The founder of GIRL CANON sat down with Tell Tell to talk about Harriet the Spy and her favorite GIRL CANON list.
TellTell: Why did you start GIRL CANON?
A few friends and I read n+1’s book No Regrets, which is a book of female artists and intellectuals talking about their reading life, and it really spoke to us. All of the women in that book had to deal with the Western canon at some point–to come to grips with works that didn’t depict their lived experiences or were hostile to them. They managed to find ways of reading that fed them intellectually–cherry-picking their way through the canon and supplementing with other books they heard of from their friends. Carla Blumenkranz, in her interview, talks about the idea of a “secret canon”: within any given group of people, there’s a secret list of books that everyone’s read. Blumenkranz talks about this as an intellectual measuring stick, a way of seeing who knows what’s up. Sady Doyle, in her write-up of No Regrets, “The Perils of Reading While Female” (in In These Times) takes the idea of a “secret canon” and revises it a bit: arguing that women need to cultivate these canons, these female ways of reading, in order to create space for themselves in literature. She calls for “the public claiming of formerly secret canons” and that’s what gave me the idea for GIRL CANON. A public space where women can share the books that have fed them intellectually. No shame, no requirements: just, a celebration of reading while female.
Why is your email “grrrlcanon.” Was “girlcanon” already taken?
“Girlcanon” was already taken, but I’m a big fan of the Riot Grrrl movement that began in the 90s, that formed as a way of interrupting traditional notions of punk rock as a very male space. The message is similar to Girl Canon’s–there are female ways of being in the world that disrupt misogynist messages and create space for women. I like to think that Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” would be a Girl Canon participant and reader.
I love the idea behind GIRL CANON–it’s the website that I wished existed when I was fifteen, but I’m so happy that it exists now–what would be included on your girl canon?
Thank you! I love it too. This is a hard question. A friend and I were talking about personal lists of books that are canonical for us vs. the idea of books that are just deeply pleasurable to read. Is there a difference between books that are perfectly readable and books that are good medicine? I think, for me, there is.
Anyway, here are some books that make my list:
From my adult life:
On the Kitchen Table From Which Everything Has Been Hastily Removed Olena Kalytiak Davis
Music Like Dirt Frank Bidart
The City in Which I Love You Li-Young Lee
Games Vasko Popa
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway
Michael Cunningham’s The Hours
James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God
Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady
Heroines Kate Zambreno
Loose Woman Sandra Cisneros
Brian Jacques’ Redwall series
The Golden Compass Philip Pullman
Maniac Magee Jerry Spinelli
Judy Blume’s Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself
Harriet the Spy Louise Fitzhugh
E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
Why not boy canon? Do you think we even need a boy canon? Or is the regular canon a boy canon?
I think the Western canon, is, largely, a boy canon: culled and cultivated by men, and largely written by men.
I love the Sady Doyle quote you include in your “about us” section: “…the right of women to reject that line of thinking and to believe that they are qualified to decide what literature should be.” Why do you think women don’t believe they are qualified to have a voice in what good literature is?
In No Regrets, some of the interviewees talk about reading Bukowski (or the Beats or whoever) and feeling like the writing was hostile towards or even hated women. If the literature you’re reading doesn’t write you well, that can be terribly silencing and demoralizing. Not to say that those aren’t good works of writing, but if those texts are the only kinds of texts held up to you as examples of what “good” literature does, this forms your perception of what’s considered classic and perpetuates a canon where different kinds of voices are invisible.
I hope that GIRL CANON troubles the idea of “good” literature is and messes it up a little, making more room for queer voices, writers of color, female voices. Similarly, I hope it encourages women to look at their own lists of favorite books and consider them “good”–not just personally comforting, but good works of literature.
Do you have a GIRL CANON list that you feel particularly close to?
Yes! I love Ella Mouria Seet’s
because she writes about punching a pillow and crying and making grilled cheese after being devastated by The Age of Innocence
. I really connect with that type of…physical reaction to a book.
canon is also particularly servicey and lovely: she writes about books that saved her during particular periods in her life.
They’re all very wonderful, but those are two that stick out to me.
A few more spectacular ones: Tasha LeClair’s, Kristen Gunther’s, and Carmen Maria Machado’s.
If you could live inside a book, what book what you choose and why?
My child self wanted to live in a Sharon Creech novel, where all the heroines are smart and funny and independent. My adult self prefers to read in an oversized t-shirt in her big bed and do my traveling into literature from there. Fiction is too gruesome and stressful to live inside of.