The final Six Degrees of 2020 begins with a novel that’s one of the most frequently challenged books in the USA.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume is a novel about the anxieties of faith and puberty. It’s been banned from many US schools due to its
detailed depictions of sex and because the protagonist, Katherine, uses a form of birth control. frank talk of menstruation and its presentation of Christian characters in a negative light.
Let’s kick off this chain with another novel in which a young girl writes to God: The Colour Purple by Alice Walker. Set mainly in rural Georgia, the story focuses on the life of Celie is a poor, uneducated 14-year-old girl who turns to God for help when the man she thought was her father, beats and rapes her. Though it won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it’s also been banned from school libraries because of its sometimes explicit content.
One of the issues Walker tackles in her novel is the abysmally low position women have in American social culture in the 1930s. In the absence of help from state or church, women turn to each other for support and hope. Through this sisterhood, Cecile gains the confidence to speak up and learns how to create her own narrative.
This idea of the power of narrative and speech to resist oppression is also evident in the novel I’ve just finished reading: The Girl With The Louding Voice by Ari Daré. Set in Nigeria, this too has a 14-year-old female protagonist whose own desires are ignored and suppressed by her father. All Adunni wants to do is to finish her education and become a teacher. But instead she ends up first in an arranged marriage and then, through a series of unfortunate events, as the downtrodden servant of a violent, irrational businesswoman. She turns to books to help her deal with the oppression.
Daré powerfully portrays the physical and mental violence exerted upon this young girl. Those scenes made for uncomfortable reading but they were nowhere near as appalling as the treatment of Ebla, the female central character in From A Crooked Rib by Nuruddin Farah. It’s set in Somalia, a country where Elba is subjected to female genital mutilation in her pre-teen years, leaving her physically and emotionally scarred.
It not a novel that I can say I enjoyed reading but I did finish it feeling I’d gained more insight into the cultural norms of this society.
Equally insightful but considerably more enjoyable was The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga in which she pays homage to her family who were victims of the genocide perpetrated on the Tutsi minority in Rwanda. Centre stage is her mother Stefania, as fierce a protector of her family as she is of the Rwandan traditions. Despite the ever present threat of death and rape, she and the other village women keep up the practices of storytelling around the fire and weaving grass cradles for new babies.
Stefania is an expert in the use of plants, tubers and leaves as natural remedies for sickness and disease. Another novel that features a woman with natural talents as a healer is Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, one of the best books I’ve read in 2020. I loved the way O’Farrell rescues Agnes Hathaway from the shadows she’s always occupied as the wife William Shakespeare left behind in Stratford. In O’Farrell’s portrayal, Agnes is also famous, renowned in Stratford as a gifted herbalist and often called upon for help when the skills of the physicians prove inadequate.
Women with healing powers were in past centuries, also treated with suspicion and accused of witchcraft. Which takes me to my final novel in this chain, featuring a legendary figure renowned for her vast knowledge of potions and herbs but who was also known as a sorceress and a witch. In Circe Madeleine Miller brings a new perspective to the character of this daughter of a Greek god, presenting her actions not as forms of revenge but of self-preservation.
And so we come to the end of a chain that started with one form of a deity and ended with the daughter of another. It’s always great fun to see where these chains take us.
Next month we start with Hamnet. Since I’ve already featured that this month, I’ll have to get even more creative to find a different link in January. If you fancy giving this a go, hop over to the blog of our host Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest.
My original post contained incorrect information about the reasons this book has been challenged in the US and subsequently banned from many schools and libraries. I managed to mix up some elements from a later Judy Blume novel called Forever. Fortunately some astute readers spotted the error and this has now been corrected – hence the text that has been struck through.