Local women with a way with words
Women have always had a voice. Consider the soothing tones of a mother's lullaby or the searing timbre of her scolding. Yet in a broader, more public forum among non-matriarchal societies, the woman's voice often has been silenced. Except among those who have persevered, at whatever cost, to be heard, acknowledged, respected.
Consider Victoria Woodhull, leader of the women's suffrage movement of the mid-19th century, reportedly the first woman to own a brokerage firm on Wall Street, the first woman to start a weekly newspaper and, in 1872, the first female candidate for the U.S. Presidency. Remember Anita Hill who, 26 years before the #MeToo social movement launched against sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and rape culture, stood firm in her allegations, even in the face of continued harassment for her testimony.
And think of Malala Yousafzai, 25, who spoke publicly on behalf of the rights of females to obtain an education, a voice that continued even after an act of violence temporarily silenced her. Continuing to advocate for the rights of women and girls on an international scale, Yousafzai became, at 17, the world's youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
“A woman's voice must be heard because we have such unique experiences, so much to give, and even more to teach others,” said local author, coach, consultant and educator Glodean Champion, who wrote “Salmon Croquettes,” about a young black girl struggling with her identity. “Our perspective is important because, more times than not, we can see things others can't even imagine.”
What began as “National Women's Day,” in Sonoma County in 1978, “National Women's History Week” was confirmed two years later by President Jimmy Carter through a presidential proclamation. In 1988, President Ronald Regan was the first U.S. president to proclaim March as “National Women's History Month.”
The purpose of this designation is to recognize, celebrate, and record women's achievements in history and society, and to promote continued validation and confirmation of women's rights.
Throughout March, Cynthia Fernandes and Paul Fridlund, co-owners of Pilgrim's Way Community Bookstore & Secret Garden in Carmel, are celebrating National Women's History Month by featuring books by local women who have a perspective, a voice, and the courage to put it in print.
“An ongoing interest of mine
has been to hold a vision of what is inspiring, what is stabilizing and soothing in our community, a role typically played by women,” Fernandes said. “National Women's History Month reminds us of the importance of celebrating the contributions of women, who often aren't given a place at the table to be recognized. But these local authors have a voice that's being heard.”
As Fernandes perused her bookstore, selecting some of her favorite women's titles, she identified a wide range of texts, all of which struck her as inspiring, educational, empowering.
“I am delighted to recognize these amazing women writers, from Pulitzer Prizewinning author Jane Smiley, to a high school junior Q Tavener, who has written her debut novel, and to be in the position to create awareness among the residents and guests of our community.”
Why women write
The decision by Cynthia Fernandes to feature, through Pilgrim's Way, a few of the many women writers in this community, gives readers a chance to go beyond the back cover to learn what motivates and inspires these authors to develop their stories to the point of publication.
Carmel Valley's Jane Smiley, who has written some 34 novels and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for her novel, “A Thousand Acres” (1991), believes she writes for two reasons. Growing up, she loved to read, starting with “The Bobbsey Twins” and “Nancy Drew.” As she became older, her choices became more complicated, among them Jane Austin and George Eliot. Her second reason is that her mother was the women's page editor for the Saint Louis Globe-Democrat.
“I saw my mother's writing all the time. Once in a while I got to visit her at the newspaper,” said Smiley. “She had a typewriter out on the dining room table. She loved writing, she loved books. It seemed almost automatic for me to head in that direction.”
Smiley believes the best thing that happened in launching her writing career came through a writers workshop. When a member of the group, who had become an assistant editor, was given free rein to buy the books she wanted, she bought “Barn Blind” (1998), Smiley's debut novel.
“My friend became an early icon of a woman editor in New York publishing,” said Smiley, “which gave us entry as women writers. This was so smooth for me. I was so lucky and didn't realize there were antifeminine issues in book publishing. I just kept writing.”
Smiley recognizes, as she began writing, she was striving for neither a female nor a male voice but to represent her voice. Although, as she wrote more books, and her understanding of the history of literature became more sophisticated, she found herself more interested in telling women's stories.
New York Times bestselling author Alka Joshi also writes for two reasons. One is to always put forward that women deserve agency, to make their own decisions about their lives and their futures without interference from the rest of the world. She also writes to broaden people's scope, their understanding, she says, of her native India, post-independence.
Joshi, author of “The Henna Artist,” “The Secret Keeper of Jaipur,” and “The Perfumist of Paris,” said, “In 1967, when we first came to the United States, the prevailing attitude was that India was an underdeveloped third-world country. I felt embarrassed, confused. One of my main reasons for writing is to correct that notion.”
Joshi's writing endeavors to inform readers why India was left impoverished at the time of its independence and how a country that was previously colonized has to work very hard to not succumb to dictatorship and to remain a democracy, the largest, she says, in the world.
“I also want to inform readers of the many contributions India has made during our lives,” she said, “among them high-tech products and medical expertise. India exports so much brainpower to the world in the form of engineering products, pharmaceuticals, and the engineers and doctors who provide them.”
