Scarcely a week goes by without some social media ninja or the other painting feminists as man-hating, world-hating, angry group of women, eager to shred every opinion that contradicts our own to bits. While that might be true for some people, feminists or otherwise, most of us would be quick to admit that we're all works-in-progress and doing the best we can. And when we can't find the words to express what we're thinking and feeling, literature, very helpfully, fills in the gaps. Here are 8 books that perfectly capture feminist relationships in all their rule-bending glory.
Villette by Charlotte Bronte
We know Charlotte Bronte for the massively popular Jane Eyre. But it is her last, razor-sharp novel, Villette, that does justice to Bronte's true genius. There's no going back, once you've read Villete, the most autobiographical of all of Bronte's writing, revolving mostly around the theme of unrequited love and her yearnings for the married schoolmaster she considered her intellectual mentor. It's hard to pinpoint what makes Villette such an arresting novel; perhaps what you fall in love with changes with each reading — sometimes it is the prose, other times it is Lucy Snow, a character that is everyone and no one. If you've ever struggled to understand a woman who is too many things, all at the same time, Bronte's unrelentingly brilliant prose is all the help you need. There's a reason why even George Eliot could never quite find the words to adequately capture the essence of Villette's brilliance.
I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
I've read such few books that are so unapologetically about a woman's narrative that I Love Dick would have made it to this list even if it wasn't as effortlessly real as it is. At the time of its release, in 1997, I Love Dick and Chris Kraus received a rather cold reception, given its autobiographical nature and the fact that she chose to write about her inexplicable love and attraction to a man who had spurned her. Somewhere between then and today, as women's voice finally found listeners and men's narratives stopped being the only ones that mattered, I Love Dick found the recognition it deserved. As the book's heroine, Chris goes through the various stages of her one-sided affair with Dick, she learns things about herself and in her lessons you will find yourself connecting the dots in your own relationships. To give you an example, this is how she describes her feelings after her first encounter with Dick: "(It is) some essential loneliness only she and he can share."
The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante
Even if I wasn't absolutely, irrevocably in love with Elena Ferrante for her ability to divorce herself from her hugely successful quartet, the Neapolitan Novels would still be an indisputable part of this list. The relationship between the book's heroines, Elena and Lila, defies every stereotype, cliché and trope associated with female friendships, exploring them in all their loving, layered, twisted complications. I can't think of a better book to understand one of the most important relationships in a woman's life: her best friend.
I Call Myself A Feminist
This book is a reminder why feminism matters, and the questions feminists are struggling with, in varying degrees. It reminds you of all that's been done and so much that is left to do. I Call Myself A Feminist is a collection of essays by 25 women under 30, who make you see feminism through the eyes of women of colour, Muslim women, Trans women, queer women... you get the drift. If you've ever wondered what intersectional feminism means, or why something that seems like a non-issue to you is a "big f*cking deal" to someone, you need to read this book.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
There's no delicate way of putting it: The Handmaid's Tale is the 1984 of feminism, only scarier. A lot scarier. So jarring, that the only way to deal with it is to start thinking of its dystopian setting and the universe created by Atwood where women are literally treated like men's property, as gimmicky and extreme. It is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security by periodical chest-thumping about how things have changed. But every time an incident like the recent Bangalore molestation case forces a culture to confront its ugliness and the women to wonder whether sexual violence will always remain a fact of life; The Handmaid's Tale becomes relevant again. Because it reminds us that the more things change, the more they remain the same, and dystopia might be nearer than we think.
How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran
If I could, I'd make How To Be A Woman mandatory reading for men and women under the age of 30. The women, because it is a sharp, witty, howl-with-laughter hilarious, completely non-preachy manifesto on how to be a feminist while still being you. The men, purely so they can understand the freight train of thoughts barrelling through a woman's head as her beliefs battle with her conditioning and they both battle her relationship with herself and the men around her. From the biggies like work, marriage and kids to smaller everyday battles like yoga pants, bras, pornography and hair removal, everything is up for discussion and dissection, but with biting humour.
Eat My Heart Out by Zoe Pilger
Pilger's Ann-Marie is neither likeable, nor complex. She is wildly preoccupied with herself, loves fleetingly, judges instantly and hurtles through life that leaves everyone — including herself — dizzy. Given the simplicity of the lead character's motivations, Eat My Heart Out could easily have been another forgettable commentary on the hedonistic life and times of millenials; but not with Pilger's excellent command on satire. She is delightfully descriptive and uses wit brutally, forcing one to acknowledge, even if grudgingly, that there's a little bit of Ann-Marie in all of us.
The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel
Twenty-one years of Alison Bechdel's fantastic Dykes To Watch Out For cartoon strip are whittled down to roughly 400 best in this compilation. While fans of the cartoon will obviously cherish it, I personally think that this is a great book to give to anyone who thinks of lesbians as a homogenous group of "manly" and man-hating women. Bechdel's lesbians are amusing, neurotic, literary, articulate, intelligent, funny, politically conscious and despite all of this, just as given to flights of fantasy and silliness as any of us. They change and grow, and want to impeach presidents, but they also fall in love with women called Amethyst. And they have sex, lots and lots of naked feel-good and not-so-good and trying-to-get-better-at-it sex with each other. In a world where pop culture references to homosexuality are limited to distasteful, crass jokes, The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For is something we all need to read.