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Opinion

Opinion: When you want to tell a heroine’s tale, have these writers by your side

Author Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison, whose novel “Sula” made Susan Straight’s highly selective list of women and their books worth reading and rereading.
(Michael Lionstar / Associated Press )

Every year, I read about 125 books. I’m not bragging — I’ve just been “that girl who reads” since kindergarten.

When I was 3, my mother, Gabrielle, went to the Stater Bros. Market in Rubidoux, Calif., and spent her last quarter on a Little Golden Book. She used it to teach me to read in one weekend, so I would be quiet when she went to work and dropped me off at the babysitter. My father was gone, she was pregnant, and I made my way through “Tawny Scrawny Lion” again and again, then begged her for a new book.

I reread “Tawny Scrawny Lion” not long ago. I have to say, it makes no sense at all: A hungry lion chases kangaroos and camels and inexplicably hangs out with white bunnies who have endless baskets of carrots. No matter. It — and reading — saved me back when my father was gone. And reading saves me still.

In 2019, at the end of five years’ work on a memoir about my (and my daughters’) badass female ancestors — mothers and grandmothers and aunts whose penchant for survival, and for storytelling, define our family — I read and reread books of, by and for women. (“Lion,” by the way, was written by Kathryn Jackson.) I consider these authors a second set of female progenitors, this time of the printed page. The “heroine’s journey” isn’t a literary paradigm, but it should be: When women write, they tell their own kind of warrior tale.

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What follows is by no means a comprehensive bibliography of badass women writers and books. Just a select list of the ones that kept me going in 2019.

“Sula,” by Toni Morrison. For maybe the 37th time, I paged through the paperback copy I’ve had since I was 12, when I bought it at a sale at the Riverside Central Library. With any luck, I will read it another 37 times before I leave the Earth. My own writing is richer because of the life-changing way Morrison’s Sula describes things: Divorce, for instance, is “a secondhand lonely.” The day my memoir was published, Morrison died, and I was bereft.

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” by Betty Smith. I read it first at the library, a book about a daughter, Francie, who loves books (a girl I know so well) and a mother who cannot see why her child wants to live in imagination when there are floors to scrub (a mother I also know well). Francie savors a book she has read many times perched on her fire escape. I used to read sitting in our mulberry tree.

“Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir,” by Lucille Clifton. The year before she died I took my beloved mother-in-law, Alberta, to hear Clifton read, with brio, “Homage to My Hips” among other poems. Alberta’s smile was incandescent. I reread Clifton to hear the cadences of pride and laughter in her reverence for women’s bodies, and to remember how Alberta danced the cha-cha in a sequined dress.

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“The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” I teach it every year, which means I read it every year, and I love it each time: the story of a girl freed from enslavement at 9 and her fierce will to survive Reconstruction. She reminds me of Fine, my father-in-law’s grandmother, orphaned just after the Civil War, who raised not only her five children but rescued her six grandchildren from poverty and hunger.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Testaments,” by Margaret Atwood. I didn’t read “Handmaid” when it was first published because I was pregnant, and the story of women’s bodies as captive vessels was too terrifying. Both books immersed me in nightmare, beautiful prose and stories of women’s revenge and loyalty.

I read wonderful memoirs: “From Scratch,” by Tembi Locke, which took me to Italy, where Locke, an actress and writer whose tone and tenderness I loved, met her husband and learned about Sicilian family ties; “Bad Indians,” by Deborah Miranda, the book I’ve most recommended this year, about nine generations of indigenous Californians including Miranda’s doomed-in-love parents, so like mine; and “Jane,” by Maggie Nelson, a memoir of the life and murder of Nelson’s aunt, which haunted me.

In July, I read and wrote in a house between potato fields in Canada. At the ancient hardware store where I went for paint and tools, I also bought used books for $1: “Summer of My Amazing Luck,” by Miriam Toews, in which single mothers live and love through hilarious prose. My daughter Delphine, reading in the next room, raised quizzical brows at my constant laughter. When my friend, the author Holly Robinson, visited, she brought me “The Revolt of Mother and Other Stories,” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, who published narratives of self-reliant, transgressive women living in 1800s New England.

This fall, on the road, I read new or nearly new works featuring indelible women navigating betrayal, family terrors, racial unrest and their fear that we humans cannot survive our own lives: Steph Cha’s terrific novel, “Your House Will Pay,” about two sisters and their mother whose crime alters the lives of hundreds of Californians; Julie Demers’ “Little Beast,” a gem about a bearded girl in a Quebec village in 1944; one male author, J. Ryan Stradal, with his inventive, “The Lager Queen of Minnesota”; and Sarah M. Broom’s genius memoir “The Yellow House,” in which she considers the family stories contained in her mother’s East New Orleans house, not unlike the history made in my family’s white wood-frame houses in California.

“You have to write this all down someday,” the women in our family would say, telling stories in Alberta’s kitchen, from the front seats of station wagons, on my Riverside front porch. In 2019, my stack of books was all about honoring those stories and those women. In 2020, my new leaning tower of books is full of California tales, and I can’t wait.

Susan Straight’s memoir, “In the Country of Women,” was published in August and long-listed for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence. Her novel “Highwire Moon” was just released in a new edition.


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