The best books with iconoclastic women

Nina Schuyler Author Of The Translator
By Nina Schuyler

Who am I?

When I was 12, I was given The Book of Questions by Neruda Pablo. “Tell me, is the rose naked or is that her only dress?” It was the perfect book for me, with an abundance of questions. As I got older, the questions turned more serious: what are these forces restricting women to a narrow strip of being? To a slim wedge of psychological existence? How did the definition of female pare down to only a fistful of traits—nurturing, accommodating, object of desire, etc.? I’ve found solace in books, with fully dimensional female characters who refuse society’s common assumptions. It’s these females I try to create in my work. 

I wrote...

The Translator

By Nina Schuyler,

Book cover of The Translator

What is my book about?

When renowned translator Hanne Schubert falls down a flight of stairs, she suffers a brain injury, a rare but real injury: the ability to speak only the language learned later in life—Japanese. Isolated from the English-speaking world, she goes to Japan for refuge, only to be confronted by a Japanese writer who accuses her of mangling the translation of his novel. 

Devoted to her work, Hanne seeks out the inspiration for the man’s novel to redeem her good name, an unemployed Japanese Noh actor named Moto. Through their contentious and sexually charged interactions, Moto finds his way back on stage and Hanne begins to understand how she mistranslated not only the novel, but also her daughter.

The books I picked & why

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The Door

By Magda Szabo, Len Rix (translator),

Book cover of The Door

Why this book?

It’s mid-20th century, Budapest, and the narrator, a Hungarian writer named Magda, interviews Emerence about cleaning her house. I fell in love with this book early on, when Emerence makes it clear that she, not Magda, will decide whether she’ll take the job. To this day, Emerence haunts me. She’s a peasant, illiterate, an anti-intellectual, tall, and powerfully built. And she’s a relentless gift giver, a caretaker of the sick, and a tireless worker, sweeping the snowy or leaf-stricken street for the 11 buildings on the block. The contradictions and inconsistencies pile up, which is why she continues to roam around in my brain. And there’s the lovely mystery, which only reveals itself toward the end, as to why she’s never allowed anyone into her house. 

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

By Olga Tokarczuk, Antonia Lloyd-Jones (translator),

Book cover of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Why this book?

Janina is an older Polish woman. She speaks her mind—even if few listen—foments conflict and spends her days translating the poetry of William Blake and studying astrology, which she believes underlies everything. How could I not fall under her spell? But it was her deep affinity and affection for animals, even beyond that for her fellow humans—far beyond—that made me walk beside her in sympathy. When the dead bodies start piling up, all men, she utterly convinces me that these are acts of revenge, not by humans, but by animals on the local hunters. 

Convenience Store Woman

By Sayaka Murata, Ginny Tapley Takemori,

Book cover of Convenience Store Woman

Why this book?

Keiko Furukura can’t find her fit in the world until she’s hired as a sales clerk at Smile Mart. (I imagine it’s like the 7-11 stores in Tokyo, which serve pretty good food.) She’s an ideal worker, primarily because her passion for Smile Smart is genuine. Yet her sister and others think she should marry, pursue a career, and at least have a boyfriend. Herein lies the heart of the inner struggle, to which each of us navigates to some degree or another: how much to relinquish oneself in order to please others? Keiko’s inner battle is valiant and believable, and I rooted for her throughout the story to choose her idiosyncratic, odd self over something as bland as the world’s definition of female. 

Moments of Being

By Virginia Woolf,

Book cover of Moments of Being

Why this book?

Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite writers, not that I write like her, (I wish I had more of her style, for sure) but for her courage and creative will that stretched her work beyond the boundaries of what existed at the time. Along the way, you can pick out the raw material of her life that she transmuted into fiction. What great fortune to hear directly from Virginia about her philosophy of life and her vision of art.

The Days of Abandonment

By Elena Ferrante, Ann Goldstein (translator),

Book cover of The Days of Abandonment

Why this book?

I’d recommend any one of the novels by Elena Ferrante, a writer who depicts with nuance and complexity her female characters’ psychology, as it’s impacted by the forces of society, family, motherhood, wifedom, work, economics, and politics. The Days of Abandonment is one of her earlier novels about a woman whose husband leaves her for a younger woman after 15 years of marriage. A common story, unfortunately, but what isn’t common is the brutally honest depiction of rage, sorrow, depression, loss of self, and the slow evolution of a new life and a new self. 

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