As Thanksgiving Day approaches, I am thankful for a lot things: my husband, my children, my job, and my friends. But one thing I am always — every day — grateful for is books. Up until my adoption– at the age of eight — I had not known books or the stories that lay in wait for me when I turned the pages. But as an immigrant in the US in the early 80s, books are what saved me from isolation and disconnectedness. Here are my favorite books — books that have taught me to be brave and what it means to be empowered as a woman. Books that guided me and friended me when I had no one to lean on or look up to.
These books saved me, cherished me, and helped me find my place in life:
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: It is hard to imagine that a book can show you snippets of your own life — your turbulent childhood — but Jane Eyre did just that. Charlotte Bronte herself reached out to me through Jane’s narrative, showing me that when I couldn’t rely on the adults around me, I could lean on literature. Jane and I — and Charlotte and I — both lost family and siblings before the age of eight, and we also spent some time in orphanages, which helped us and hurt us in equal doses. At the age of thirteen, this was the first book that helped me heal.
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening:Even though I read this book when I was in college, it wasn’t until I was in my thirties and a mother that I truly understood the power of Edna Pontellier’s choices. A narrative about society imposing motherhood upon women, this book found me when I was struggling with my role as a new mother. It empowered me not to be the kind of mother society expects me to be — infallible and selfless – but to be the kind of mother that I wanted to be, within my limitations as an individual. I am a better mom today, a happier one, because of Chopin’s work.
Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex: Every Women’s Studies course begins with de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. All the way from France, this philosopher pointed out how society relegates women to a secondary existence. The roles we assume only support this position, especially when we choose to depend on the men in our lives. This book came to me when I became a wife, and I realized how much we are required — expected, even — to give up for our family — our men and our children. This is not an inherent trait to all women but a socially constructed one that we assume is innate.
Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: Virginia Woolf is one of the earliest feminists who insisted that women writers need their own income and a room of their own to write authentically. Her advice helped me find my feminist writer’s voice. Her encouragement to kill my “darlings” and to find spaces just for me — as a writer and as a woman — was sound advice, for it enabled me to write about issues that no one wants to openly talk about and to secure rooms just for me — in which I can breathe, think, and write selfishly and without regret.
Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: All of Plath’s writing moves me because of the dark motifs and the honest longing she injects into her work. Through the emotional decline of Esther Greenwood, Plath reflected my inability to fit into society’s expectations for girls and women; a cautionary tale, I realized that even though Esther crumbled under the unwanted pressure that society and family imposed on her, I didn’t have to. I could pave my own way — and I still am.
What books are you thankful for?