In this special feature, retired professor of US women’s history, and founder of the Global Women of Color (GWC) Reading Challenge and Blog, Marilyn Dell Brady, speaks about founding the challenge, her career in academia, a love of reading, and a lifelong connection with feminism. Paula Grunseit reports.
Marilyn Dell Brady says the desire to change her view of the world goes back to her days in grad school (university) where African American women writers, along with various feminists, helped her envision what it meant to be a woman. “They gave me alternative visions that allowed me to move beyond the helpless, white lady I had been raised to be,” she says. “I had two black women friends who were focusing on African American History. Like others, we realised that in Women’s History ‘all the women were white’, and in African American History ‘all the blacks were men.’ So we got a grant to research and write about Black Women in Kansas. While my major interest remained Anglo women, I have continued to read and research African American women’s history and literature. I wrote a couple of articles and taught a course on the subject, as well as including them and other non-mainstream individuals in my Women’s History classes and other courses I taught.”
Inspired by feminism, Dell Brady returned to grad school in her mid-thirties to get the PhD she had always wanted. “My specialty was US Women’s History and interdisciplinary Women’s Studies. I taught and published in those fields. My MA thesis was about Quaker women in Philadelphia in the 1790s and my PhD dissertation was about perceptions of motherhood in the early 20th century.”
Taking a job at a small liberal arts college, she then created a variety of courses focusing on those left out of traditional history. “For example, I taught a course on Immigration to the United States (starting with the British) and one about the American Revolution (asking ‘Who was there besides George Washington and why does it matter?’). I also taught a senior seminar on Women’s Studies, focusing on the challenges that feminism raised in various academic disciplines.”
Having developed “a fierce love of reading” in her childhood, Dell Brady says that what she read then was limited to the contents of the children’s section of the small library in her home town. “College expanded my exposure immensely, and later in the 1970s I devoured everything I could find (fiction and non-fiction), about feminism. While in grad school, massive reading was required, but I also continued to read novels by women. By then I had access to Spinsters, a radical, lesbian bookstore which kept up with a wonderful selection of what was being published, including books by women of colour. They and their books helped shape me. During my grad school years, I not only read but had a variety of people with whom to discuss books and ideas — something I have missed ever since.”
Dell Brady now lives in the desert mountains of far west Texas, a place she and her husband (a librarian), have long been in love with and it’s not hard to understand why when she describes it: “Pink granite mountains rise up out of the desert and near-desert landscape. They are sometimes called ‘desert islands’ because their height creates an entirely different environment where pine trees grow. The most dramatic examples are in the Big Bend National Park, about an hour south of here. We live outside the small town of Alpine in a large valley created by the pink granite cliffs, not as high as in the Park. There is lots of space.”
Retirement, more time for leisure reading and a desire to connect and share were all catalysts for founding the GWC says Dell Brady. “I decided to move out of my ‘Americanist’ cocoon and was still particularly interested in women’s experiences, but expanded that interest globally. Starting to blog a year and a half ago, helped me find some amazing novels by women of colour. These are the books I still seek out and read most often. I started GWC to share what I had found and learn about more of such books.”
Feminism is also still a strong driver for Dell Brady as she explains. “It is easy for women to embrace feminism because it validates their own desire to live fuller lives. But feminism claims to be for all women. Too often women in westernised nations, like America and Australia, assume that women everywhere are just like us. They need and want what we do and should follow our lead. African American women and others globally have eloquently pointed out how narrow and self-centered such a view is.”
If feminism is to be global, as it must be, we need to listen to women without our privileges and cultural experiences. What is better than reading books by women of colour for learning what other women’s lives and concerns really are?
So, how have Dell Brady’s reading habits changed since founding the GWC? “Most of the books I have read and reviewed on my blog are by women, but not all. Generally I am a bit bored with reading books as told from male perspectives. I do read some men’s books and have found a few that do an amazingly good job at creating fully developed female characters. So far the best examples of these are men outside the western literary mainstream — Thomas King, a Native American author, has great interesting and strong women in his books. He is sympathetic to both his male and female characters but he describes the ways the men frustrate and neglect the women. Amit Majmudar, whose family migrated from India to the USA is another man who does a fine job with women characters.”
I also still read some fiction by white mainstream women, especially novels by favourite authors, but I am also bored with white suburban housewives. I really like memoirs and read them when I can. Few of the books are ones I would have casually found on my own. Some reading highlights have been: Persian Requiem by Simin Daneshavar, Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samaran, Ghana Must Go by Tauye Selasi, A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam.
“And I read some history. Australian historians, whom I have found through AWW and via Yvonne Perkins have re-awakened my interests in my field, especially with their interests in the historians’ craft, Indigenous history, and in transnational history. The way in which Australia’s history is both like and unlike ours is fascinating to me.”
Running the GWC Challenge has mainly been a positive experience both in general, and on a personal level. This year, seventy-two reviews have been listed and most of the books being reviewed are fiction with a sprinkling of memoirs, essays, and histories. “We’ve also had a couple of classics, such as The Red Chamber, reviewed by our Chinese reader. I am pleased with how GWC is doing, but I’d like to improve it,” says Dell Brady. “Fifty-nine people are following it as a blog and about twenty signed up listing the books they planned to read. They were from all over the globe, and they included both a woman who described herself as an Algerian feminist and a specialist on Indian literature. A much smaller and narrower group of eight or ten regularly submit reviews to share. We include a recent arrival to the US from China (who delightfully shares the traditions she and her family continue), a Canadian woman from India, a woman in England who has lived in Cuba and Galicia, an Hispanic American woman, an African woman, a couple of Australians, and several others from the US.”
“Personally, I have gained from GWC and have found new friends, engaged in new discussions, and expanded my list of books to read. Many of the gains, however, have come as I subscribed to the blogs of those who have signed up rather than through simply reading their entries on GWC. I have gotten nothing but compliments about doing GWC, just not much follow-through. No men have responded in any way.”
As for challenges, refining technical processes is an ongoing task and it is never easy working in isolation online; it can sometimes feel as if no-one is listening (or reading) and Dell Brady has found this aspect difficult. Going forward she would like to introduce a more team-based approach (along the lines of the Australian Women Writers Challenge) and would like to see more interaction and discussion with bloggers, readers, and reviewers. So, head on over to GWC, have a look around, sign up, subscribe to the blog, or drop Marilyn a line — your suggestions are welcome. We wish Marilyn all the best for the continuing success of GWC!
In the same spirit of inspiring readers to pick up books by women of colour, as Marilyn Dell Brady has done, Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers will be hosting a challenge for readers of Indigenous literature during NAIDOC week (7-14 July). We will also be encouraging AWW challenge participants to review books by Indigenous women writers throughout the month of July. You can read more about this and other initiatives in an upcoming post by AWW contributing editor, Jessica White, later this week.
I’m a freelance book reviewer, journalist and editor and have worked as a librarian for many years. I’m always feeling guilty about what I ‘should’ have or ‘should be reading.’ I signed up for the AWW challenge in 2012 and this year, as well as doing my own challenge, I will be posting updates about Literary Awards and writing features. I blog over at Wordsville and you can find me on Twitter @PaulaGrunseit