As a woman writer, Joshi celebrates how women have become empowered to use their voice, and that so many authors are writing about the different ways women have contributed to the world.
“One of the ways we inform readers about women's contributions is through history,” she said. “I write historical fiction because so many women have been left out of historical canons. I'm really proud of the way Pilgrim's Way is highlighting National Women's History Month. It is a recognition of our collective voices.”
A willingness to be vulnerable
Carmel Valley author Meredith May, lauded for her memoir, “The Honey Bus” (2019), writes because she “can't not write.” She writes because it's how she discovers what she knows, who she is, and how she feels about things. She writes, she says, to understand what she's been through and how she's evolving as a person. She writes to keep herself company, to connect with readers, and to leave something of possible value behind once she's gone.
A former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, she spent years telling other people's stories. Now, in writing her books, she's telling her own.
“Working in newspapers,” she said, “it was a fire-able offense to use the words me, myself, or I in a story. So it was difficult for me to write in first-person. Even though I thought I was being open and authentic, my editor kept pushing me to go deeper. Having been taught the journalistic style of `less is more,' I was reticent to write about my feelings. Yet I came to see that in memoir, I needed to explain my particular form of sadness or happiness, how it manifested in me, so the reader wouldn't have to fill in the blanks.”
While May no longer feels vulnerable sharing her privacies in writing, she recognizes that she lives in her hometown where her memoir takes place, where people remember her as a child and the relatives she wrote about. Yet this kind of intimacy, she says, which creates a secret bond between writer and reader, is what she loves to read and requires of herself when writing.
“I think being vulnerable deepens trust,” she said.
Wanda Straw could never have written “Sasha Noodle String Theory” (2021), had she not dipped her pen into a well of vulnerability and used it to tell the whole story. The short synopsis is that it's a book about a cat. But the title character was oh so much more than a cat, and the story is about so much more than that.
“When I'm not writing, I wonder why. When I am writing, I feel I'm connecting to the best version of myself,” said Straw, who lives and writes in Carmel. “It's a great feeling to see the words emerge on the page, but it's more about getting out my story, my message, in a way that will connect with my audience.”
Straw wrote “Sasha Noodle String Theory,” she says, because it was a story that so badly wanted to be told, and she so deeply did not want to lose the memory of her cat or the connection to the sense of loss she addressed through the rhythm of her writing.
“Yet, whenever I get away from the story and out of rhythm,” she said, “I have learned that silence is part of the writing process and how important it is to sit with it.”
The truth in the telling
A little more than two years ago, Sharon Randall, who has spent most of her adult life telling stories, first as a reporter and then as a syndicated columnist, completed her first novel, “The World and Then Some.” (2020)
“Getting to tell my stories,” said the Carmel Valley author, “has been a dream come true. But what I've loved most about my work is hearing from readers who say that my stories are their stories, too. The best stories are universal. They tell us who we are, individually and collectively.”
Stories, says Randall, show us how we're different, and yet, how we're so very much alike in the things that matter most to us — the matters of the heart. They bring imaginary characters to life, and in those characters, we catch revealing glimpses of ourselves, of those we love and of those we want so much to understand.
“Stories,” she said, “need to be told and heard. A great question to ask and the answer is simple: `What's your story?'”
When asked her story, when asked what motivated a 13-year-old teen to write her first novel, Q Tavener admitted that writing came into her life as early as she can remember. She actually wrote her first expanded story, “A Horse Called Gold Rush,” during fourth grade, having felt inspired to write more than the short descriptions her teacher had assigned.
If she recalls correctly, she says, her teacher cried when Tavener presented the 60-page book to her on the last day of school.
Tavener, now 17, got the idea for her first novel “Oddball,” as a way to rewrite her sense of self as the unpopular kid whose weird-looking glasses seemed sufficient to warrant bullying.
“My book revolves around a group of friends who live in a time when the majority of the population possess special powers,” Tavener said. “The people who have these powers are called Oddball — a simple, provocative title that resonated with me and enabled me to lift out of that identity to find peace and companionship in a time when I otherwise wouldn't have.”
The Carmel High junior has completed her next novel, “The MoonEyed Prince,” currently being shopped among editors and agents, as she dives into her third book, “My Idea,” about a 19-year-old girl, trying to climb her social hierarchy to reach the level of the gods that govern her world.
All of Tavener's characters live in otherworldly places. All of her characters face conflict, she says, and all of her characters can find resolution only through accessing their higher self.
“I am taken with a high school student who would publish a book at this age and am inspired by what motivated her to write it,” Fernandes said. “The empty space this book speaks into is very important. I was thrilled to see one of her high school teachers come in to purchase it. I consider Q Tavener an inspiration to other women writers who wonder if they could ever publish a book.”
Pilgrim's Way Community Bookstore & Secret Garden, located on Dolores Street between 5th & 6th avenues, is open 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day.