For feminist book-lovers, there's a lot of history behind the books we collect. #FeministShelfie is more than a play on the popular hashtag #feministselfie and it’s more than merely a well-lit Instagram photo of a womanist or feminist’s bookshelves. A #feministshelfie might be composed of theory and women's studies primers, but it can also contain multitudes in terms of style and genre: fiction, poetry, short story collections and personal essays. I think our bookshelves can (and should) reflect a wide-range of writers and editors and artists who have struggled with the questions and problems of feminist movements.
I contacted some of the womanists and feminists who are prominent writers, activists and readers. They shared with me their thoughts on the #FeministShelfie project:
I consider these books to be sacred items and portals through which my chosen black feminist ancestors reach me. And I would consider every book on the shelves in my home office to be feminist and womanist books in that they have helped and are helping me to shape my black feminist spiritual practice. They function as an oracle for me. One of these books will catch my eye in a given moment and cause me to open it and change everything.
A lot of important black feminist books are out of print and not candidates for digital republication as it exists right now. I feel very grateful to have not only books BY black feminists and womanists, but books from the collections of black feminists and womanists who have decided to send me books from their collections to be part of the Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind Lending and Reference Library, or whose children have donated them after they became ancestors. Right now I am surrounded by books from amazing black feminists like Cheryll Greene, Kai Barrow, Elizabeth Amelia Hadley, Akasha Hull, Vanessa Jackson, Kimberly Springer and more. There is an intimacy that I have access to through these books, their authors, their editors, their former owners and their dreamed of audiences that grounds and focuses me every day.
My feminist shelfie has bell hooks' memoir Bone Black and her book Where We Stand: Class Matters, Joy Castro's The Truth Book, Island of Bones, and Hell or High Water, the novels of Carolina DeRobertis, Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby, Jeff Chang's Who We Be, and Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist... and I have a ton of books that supported me in writing my memoir, A Cup of Water Under My Bed, including the canonical texts such as Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde, The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin and Borderlands by Gloria Anzaldúa. Their books helped me to understand the political underpinnings of my family story.
I come from a family of factory workers. To them, my feminist shelfie just looks like any other pile of books but they notice volume. So what would they say about my feminist shelfie? “Can't you get that at the library?”
Stories are where we learn to dream, to imagine a more just world, and stories are also where we learn to see ourselves and our broken places and communities with more clarity. When we support feminist writers, we're investing in the kinds of stories we need.
My books are from old school feminists to contemporary: Eileen Myles, Jeanette Winterson, Emily Gould, Kate Millett, Virginia Woolf, Jenny Zhang, Lena Dunham, Anais Nin, Maggie Estep, Kathy Acker, Lidia Yuknavitch, Judy Blume, Elizabeth Ellen, Sarah Schulman, Catherine Texier, Loorie Moore, Erica Jong, Elisa Albert, Kate Chopin. And I just ordered a book by Ann Rower. These are the books I love. And in the past year while writing my new book WOMEN, I became even more attached to these books and studied them all the more. I kept them as my desk as I wrote for luck. I love books focused on women that are complicated and ugly and a million other things. I love stories of women loving women. I love stories of heartbreak and obsession and I love stories of female friendship. It's my favorite "genre.” And I like to write what I like to read, hence my book WOMEN.
I was reading and supporting feminist writers before I knew of the term feminist writers or "feminist." I grew up with my mom's books in the house, Mary Karr, Mary Gordon, Sue Miller....so it's just my life. It's part of who I am. One of the coolest things of being a woman is supporting other women writers. I read something depressing yesterday in an Instagram comment. The person was like, "If you're a woman and you continue to make art throughout your life you deserve a medal." I found this disturbing. Why would we stop making art?
Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti (I contributed an essay to it)
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Killing the Black Body by Dorothy Roberts
Beggars and Choosers by Rickie Solinger
Friends/fans/family would, I imagine, be wholly unsurprised at my #feministshelfie. It's a mix of feminist textbooks left over from college and law school, books written by prominent feminist thinkers, political nonfiction, and fiction and essays written by many women and some dudes (Zadie Smith, Joan Didion, Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Egan, Dorothy Parker, Haruki Murakami, Junot Diaz, etc). The whole bottom level of my bookshelf is taken up with travel guides. Maybe folks would be surprised that I own anything written by Jonathan Franzen or Suze Orman? Franzen is my fault, and I'll defend it. Orman you can thank/blame on my mom.
