Penelope Lively and Kamila Shamsie introduce Penguin Women Writers

Well I thought it was a very interesting
project to celebrate the anniversary of women’s suffrage. A lovely idea to
publish, republish four books, reissue four books by women writers. Titles that
might have been you know forgotten, out of print, neglected or whatever. It
just seemed an excellent publishing idea both in terms of women and of books.
Exactly what Penelope said, and I also like the fact that you know they
could be from anywhere, they could be in translation or not and I thought it would be a
very nice way to get books that are not at all neglected in one part the world
but in Britain aren’t well-known and sort of bring them over here. Absolutely I mean I think that was a sort of very fortunate
area of choice. I mean it’s so good that Kamila was able to bring in books that are
sort of unknown to many Western readers and therefore you know the range that
we’ve got I mean my two are by extremely different writers, of a different time,
different kinds of writers. So the range, yes, it is a wonderful
demonstration of what women’s writing can do. And also of the range within
women’s individualized. So with Penelope’s choices, I mean these are
writers who are well known but the particular works aren’t so well known. So even that question that even where you have women who you think, women
writers who you think are still very much in the conversation, you can go back
and discover lost gems. I don’t think at the point of choosing
them but I’m now seeing that actually there is a link because there’s
certainly a link between Nesbit and Mary McCarthy. They’re both extremely feisty
women, they’re feisty women with strong views. Both of them very left-wing.
There’s certainly a relationship there and now that I’ve read Kamila’s choices
I was actually seeing two very different women from very different
places with something of the same sort of, can you call it feistiness…?
– I think certainly outspokenness and also it’s not I suppose
outspokenness but out-writing-ness if we can say this is. You know, women who were
writing things of a sort that women weren’t writing or talking about.
You know, women writing about sexuality, women writing about their relationships.
Ismat Chughtai and Sara Suleri are both doing that and I think that
question of what it’s, and they’re both doing it in the essay as well as in in
short stories, I mean in nonfiction as well as other forms. And I think that
question of what women are allowed to say probably goes back to that
question of the canon is well, you know, the reason we have so many more men in
the canon than women is also I think a lot of women would have written
things and made people very uncomfortable by the things they were
writing. And I think all four of these writers probably made people feel uncomfortable. Yes they probably did, I mean I’m sure
they did. Certainly Mary McCarthy caused a storm with The Group
which was very outspoken in its treatment of sexuality and
attitudes. I mean E. Nesbit in her own sort of private life was
certainly that. I mean she was a member of the Fabian Society, she
was outspoken in that way and also one of the other things I admire
about her, she’s very much the professional writer. I mean she was
rising because she jolly well had to. She had a hopeless husband, a
philandering husband who made no money whatsoever and in fact they had five children and she simply had to. So she had an enormous output and of course inevitably it’s uneven, I mean not all of it is marvellous. But, you know, she is a very early professional woman writer.

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