13 Canadian writers celebrate underrated books by women

To mark International Women's Day, celebrated in 2017 on March 8, we asked writers to recommend books by Canadian women that have deserved more attention.

1. Eden Robinson recommends My Name is Seepeetza

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Eden Robinson is the acclaimed author of the classic CanLit novel Monkey Beach and most recently Son of a Trickster. She believes that My Name is Seepeetza by Shirley Sterling should be required reading:

Shirley's book is a fictionalized account of her experience at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, told through diary entries. It's one of the first and most devastating stories by survivors that I read. I could relate to the family and the narrator and I remembered being blown away that I knew Sterling from UBC. She had a trilogy planned but passed before it could be fully realized. I think it would have been our Diary of Anne Frank if it had been completed.

2. Susin Nielsen recommends The Book of Eve

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Susin Nielsen has written five novels for young adults, including Word Nerd, We Are All Made of Molecules and, most recently, Optimists Die First. She says Constance Beresford-Howe's The Book of Eve deserves more praise:

I was lucky enough to have Ms. Beresford-Howe as a creative writing professor at Ryerson many years ago. I knew her name but hadn't yet read her novels, so I bought some to prep for the course. I fell in love with The Book of Eve. It was such a beautiful tale, and for a 20-year-old, it was a window into an older woman's journey of self-discovery. I loved walking in Eve's shoes. I felt even luckier after that to have Beresford-Howe as a prof - like there was a humble and kind celebrity in our midst.

3. Jen Sookfong Lee recommends Shadowmaker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwen

sookfonglee-shadowmaker.png(Photo from Jen Sookfong Lee's website)

Jen Sookfong Lee's latest novel The Conjoined recently became a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. Here's why she loved reading Shadowmaker by Rosemary Sullivan:

When I was 16, I developed a fascination for Gwendolyn MacEwen's poetry, which always seemed to skirt an edge between reality and epic myth. In 1995, I was working at a bookstore when Shadowmaker by Rosemary Sullivan came out and I bought it on its first day of release and read it in three days. Rosemary Sullivan brilliantly structured this literary biography like a novel and didn't bother trying to hide her emotional connection to MacEwen and her roller coaster life, which felt honest and raw. As a writer, I saw myself in that book, partly because of who MacEwen was, but also because Rosemary Sullivan gave a beautifully rendered narrative shape to an unruly writer's life. It's all any of us could wish for.

4. Scaachi Koul recommends even this page is white

koul-eventhispageiswhite.png(Photo by Barbora Simkova/Scaachi Koul's website)

BuzzFeed writer Scaachi Koul's debut essay collection One Day We'll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter is one of the most anticipated books of the spring. She suggests reading even this page is white, a poetry collection by Vivek Shraya:

I do not like a lot of poetry because my soul is broken, but Vivek Shraya's even this page is white is too good to not fall in love with. Every poem feels like a gut-punch (in a good way!) and every word feels intentional and purposeful. The best kind of writing is writing where you feel seen and heard and, of course, writing that just feels good. This does everything at once.

5. Ausma Zehanat Khan recommends God Smites and Other Muslim Girl Problems

khan-godsmites.png(Photo by: Atif Khan/Ausma Zehanat Khan's website)

Ausma Zehanat Khan is an award-winning crime writer with three books under her belt: The Unquiet Dead, The Language of Secrets and Among the Ruins. She says God Smites and Other Muslim Girl Problems by first-time novellist Ishara Deen is an excellent read:

Ishara Deen's delightful debut God Smites and Other Muslim Girl Problems stars Asiya Haque as a tenacious and smart-mouthed teenager with a knack for getting herself into trouble. Offering a thoroughly original take on a bright young girl's issues with parents, friends and boys, Asiya's irreverent conversations with God (or alternatively with Satan) made me laugh out loud. Asiya's ability to draw strength from her faith serves as a generous counterpoint to her keen observations of her community's frustrating foibles. With a crush on an unsuitable boy and a murder on her home turf that she feels personally challenged to resolve, Asiya's sharp wit and adamantine sense of self-worth drive this mystery to a terrific cliffhanger conclusion.

