Here are some of my favorite nonfiction books by inspiring women across the globe. International Women’s Day falls on Saturday this year. What better way to celebrate than curling up with a good book and reading powerful stories written by women who have changed the world?
And the best thing about these stories? They’re all true.
+ “Walking with Comrades” by Arundhati Roy: A must read for anyone who loves Roy’s trademark, sardonic analysis and piercing descriptions.
+ “Between Two Worlds” (memoir) and “The Other Side of War: Women’s Stories of Survival and Hope” (photojournalism) by Zainab Salbi, all around badass and founder of Women for Women International.
+ “Mighty Be Our Powers” by Leymah Gbowee, who will give the keynote speech at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum this Sunday.
I first read Gbowee’s memoir back in 2011, when I was still living in San Francisco. It kept me up all night, that deviant paper rascal, my eyes watered and bedsheets tangled between my legs. While the book received a great deal of praise for its humanitarian message, I’d like to focus for a minute on its literary merit and craftsmanship.
Gbowee’s book dwells on the psychic spaces between the political and personal, strength and vulnerability, resilience and faith. “You have not heard it before because it is an African woman’s story and our stories are rarely told,” she writes. “I want you to hear mine.”
Her ability to see multiple angles of the same scene enhances the book’s introspective scope, swaddling her personal autobiography in the tangible context of regional history. She uses the same intimacy and ease when describing her personal life as she does when explaining psychological interplay between the Liberian public and warlords that brutalized the country during ten years of civil war.
Gbowee is cofounder and executive director of the Women Peace and Security Network-Africa. In 2011 she became a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and gained international fame as the subject of the documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.” Leonard Riggio, the chairman of Barnes & Noble, found her story so inspiring that he personally funded her American book tour. She chose to tour universities, churches, nonprofits and libraries instead of going the traditional route in stores.
One of her greatest strengths as an author is Gbowee’s complex understanding of emotions. Her ability to spell out the warped realities of depression, exile, trauma, poverty and domestic abuse are testament to the years of counseling experience she gained by working with Liberian child soldiers and traumatized refugees from Sierra Leone. Gbowee also describes postwar reconciliation and her own journey moving on, past an abusive relationship and taking her children with her. She tells of returning home to her family, how they struggled to reconcile where they were now without being overwhelmed by their memories.
When violence threatened to tear Liberia apart again, Gbowee says that a dream laced with sacred symbols told her to gather women together to pray for peace. Through that inspiration she started an interfaith and transnational women’s peace movement.
Dressed in white, Liberian women gathered outside important buildings to pray and protest. Protesting proved ineffective so they blockaded the entrance with their bodies and refused to let the generals, politicians and warlords leave the building until they negotiated a peace agreement. In many ways similar to the biblical story of Esther, Gbowee found inspiration in sacred texts while utilizing fasting, prayer, and her own feminine body as powerful forces for resisting violence.
The book’s societal and religious explorations put it on par with works such as Gandhi’s autobiography. Gbowee embraces her own contradictions and mistakes in order to write humanity into the media image of her.
“Might Be Our Powers” uses pragmatic, conversational language to describe how they built the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace and the Women in Peacebuilding Network. As a writer, she wielded relatable syntax to make an extreme situation comprehensible and relatable to distant readers. The book could also serve as a guide for anyone inspired to build a grassroots movement. Not even immense suffering can keep a determined woman from achieving her potential for greatness.
Do you have a favorite book about the true story of an inspiring woman? I’m always open to reading recommendations. Do tell.