The women breaking literary conventions to tell a different tale of womanhood

Writing is an important tool for women to voice their experiences - of identity, sexuality, marriage, love, family, life.

But often women find is hard to use traditional forms of writing and literary conventions to convey these personal experiences. Language has been created and shaped by men. Often women's experiences are told from a male perspectives.

Instead, women writers are working to break these conventions and find a new language to describe womanhood - a language that will empower, not restrict. This language is often found in more experimental ways of writing - a new form for a new experience of womanhood.

Here are four woman who are changing the way women write to better describe the way women live today.


Angela Carter: breaking fairytales conventions

Angela CarterFor British author Angela Carter, breaking literary traditions was synonymous to breaking traditional constraints on womanhood. Using an eclectic range of styles, from gothic fantasy to fairytales, Carter changed common literary customs, particularly  in her placement of women as the central protagonists who are in complete control of their own voice and narratives.

Carter's stories, particularly her most famous work, a collection of short stories The Bloody Chamber, also redefine the role of the woman writer by containing subversive, graphic, violent and highly sexual content. No theme is untouchable for Carter because of the sensitivies of her gender.

The Bloody Chamber cleverly subverts fairytales - one of the most conventionally gendered forms of literature - to authentically convey the experience of womanhood. The style of writing still has an air of Once Upon a Time, with almost archaic prose, but the narrative is one for the modern era. For example, in the eponymous and opening story "The Bloody Chamber", Carter pens a retelling of Bluebeard where the heroine is rescued by her mother, instead of a male hero. 

There are no helpless or weak women characters in The Bloody Chamber, unlike in conventional fairytales. These women are sexually liberated, in control of their own stories, and fully able to resist patriarchal oppression. Carter uses the familiar backdrop of a fairy tale to highlight inequalities in modern society, particularly those of marriage and sex, and how the inbalance of power between men and women can have a corrupting effect of these aspects of women's - and men's - lives.

Perhaps not fairytales to tell your children at night, Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber - and all her other novels - are certainly stories for the modern woman to share.


Bernardine Evaristo: exploring the African diasphora 

Bernardine Evaristo

Another woman writer who experiments with form and narrative, Bernardine Evaristo uses her writing to explore the African diasphora through merging past and present, fiction and poetry, reality with fantasy.

Evaristo's writing doesn't let readers forget that feminism should be intersectional - that there is no one telling of a woman's perspectives, and it's certainly not one that's unilaterally white.

Evaristo, in particular, wants to give narrative power to women who are traditionally voiceless in literature, particularly old or middle-aged black woman. Evaristo noted that many young writers write exclusively about young characters and, if older characters are explored, they're usually mentally or physically debilitated. Lacking in literature are stories of happy, healthy, wholesome lives of older women.

Girl, Woman, Other is one of Evaristo's most celebrated novel and winner of the Booker Prize, which made Evaristo the first black woman and first black British author to win the prize. A polyvocal novel, Girl, Woman, Other, tells the personal histories of 12 primarily black women from the ages of 19 to 93 where, impressively, every voice is distinct. Their lives are diverse patchwork of ethnic backgrounds, sexualities, classes and geographical locations.

Just like the narrative, Evaristo's writing style breaks literary conventions. Sitting somewhere between poetry and prose, Girl, Woman Other does away with traditional syntax, and merges narration, dialogue, and internal monologue, in a way that adds immediacy and injects a lyrical rhythm into the stories that begs you to read it out loud. 

Evaristo's works are all about the ups and downs of black lives - and is above all passionate and energetic. She's an innovator in modern British literature, an experimentalist, who is set to refresh the literary canon.


Sandra Cisneros: portraying cultural hybridity 

Sandra Cisneros

With her groundbreaking evocation of Mexican-American live in Chicago, Sandra Cisneros is deft at portraying the lives of Hispanic women in a strange and often unwelcoming culture.

She experiments with different literary forms, which represents her own experience of cultural hybridity and isolation that stems from the feeling of being between two words - that of Mexico and the United States - but not belonging to either. In particular, this cultural 'inbetweeness' is explored in the differing misogyny of both cultures. Cisneros challenges sexism in both Mexico and the United States, and how her female characters are affected by how feminity is defined by both cultures from a very young age through family and formal education, through media, and through traditions, and through popular culture. Cisneros strives to rework these definitions, and to encourage women to define themselves beyond the cultures into which they were born and raised.

Female sexuality is Cisneros's works is also a prominent theme, where men forcefully shape women's sexual experiences. In particular, Cisnero explores the pertinent ideas of how a woman's real sexual experience is at odds with its portrayal in popular culture. And, just like Carter, her language is describing female sexually is deliberately subversive, giving woman a new way to describe their experiences and doesn't smother or silence. Her language is boisterous and shocking and transgressive, so different to how women's sexuality is normally spoken of in traditional literature.

A writer who explores womanhood through the lens of cultural identity, Cisnero is another literary pioneer who will have a lasting effect in the creative world.


Caitlin Moran: a funny coming-of-age story 

How to build a girl

Primary a British journalist, Caitlin Moran has also written a series of novels about being a woman from a working-class, Northern family. Her first novel, How to Build a Girl, is a semi-autobiographical retelling of her childhood growing up in a Wolverhampton council house - an experience she's comically compared to the The Hunger Games.

Comedy - or at least, dark humour - is a strong thread that runs through Moran's writing. A coming-of-age novel, protagonist Johanna relates her journey from awkward teenage to sexually liberated music journalist through a witty, sharp and side-splitting narrative voice.

Moran's style, and her humour, is raw and honest. It perfectly portrays a woman's messy experience of growing up in a society that's already stacked against you - both because of gender and class inequalities. Moran isn't afraid to be honest about sex and sexuality either. Using almost turl-curling language, the shock factor looms large in Johanna's narrartive. Bodily, earthy, yet authentic, Moran understands that a woman's sexual experience needs to be redefined - from passive objects of the male gaze to active agents in their own sexual transformation.

The lynchpin of the whole story is in the title - Johanna wants to build a new girl. Although Johanna's life is hilarious, it shouldn't deflect the reader from the more serious issues at hand, namely the quote that will stay with you long after the closing lines: "So what do you do when you build yourself – only to realise that you've built yourself up with the wrong things?"


Sharing and celebrating these stories

These impressive women have told their stories - and now it's up to you to share them. If we want women's voices to be heard, we need to celebrate, support and lift up the books that contain them.

So pick up a book by a woman writer today - or go and tell your own story.

The world is listening.

Join the IWD Community