6. Claudia Casper recommends Oh, My Darling

casper-ohmydarling.png(Photo courtesy of Claudia Casper)

Claudia Casper's most recent futuristic novel The Mercy Journals is nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award, an American literary prize for science fiction. She says the short story collection Oh, My Darling by Shaena Lambert is worth picking up:

With this collection of stories Lambert rips away the fake veil of banality surrounding middle-aged women's lives and not only stomps it into the dirt, she grinds it into the mud with an extra twist of her heel. She reveals the raw and primal depth, the urgent meaning, the loss and danger ricocheting through the lives of menopausal women. The stakes could not be higher, both for themselves and the risk-taking teenagers, lovers, husbands, friends and parents around them. In the opening story, a woman's undiagnosed breast cancer is the narrator, addressing its host in the second person - "you" - with a sly, tender voice, witnessing the drama and absurdity of the life she's already navigating on the day she finds the lump. Lambert's brazen, sharp descriptions of female genitals are a delight. The paragraph describing how a raging teenage daughter might imagine her mother's aged vagina is sheer brilliance. To quote the first story, "Something is at stake. Death has entered the building." Not a word is wasted.

7. Alexandra Shimo recommends In the Slender Margin

shimo-slendermargin2.png(Photo from Alexandra Shimo's website)

Nonfiction writer Alexandra Shimo chronicled her co-author Edmund Metatawabin's experience with PTSD in Up Ghost River and then wrote of her own experiences with the mental illness in Invisible North. She says Eve Joseph's poetry, collected in In the Slender Margin, is a soother for the soul:

"In our final hour, in the slim margin between death and living, we have the chance to reckon with our own existence, in the space between mystery and the known," writes B.C. poet Eve Joseph in her book In the Slender Margin. Faced with death, we have no choice but to look closely at the meaning of life. To illustrate her point, she spins a web of myth and metaphor about the nature of death which encompasses many traditions, including east and west, Christian and Jewish, ancient Greek and modern. I read In the Slender Margin just after my grandmother died. We were close, and I was devastated and this tender, beautiful book carried me through.

8. Diane Schoemperlen recommends Sarah Bastard's Notebook

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Diane Schoemperlen is a Governor General's Literary Award-winning author (Forms of Devotion) and was recently nominated for the RBC Taylor Prize for her memoir This is Not My Life. She recommends reading Marian Engel's overlooked first novel Sarah Bastard's Notebook:

Ten years ago I received the Marian Engel Award from the Writers' Trust of Canada. At that time, like most people, I was familiar with Engel's groundbreaking and controversial novel, Bear and many of her later books. But it was not until I received the award that I discovered her wonderful first novel, originally published as No Clouds of Glory in 1968, then reissued as Sarah Bastard's Notebook in 1974. Using an innovative notebook format, Engel tells the story of 30-year-old Sarah Porlock grappling with the conflicting worlds of love and ambition in Toronto in the late 1960s. Recently republished in 2006 by Insomniac Press, Sarah Bastard's Notebook is a thought-provoking novel written from the feminist front lines of 50 years ago, with still so much to offer today. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Nevertheless she persisted.

9. Carrie Mac recommends The Curve of Time

mac-curveoftime.png(Photo from Carrie Mac's website)

Carrie Mac has written several novels for young adults, including her most recent book 10 Things I Can See From Here, and won the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize in 2015. She recommends reading the memoir The Curve of Time by M. Wylie Blanchet:

The wild B.C. coastline of the 1930s, five young children, a 25-foot boat called the Caprice and a widowed mother with an adventurous soul and more brave bones in her body than anyone I know who might consider what she did each year.

She taught her children over the long cold winters and then they spent the rest of the year on the Caprice, exploring the inlets and passages and deep, deep wilderness remote coastlines.

The children called their mother "Capi" and trusted her as she sailed them further away from the safety of the mainland and out into the wild, ocean and up the jagged inlets, where the most exciting adventures - and mishaps - were had. Her writing is plain and clear, like the clearest creek pools with rainbow trout waiting to be caught swimming underfoot. She wrote the picture of the childhood I wished I'd had upon the Caprice. The Curve of Time has never left my imagination. Not even once.

