Women read the world – and rewrite it

Growing up, I could always be caught with a book in hand. There was my favorite picture book Cord, about a teddy bear that comes to life and the little girl who longs to buy it. As a teenager, I devoured the Swedish Pippi Longstocking books, about the imaginative and free-spirited nine-year-old who claimed to be the “strongest girl in the world”. Young adult novels were added later Roll of Thunder, hear my cry by Mildred D Taylor, about an African American family living and working in rural Mississippi in the 1930s. These books taught me that reading is a gift, spending time in realities other than your own, and that it can change how you think about your own life and reality.

But I do remember the first book I read as a young woman and it engaged me in a way like no other. It was the 1996 novel Zenzele: A letter for my daughter, by Zimbabwean author J Nozipo Maraire. It’s about Shiri, a Zimbabwean mother, who writes to her daughter Zenzele, who lives in the US and studies at Harvard University. It is filled with stories, confessions, and advice to remind Zenzele of who she is and where she comes from, and to keep the story of her own culture alongside the American one in which she is rooted.

For me, a young woman of Nigerian parents but born in America and raised in four countries on three continents, the book spoke to an element of my own life that I had not encountered in literature.

It made me look deeper into the specifics of my own story and that there were multiple cultural narratives and stories to explore and share. It was one of the first books that showed me how women can influence how the world understands them by sharing their views and experiences, and helped readers expand their understanding of how the world might and might work should. I saw Shiri’s letters as an offer of a different worldview, but also as a lesson in a certain kind of agency for her daughter and any other young woman who might read her.

I am drawn to the 1915 painting “Maid Reading in the Library” by Swiss artist Edouard John Mentha. Standing on a bookshelf ladder, her duster tucked under her arm for a moment, the maid is absorbed in a book. On the shelf are large encyclopedic volumes, stuffed birds and bats, a skeleton. It’s a sort of academic library, so it seems the maid isn’t reading a religious tract or a book on housekeeping, the sort of literature then considered appropriate for women. And its contents have apparently kept her captivated, unaware of the fact that she is being watched by us and perhaps the library owner.

Reading can be so engaging that it distracts us from outside influences, demands and expectations. But it can also inform you about realities that challenge how you understood (or were led to understand) how the world worked. And it can inspire you to desire and invent other worlds. Perhaps that is why it has always been considered dangerous for certain groups of people not only to read, but also to have access to a large number of books, not just the prescribed ones. Reading unlocks our inner life and opens our imagination, sowing the soil for transformation and action in the outer world.

A naked woman sits on a red chair at a red desk strewn with papers

Carl Larsson’s Model Writing Postcards (1906), in which an open window suggests a life of possibility © Bridgeman Images

The first time I saw I was unexpectedly drawn to the 1906 painting Model Writing Postcards by Swedish artist Carl Larsson. In the center of the canvas, a naked woman sits and writes at a table covered with papers. It is framed by three portals to other worlds. On the wall behind her is a head-and-shoulders portrait of a fully clothed woman; There’s no clear sense of what she’s dealing with outside of the frame, suggesting a world where women are only partially seen or understood.

Next to the woman writing is a framed painting on an easel; This shows a fully nude woman and some sketchy outlines of the slouching bodies of others. The women on screen inhabit a world where women’s bodies are poised for a consuming eye. Given the painting’s title, it appears that our writing heroine was the model for both paintings in the room. But right in front of her, just behind a vase of flowers, a window opens onto an outside world where life is blooming and otherwise thriving. A bit seems to flow into the room from beyond the window.

At the center of these different worlds, the writing woman is busy telling her own. I’m fascinated by her nudity. It feels symbolic of the life she leads as a model, and as a woman, being asked to offer herself up for consumption by others. But the nudity, to me, is also symbolic of how a writing woman must learn to shamelessly nurture her own inner life and work in order to tell some of the truths about what it means to be herself.

A woman sits on a chair in a room full of books and papers and looks at the camera

Margaret Busby, photographed by Mayotte Magnus in 1977, looks “as if she might be caught in a literary avalanche” © National Portrait Gallery London

One of the most captivating Pictures I’ve Seen of Women Reading and Writing is the National Portrait Gallery’s 1977 photo of Margaret Busby, the Ghana-born writer, publisher, editor and broadcaster. She is sitting on a chair in the middle of the picture and is looking straight at us. She is surrounded by a mountain of books, as if she could be hit by a literary avalanche at any moment. In this photo, it is her beautiful and full gift of reading and writing and curating texts that are carried out into the wide world.

But it is also, in its own way, a precarious and dangerous thing to use one’s mind and voice so boldly in societies that have believed for centuries that women, and black women in particular, had nothing of worth to say. And such places still exist for many non-white women, where large sections of society believe that they do. Even whole countries.

Busby, now 77, was Britain’s first black woman book publisher, and in 2020 she was Booker Prize Jury Chair. The NPG photo was taken by Mayotte Magnus in Busby’s office at Allison & Busby, the publishing company she co-founded in 1967 ‘Ghana Gets Into Publishing’ – as if to say, ‘Black girls can read’. That was the society we belonged to and I was used to, so I just kept doing what I was doing.”

A few Christmases ago, my mother gave me a gift that amazed me in its thoughtfulness and insight. She had commissioned an artist to paint a 3ft by 4ft picture of me sitting cross-legged on a chaise longue, a blanket loosely wrapped around my thighs and an open book in my hands. I’m wearing my glasses and casually dressed in a tank top, with a loosely tied scarf to hold my hair back. It is not a portrait intended to highlight my physical attributes or make me attractive to a viewer. I’m reading the book in my hands and there’s a big smile on my face. It’s a look at a reading and writing daughter who loses herself for a moment in her own exciting world.

[email protected]; @enumaokoro

FTWeekend Festival, London

Come hear Saturday, September 3rd Enuma Okoro discuss “Women Writing the World” with the writer Jamaica Kincaid as part of the festival in Kenwood House Gardens, London. Plus, choose from 10 tents packed with ideas and inspiration, and a range of perspectives featuring everything from debates to tastings, performances and more. Book your pass at

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