Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, at the Nobel Peace Prize concert in 2003, read from his poem To Shirin Ebadi that “the one who makes the lonely feel they are not alone, who satisfies those who hunger and thirst for justice, who makes the oppressor feel as bad as the oppressed, may her example multiply. May she still have difficult days ahead, so that she can do whatever she needs to do, so that the next generation will not have to strive for what has already been accomplished.” Twelve years later, and every sixteen-year-old in Sweden is being given a copy of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists. The impetus of such a move at a national level, with grassroots implications, is a promising step forward for a feminist movement that is seeking to become ever more intersectional, universally accessible and intrinsically normalized. Naturally, this leads to the question: should we be seeking to shake up the canonized texts taught in our schools?
As a sixteen-year-old, one of the texts I recall reading is The Unfinished Revolution by Minky Worden. The non-fiction anthology catalogues the present day abuses of women and the commonplace infringements upon their rights across globe. I read of how, in India, some state governments can’t be bothered to count the number of women dying during pregnancy and childbirth. In the USA, rape victims are denied justice through a backlog in test kits. In Somalia, warlords threaten women’s lives. In some European countries, women fleeing domestic violence are sent home to ‘work it out.’ In Saudi Arabia, all women live as lifelong dependents under male guardianship, whilst in China, forced abortions are a common reality. Reading The Unfinished Revolution was, for me, a real wake-up call in realising the absolute necessity for feminism, and I was astounded that one book had the capability to sap my previous ignorance regarding the issue. At present, however, not every sixteen year-old has quite the same cathartic experience, and indeed many teenagers do not have ready access to texts of that same illuminating momentum in or outside the classroom. Perhaps, then, a healthy dosage of edifying literature available for every sixteen-year-old is a good move, though this list ought to be considered as suggestive rather than prescriptive.
Adichie’s The Thing around Your Neck is an essential set of individualising stories that exhausts the promises of companionship. ‘A Private Experience’, for example, follows a Chika Christian and a Hausa Muslim who seek refuge in an abandoned shop during a bloody riot. They instantaneously become two equally terrified women rather than two individuals in opposition, although the Hausa woman never finds her lost daughter. There is a latent strand of brutal tragedy to Adichie’s writing when it emerges that the daughter may be one of the charred bodies littering the street, which is altogether more compelling as much as it is evocative.
Yes, Melanie Philips did once write an entire text on how she believes education has declined due to the effects of liberal ideas, but that doesn’t make her successor, The Ascent of Woman, any less insightful. Given that feminism is often blamed for destabilising society, Philips’ historicised rundown of the ways in which the feminist movement manifested itself in Britain is crucial reading for any sixteen year-old hoping to grapple with the possibilities for feminism looking forward.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is an agonising, disjointed read that retains the capacity to scorch more than a century after it was first published. The lines fragment and falter, and the hopes of a promising young woman diminish in blood curdling fashion until all we’re left with is bleak despondency. Despondency for the state of woman’s agency, for her right to autonomy, and for her ability to know what is best for her alone. You feel an incessant need for the female protagonist to break free from the domestic shackles inflicted upon her, and for her to escape the hideous ‘resting cure’ she has been assured is the best antidote for her deteriorating mental health. Maybe she does escape, maybe she doesn’t. Either way, The Yellow Wallpaper is a well curated novella that bleeds ingenuity and perception: a necessity for any 16-year-old.
It’s a staple for many schoolchildren, and rightly so. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee has been the foundational text for me from a young age, teaching generation upon generation of how good fates are deserved for good people, and of how justice can manifest itself in unexpected and heartening ways. As a literature student, when asked of the one book I would urge everyone to read, I always jump to Mockingbird. In a mere 320 pages, Lee espouses the light and the dark of humanity through a man who optimises the height of morality: Atticus Finch teaches us that doing what is right is above doing what is the law. It’s universally transmittable for every underdog, for every individual that has ever been hounded or condemned for their identity. May To Kill a Mockingbird teach today’s youth and generations to come that whether it’s women’s rights or race rights, they’re rights worth fighting for.
The Bloody Chamber is the first text I recall reading in which female sexuality and desire is painted as a multifaceted actuality rather than some unspeakable vice, something which Angela Carter ought to be praised for. The collection is often labelled as ‘traditional fairy tales given a subversive feminist twist’, but these short stories are entirely new tales that hybridise Gothic ornateness and traditionally ‘Western’ ideals of female aestheticism, in an exotic pastiche. The result is a series of texts that have the capacity to galvanize a more diverse audience, and for that reason is a requisite for any classroom.
Andrea Levy immerses herself in a period of the recent past that is often evaded in history lessons, and that in itself renders Small Island essential reading for any school leaver. The international scope of the novel underscores Levy’s investment in rejecting the commonplace practice of categorising people by their race, in a text that handles the inequalities of an existential era during which segregation was based on national identity. In using a historical platform, Levy encourages an already growing conversation about the effects of migration on British identity with characters that embrace kindness as well as ignorance, something which is equally pertinent today.
During her acclaimed TEDx Talk, Adichie explained that she is often faced with the question: “why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?” Adichie realises that feminism, of course, is under the overarching umbrella of human rights, but that the term ‘feminist’ is crucial is order to draw attention to the very fact that inequalities faced by both men and women today stem from a specific and acute prejudice that targets females. It is only fair that the solution to the problem acknowledges that.