10. Jael Richardson recommends The Ever After of Ashwin Rao

richardson-rao.png (Photo from Jael Richardson's website)

Jael Richardson is the director and founder of the Festival of Literary Diversity, CBC Radio q's book columnist and author of The Stone Thrower. Here's why she recommends Padma Viswanathan's novel The Ever After of Ashwin Rao:

When I select books, I'm looking for books I will enjoy, but I'm usually looking for books that help me become more informed, that introduce me to places and people I want to know better. It's why I'm drawn to political novels. It's why I picked up Padma Viswanathan's The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, which tells the story of Ashwin Rao - a psychologist piecing together stories of the Air India bombing through families affected by the bomb nearly 20 years later. What I loved about this novel was the crafting of the story, not only by the author, but also by the protagonist, who over the course of the novel is assembling the stories of the bomb's aftermath - a bomb that killed 326 people, the largest mass killing in Canadian history. I was young when the Air India bombing occurred. I didn't hear about it until I was an adult. Even then, I didn't know much. This is why Viswanathan's novel is so important. Fiction writers craft stories that are needed. They remind us not to forget the people history books tend to erase. And women writers in particular are critical in this act. So much of history has excluded the accounts of the women who existed and witnessed more than we may ever know. The future needs to be different and women writers are an important part of that shift. The Ever After of Ashwin Rao was the history lesson I never got in school - a fictional account of a critical event that demands remembering, from a woman writer I'm grateful to have read.

11. Janie Chang recommends The Ghost Brush

chang-ghostbrush.png(Photo from Janie Chang's website)

Janie Chang recently published her sophomore novel Dragon Springs Road, a follow-up to Three Souls, which was nominated for the 2015 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. She recommends The Ghost Brush by Katherine Govier:

The Ghost Brush by Katherine Govier is one of my all-time favourites. And rather appropriately for this feature, it's about a woman whose talents went unacknowledged. Everyone recognizes The Big Wave, that iconic print by 19th century Japanese artist Hokusai. Yet few know of his daughter Oei, his apprentice. She ran his studio, taught his students, and very likely painted many of the works attributed to Hokusai during his final years. Oei is a brilliant character, stubborn and talented, bound to an eccentric, exasperating father even as she tries to paint her way out of his shadow. A highly-sensory, immersive read set in a tightly-regulated medieval Japan where the law is a moving target that changes at the whim of the ruling shogun.

12. Teva Harrison recommends Dear Leader and Yes or Nope

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Teva Harrison's bestselling graphic memoir In-Between Days was nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction. She recommends reading two poetry collections Dear Leader by Damian Rogers and Yes or Nope by Meaghan Strimas:

I recently read two excellent collections of poetry by Canadian women, Dear Leader by Damian Rogers and Yes or Nope by Meaghan Strimas. While neither book is underrated, on its own, they both represent a persistently underrated genre: poetry. These are vital books about how we live now, if people will only move past the format to find their sparkling truths.

13. Madeline Ashby recommends Come Late to the Love of Birds

ashby-comelatetotheloveofbirds.png(Photo by: Kayleigh McCollum Photography/Madeline Ashby's website)

Futurist and sci-fi author Madeline Ashby is gearing up for Canada Reads, where her book Company Town is being defended by Measha Brueggergosman. Here's why she loved Come Late to the Love of Birds by Sandra Kasturi:

Poetry collections are habitually underrated. It's too easy for fast readers - loose readers, readers of novels - to blow through them, like a sudden sneeze scattering dandelion seeds. It's much harder, painful even, to slow down enough to savour a poem and truly listen to the way it unscrolls itself in the mind. I've had the great good fortune of hearing Kasturi recite from this collection in person, and what strikes me is her control over her speed as a poet and a performer. She can guide the audience to hear every syllable, but never sounds forced or pretentious doing so. At the same time, she can reel off a funny poem like a newspaperman in a screwball comedy.

This collection of poems focuses, as you might imagine, on birds. Or rather, birds become the central metaphor through which Kasturi explores the frustrations and limitations of humanity - of the fact that neither our bodies nor our hearts ever really truly soar unless they're also plummeting disastrously to earth. For example:

We are come late to the love of birds
for we are come late to love.

Before we had been nothing:
a fossilized egg, a tired metaphor, old as mutton.

Now, the sharp twinge of middle age
and we are caught in love's punctured balloon.

They're beautiful poems in a jewel box of a collection. You should slow down and take the time to read it.

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