my adolescence: from the questions.
If all the people who had taught me anything (my grandmother and great-aunt, my mother, my teachers) were women, why were all the writers who visited us at school men? Why were there hardly any works by women in the library that fed my reading? Over the years as my awareness has increased, my decision has become firmer and firmer: I want to write universal stories, stories about money, work or precarity, with female protagonists.
I would like to celebrate the work of five women writers who have shaped my understanding of literature, whose work I drew on when writing The Wonders. I recommend that you read them beyond 8 March! All of them are more or less recent, and can be read in English.
Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1991)
My first recommendation is the work of Natalia Ginzburg, who transfers reality to the imagination: in a direct way in Family Lexicon (1963), drawing on autobiography, and building on other models of fiction with novels such as The City and the House (1984). In this book, I would also highlight her ability to give space to the secondary characters’ stories: in The City and the House, they grow to the point of mattering more than those of the main characters.
In The Wonders, the lives of the secondary characters exist before and after their “scenes”, as Inma and Celia, Alicia’s schoolmates, show us, or as happens with Carmen’s father. Returning to Family Lexicon, I was so inspired by the way in which by telling the story of her family, Ginzburg manages to tell the story of her country. How well she resolves the tension between the personal and the ideological!
(By the way, another Italian writer I admire: Elena Ferrante, who writes political books from emotion).
Carmen Martín Gaite (1925-2000)
Alicia takes her name from a character in Carmen Martín Gaite’s novel Behind the Curtains (1957). In a few pages, in which the protagonist Natalia takes refuge in her new friendship with a classmate, Carmen Martín Gaite constructs (despite her very brief appearance, despite her scant influence on the plot) one of the great characters of mid-century literature: Alicia Sampelayo. She is the girl who does her homework in her stepmother’s hair salon, who is happy to receive a visit from her friend there (no one has ever wanted to see her), who does not consider studying at university because she has to work and could not afford it, and who, with the protagonist, gives an immense lesson in dignity.
As a feminist, genealogy and herstory are fundamental for me: I would like to recognise an exceptional generation of Spanish women writers, those who suffered through the dictatorship. Of course Carmen Martín Gaite, but also Teresa Barbero, Carmen Laforet, Ana María Matute, Dolores Medio, Elena Soriano and the poet Ángela Figuera Aymerich, a little older than them but contemporary in terms of publication dates.
Audre Lorde (1934-1992)
What generous lessons on language and power Audre Lorde gives us in her poems! Reading her is a continuous learning process, above all because of the way she questions our ideas: about reality and about ideology, about feminism itself (which she understands as necessarily intersectional), often about intentions that we understand to be good but that, after all, end up harming others.
Reading Audre Lorde has helped me to reflect on class (so present in The Wonders!) and race, of course also on gender, and on privilege, understood from other spaces than my own. More elements that attract me to her work: the construction of identity, the link between thought and the body. Audre Lorde’s work is inexhaustible, with each re-reading she offers us new revelations. The Black Unicorn (1978) is my favourite of her books. And in essays, The Cancer Journals (1980) is a must for me.
Annie Ernaux (1940)
Is Annie Ernaux the most important writer today, regardless of genre? Without fear of exaggeration: yes, of course. I admire Annie Ernaux’s willingness to make her own experience into literature, so that it is presented as a communal experience.
In A Man’s Place (1983) she doesn’t talk about the death of her father (or does she?)—but she does reflect on class discrimination and class shame, on the clash between a generation of new bourgeois, who make their way up the social ladder, and the previous generation, poor and illiterate, focused on survival, worried about money because if money preoccupies, it’s when you don’t have it. In Happening (2000) she does not talk about her abortion in 1963, (or does she?)—but she does show us the difficulties faced by a young university student of humble origins in Paris in the years before May 68, and how sexism survived in left-wing circles, where she was considered more of an object than a subject as a result of her gender and class.
Eva Illouz (1961)
I am very interested in the concept of “emotional capitalism” that the essayist Eva Illouz began to develop in Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1997), and on which she has continued to work in subsequent books. She is an absolutely essential author for understanding precarity today, when it has extended beyond the economic and labour spheres, and has permeated our relationships. María thinks about emotional capitalism, without knowing it, and Alicia develops it, without caring: our way of relating to others has been marked by its rules.
Eva Illouz tells us that we look for someone according to what they can give us, and we offer ourselves to others according to what we are capable of giving them: as much as you have, so much are you worth. This is how Alicia acts in her relationship with Nando, and this is how Alicia accuses Carmen of having acted in her relationship with her father; María rebels against this by rethinking what kind of bond she wants to have with Pedro.