On one hand, my shelf is frozen in time. It marks the grad school years of my life when I was "finding" feminism. So there are the classic black feminist texts -- Hill Collins, hooks, Lorde, Hurston. On another hand, it reflects my current research interests in sex. On another other hand (yep, totally have three hands), the anthologies reflect the diversity of gender and feminist studies. I keep those mass complications on hand to find the feminisms that fit me best depending on what I'm going through. I started dating someone new recently and after about 5 minutes in front of the shelf he asked if I was a feminist, which I'm pretty sure was code for “Are you a man hater?” -- as if I had been keeping this secret from him and would have kept it quiet had he not looked at my books. This is the same man that listens to me talk about my work on women all the time and is always engaging and interested, so there was something about seeing the actual books in one place that was foreboding to him and raised some stereotypes.
But the shelf doesn't at all reflect the diversity of feminist writers who write online or in journal articles or who write feminist chapters in non-feminist texts (see Rap and Religion). It's important to support feminist writers but because of the above I just don't buy for buying's sake anymore. There's too much information in too many places to do that. Perhaps the virtual shelf of citations is a more apropos measure these days.
No matter what generation you’re in, social media tools like hashtags and selfies and trending are the way to get your(self) and your message seen and heard. One of the most basic cornerstones of feminism is that women deserve equal rights and that they should be seen and heard as strong and valid members of society. What better way than to show off one’s bookshelf?
Mine is filled with mostly poetry and feminist theory -- Adrienne Rich, Andrea Gibson, Mya Angelou, Judith Butler, Joni Mitchell, Joy Harjo, Joyce Carol Oates. Just for the record, while I think the concept is a creative and awesome project, especially in this era of "I am not a Feminist" campaigns and backlash, I don't like the rhyming of "selfie" and "shelfie." I get the appeal from a social media marketing angle, but the poet and performance artist in me cringes at the sound of it. That being said, I take about four selfies a day -- you can follow me @poetryrox
Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood by bell hooks, Biblical Woman: Contemporary Reflections on Scriptural Texts by Denise Lardner Carmody, Sisterfire: Black Womanist Fiction and Poetry edited by Charlotte Watson Sherman, The Womanist Reader edited by Layli Phillips
I think that my family would be unsurprised by my bookshelf as it reflects the politically left, gender-positive progressive, godless liberal that they have come to shake their head at and I have embraced as wholly me. I think of womanism/feminism as a living, breathing entity, constantly evolving as we come to understand the various life situations of women based in a myriad of identities. In order to continue to attain a greater understanding of myself and those whom I seek to call sister, it's important that I embrace not only theory but the experiences of others. To that end, I am dedicated to reading the work of other womanists/feminists.
My current crop includes Roz Chast’s alternately hilarious and terrifying memoir of caring for her parents at the end of their lives, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? It’s not an explicitly feminist book, but caregiving very often falls on the shoulders of women, and Chast’s mother is characterized as a strong-willed woman, so I think it’s fair to categorize this book as feminist.
I’m also reading Jesmyn Ward’s memoir Men We Reaped about growing up in poverty in rural Mississippi and losing five young men in her life to drugs, accidents, and suicide. This, too, is not an explicitly feminist book. The subject is being a black man today in the South, but the narrative is formed by a woman, and you can’t talk about masculinity without talking about femininity.
I’ve been dipping into The Essential Ellen Willis, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz, now for several months. Willis was an influential feminist theorist and activist of the 1960s onward who cofounded the radical feminist group Redstockings. This book gathers her essays and articles from a forty-year period. Willis died in 2006, but her work is as relevant as ever. To take just one example, her 1979 Village Voice essay, “Is a Woman a Person?,” is a powerful rebuttal to the so-called “personhood” anti-abortion and anti-birth control ballot initiatives that states keep trying to pass into law.
Finally, I just completed Caitlin Moran’s novel, How to Build a Girl, which is good bawdy fun. In this semi-autobiographical novel, a British white teenage girl from an economically struggling working-class family tries to figure out how sex, rock, drugs, family, and love all fit together—or don’t.
It’s important to support feminist writers to keep feminist thinking alive and moving forward. That means not just reading feminist blogs and tweets and free online articles but also purchasing feminist books. It’s a small price to pay for the continued growth of the most radical intellectual movement of our time.