The best books about literary women you’ve never heard of

Who am I?

I’m a historian of Southern Africa who is fascinated by questions of visibility and invisibility. I love probing beneath the surface of the past. For example, why is this person famous and renowned, but that person isn’t? To me, recognition and reputation are interesting to scrutinize as social categories in their own right, rather than as factual statements. I’ve written two books focusing on the history of religious expression in Southern Africa, and my most recent book is a biography of the forgotten South African writer and politician Regina Gelana Twala. 

I wrote...

Written Out: The Silencing of Regina Gelana Twala

By Joel Cabrita,

Book cover of Written Out: The Silencing of Regina Gelana Twala

What is my book about?

This biography of Regina Gelana Twala, an unjustly neglected Black African literary figure in apartheid South Africa and colonial Swaziland (now Eswatini) shows that her posthumous obscurity has been no accident. The book charts how white scholars and politicians used racial and gendered prejudices to erase Twala’s work and claim her uncompensated intellectual labor for themselves. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of New Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent

Why this book?

This anthology of African women writers has been my personal lodestar in writing about Regina Twala, a forgotten African writer.

Busby (a pioneering editor and publisher of Ghanaian heritage) was one of the first to recognize that the canon of African writers was much bigger than famous men like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka.

Her work taught me about a longstanding rich female literary tradition on the African continent – some of her earliest examples of women writers date to Ancient Egypt!

Busby recognizes that we can’t always look to the written page for evidence of this, given that many women writers were denied opportunities to publish their work.

So she broadens the focus of her anthology by paying attention to both “words and writing,” thinking about female writers of novels, poetry, plays, non-fiction, and journalism.

A must read. 

New Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent

By Margaret Busby,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked New Daughters of Africa as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Three decades after her pioneering anthology, Daughters of Africa, Margaret Busby curates an extraordinary collection of contemporary writing by 200 women writers of African descent, including Zadie Smith, Bernardine Evaristo and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

A glorious portrayal of the richness and range of African women's voices, this major international book brings together their achievements across a wealth of genres. From Antigua to Zimbabwe and Angola to the USA, overlooked artists of the past join key figures, popular contemporaries and emerging writers in paying tribute to the heritage that unites them, the strong links that endure from generation to generation, and…

Muriel at Metropolitan

By Miriam Tlali,

Book cover of Muriel at Metropolitan

Why this book?

I find the notion of the “unknown” writer quite problematic.

Most of the time, at least somebody has, in fact, heard of the writer. So by whom is this writer unknown, and for what reasons has their reputation been erased?

The South African writer Miriam Tlali – the first South African woman writer to publish a book in English - is a case in point.

Tlali’s novel Muriel at Metropolitan (about an office worker in apartheid Johannesburg) was banned when it was published in 1975 for its critical portrayal of white South Africans.

Tlali was subsequently ignored by her literary (almost entirely male) peers, dismissed as offering “reportage” rather than “art”. Yet since 2017, Tlali’s work has been celebrated.

The question of whether a writer is “known” or “unknown” is complex with many layers to consider, including the prejudices of racism and sexism. 

Muriel at Metropolitan

By Miriam Tlali,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Muriel at Metropolitan as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Banned when it was first published in South Africa in 1979, "Muriel at Metropolitan" is set in a bustling furniture and electronics store catering for poor whites and blacks and describes the daily experiences of Muriel, the accounts typist. Her relationship with her colleagues and her feelings about the stream of customers who come into the shop are depicted and illustrate life on the fringes of white society. Miriam Tlali draws on her own experience of working in Johannesburg to write this novel. She lives in Soweto and is now a professional writer. She has published a collection of short…

Book cover of The Power to Name: A History of Anonymity in Colonial West Africa

Why this book?

This study of West African writers who used pseudonyms has prompted me to think about the importance of anonymity for female writers throughout the ages.

Newell looks at Ghanaian authors of the early twentieth century who used a range of pseudonyms, often for quite playful and experimental reasons.

Some of these writers were, of course, women, and they found that a pseudonym gave them increased respectability. But the pseudonym could be a double-edged sword.

A pen name was a useful cloak of anonymity allowing a woman to write.

But it also means that the true identities of these female writers are hard to discern. In other words, women writers’ frequent use of the pseudonym has rendered them both visible and invisible. 

The Power to Name: A History of Anonymity in Colonial West Africa

By Stephanie Newell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Power to Name as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

* Finalist for the African Studies Association's 2014 Melville J. Herskovits Award for best book in African Studies Between the 1880s and the 1940s, the region known as British West Africa became a dynamic zone of literary creativity and textual experimentation. African-owned newspapers offered local writers numerous opportunities to contribute material for publication, and editors repeatedly defined the press as a vehicle to host public debates rather than simply as an organ to disseminate news or editorial ideology. Literate locals responded with great zeal, and in increasing numbers as the twentieth century progressed, they sent in letters, articles, fiction, and…

Book cover of Forgotten Women: The Writers

Why this book?

Editor-in-chief of VICE magazine, Tsjeng is also editor of the “Forgotten Women” series (other titles include “The Scientists”, “The Leaders”, and “The Artists”).

I like this one because I’ve actually struggled to find books that explicitly focus on unknown female writers. I suspect this is partly because these writers are often unknown because they didn’t physically publish much if any work (though not through lack of trying).

It’s hard to document women writers who left little paper trail behind them. I find Tsjeng’s decision to profile “forgotten women” across a range of fields inspiring and provocative.

Although I wish she would have included more African women in her collections, including The Writers. Maybe Regina Twala will make it into a subsequent edition! 

Forgotten Women: The Writers

By Zing Tsjeng,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Forgotten Women as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'To say this series is "empowering" doesn't do it justice. Buy a copy for your daughters, sisters, mums, aunts and nieces - just make sure you buy a copy for your sons, brothers, dads, uncles and nephews, too.' - Independent

The women who shaped and were erased from our history.

Forgotten Women is a new series of books that uncover the lost herstories of influential women who have refused over hundreds of years to accept the hand they've been dealt and, as a result, have formed, shaped and changed the course of our futures.

The Writers celebrates 48* unsung genius…

Book cover of Lives of the Wives: Five Literary Marriages

Why this book?

I love the way in which this fascinating group biography of the female partners of renowned male writers brings these usually ignored figures into the limelight.

Ciuraru argues that behind the careers of many acclaimed literary figures stand the important contributions of their wives. These women offered intellectual as well as practical support. 

Many of these literary wives shelved their own creative aspirations to tend to the careers of their husbands.

But after their husbands’ deaths, some of these women found they finally had space for their own literary lives to start blossoming. 

Lives of the Wives: Five Literary Marriages

By Carmela Ciuraru,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lives of the Wives as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"The five marriages that Carmela Ciuraru explores in Lives of the Wives provide such delightfully gossipy pleasure that we have to remind ourselves that these were real people whose often stormy relationships must surely have been less fun to experience than they are for us to read about."-Francine Prose, author of The Vixen

A witty, provocative look inside the tumultuous marriages of five writers, illuminating the creative process as well as the role of money, power, and fame in these complex and fascinating relationships.

"With an ego the size of a small nation, the literary lion is powerful on the…

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