In My Top 8, various members of Team Autostraddle tell you which writers made us who we are today and invite you to like all the same things we like. Today, Contributing Editor Malaika tells you about C.S. Lewis and Fannie Flagg.
Books Read: all the Pippi Longstocking books
Books Yet To Read: everything else
I discovered Pippi Longstocking at the tender age of 5 in the library my mom brought me to every week. She’s been my hero ever since.
Pippi Longstocking comes from what is commonly referred to as a “dysfunctional family.” She has no mother, and her father’s off sailing the seas. He says he’ll come back for her, but even when he visits he never stays for long, leaving Pippi by herself in a falling-apart house. Pippi’s that tomboy in the neighbourhood that parents from “good” and so-called normal families tell their children not to play with. She’s the low-class kid who must surely be stupid or worse because look at her deadbeat dad, look at her alone all the time.
But Pippi’s smart, a genius even, so she’s well aware of what other people say about her. She just doesn’t let it get under her freckled skin. Instead, she fights crime, solves mysteries, and is all-around awesome with Tommy and Annika, her middle-class best friends who technically aren’t allowed to play with her.
Growing up, I was always the tallest and the skinniest kid smack-dab in the center of the back row in class pictures, smiling awkwardly under a mess of unruly curls or braids that never behaved quite like they were supposed to. But it was okay. See, Pippi taught me that being taller than everyone else, having kind of a dysfunctional family and hair that stuck out weren’t things to be ashamed of. In fact, they were things that made you awesome.
Books I Haven’t Read Yet: There are too many to list here. You guys, James Baldwin wrote A LOT.
Reading one James Baldwin essay after the next, you get the feeling he’s constantly travelling across state lines and oceans, doing things like rescuing friends from jail, getting into intellectual debates with important people, and marching in protests all the while having brilliant insights on race, gender, and America. Baldwin is a genius when it comes to writing about place and the issues that defined his time. I don’t remember where or when I first saw a picture of Baldwin and those big, soulful eyes of his. I guess I wanted to know what he saw that made his eyes so big.
The night I finished reading Giovanni’s Room, the friend I was staying with came into the room and said, “Malaika, I don’t think you’ve moved for the past three hours. Are you okay? Let’s go for a walk.” Baldwin can have that kind of immobilizing effect on a person.
At first you think Giovanni’s Room is about a train-wreck of a relationship, which it is, but it’s also about so much more, like the stifling effect of gender roles, mid-20th century France and America, and even sexual abuse between men. Baldwin didn’t shy away from anything. He writes honestly and bravely about subjects his generation (and even our generation) have refused to touch. Reading James Baldwin makes me want to be a better writer and a braver person.
The Chronicles of Narnia give a whole new meaning to coming out of the closet. But all puns aside, I don’t think I would be who I am today if I hadn’t read The Chronicles of Narnia as a child. They taught me that there’s so much magic in the world waiting for you under the surface of things or at the end of a wardrobe. The Chronicles of Narnia also represent the good side of Christianity which gives you interesting stories and a morality that has more to do with staying true to yourself and not (as the Catholic Church wants it) bowing down to some idea of what some patriarchal papal doctrine thinks you should be.
Books Read: Jacob’s Room (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), The Waves (1931), Between the Acts (1941), Monday or Tuesday (1921), A Haunted House (1944), A Room of One’s Own (1929), Three Guineas (1938), Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897-1909 (1990)
Favourite: Mrs. Dalloway
Mrs. Dalloway changed the way I think about adulthood. It’s one of the rare books I’ve read multiple times, and it makes me emotional and contemplative each time.
Then there’s Three Guineas, which is probably the best book-length essay I’ve ever read. Angry that even though she’s a successful writer, she’s denied access to the Cambridge library, Three Guineas combines the emotion of a rant with the eloquence and persuasive power of a world-changing speech. The links she makes between education, women’s rights, and war are nothing short of brilliant. I wish I could just climb into Virginia Woolf’s brain and live there for a while.
You can’t write about Woolf without mentioning gender and sexuality. In both Orlando and A Room of One’s Own, Woolf explores the idea of psychological androgyny. She understood that androgyny goes beyond the length of your hair and whether or not you happen to be wearing a skirt.
Reading Virginia Woolf isn’t always a pleasant experience. You might read To the Lighthouse and think, “Will they get to the fucking lighthouse, already?! It’s been how many pages?”
You might read Jacob’s Room and wonder, “Did someone just die or was that a metaphor? Is everything a metaphor? Am I even real?” But then you read about an adorable gay man and pre-Disney talking songbirds in Between The Acts, and you fall in love with Virginia all over again.
Books Read: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe
Books I Haven’t Read Yet: Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man (1983), Welcome to the World, Baby Girl (1998), Standing in the Rainbow (2002), A Redbird Christmas (2004), Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven (2006), I Still Dream About You: A Novel (2010)
Fannie Flagg knows how to tell a good story. Seriously. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is an example of narrative perfection. It also has the most interesting, complex characters and made me want to read everything about the American South. This book contains lesbians, as I’m sure you know, but the real reason I fell in love with Flagg and Fried Green Tomatoes is because of the way she describes the South. I love it when a writer can describe a place and make it feel both familiar and brand new all at once.
Books Read: Incognito Street
Books I Haven’t Read Yet: her fiction, her mystery novels
This woman started Seal Press; but before she did, she travelled a lot, wondered if she was gay, and reflected on her Christian Science upbringing. Incognito Street takes place in the 70s and doesn’t shy away from revealing the homophobia of the second wave. Reading Incognito Street solidified certain truths, like that it’s possible to be a talented feminist and an asshole, and that it’s also possible to do things like work on a boat, live in a hostel, study in Spain, and write about it.
Reading Jeanette Winterson feels like entering this magical world in which you get metaphors for dance partners and can slip gender on and off as many times as runway models change outfits. In both Sexing the Cherry and The Passion, Winterson expertly combines sex, history, metaphor, and myth in such a way that I feel like I’m twelve again, devouring The Chronicles of Narnia.
Books Read: Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing , Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure, Richard III, Henry IV, Henry V
Books I Haven’t Read Yet: The Comedy of Errors, Cymbeline, Romeo and Juliet, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Pericles, Troilus and Cressida , Two Gentlemen of Verona, Winter’s Tale, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, Titus Andronicus, other assorted sonnets
Favourite: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
I don’t even know what to write about Shakespeare since so much has already been written on him. Once I went to Stratford-Upon-Avon, and by myself, with my little map, I walked from the house in which he was born, to his boyhood school, to the home where he fell in love and started a family with Anne Hathaway. This would be a good opportunity to share some amazing pictures with all of you, but unfortunately right after I left Stratford-Upon-Avon, I went travelling through Wales and lost my camera. But at least I still have the memories and the gigantic, life-changing realization that Shakespeare was like, a real person!
Literally walking in Shakespeare’s footsteps transformed him from an untouchable icon of English Literature to a real guy who ate in a kitchen and crushed on girls and did homework LIKE THE REST OF US. He probably felt stressed and insecure at times, got into arguments with people, and wondered if his hair looked nice. His gigantic body of work is all the more impressive when it sinks in that Shakespeare might have been your lesbro.