Seven tributes to remarkable women

05 March 2014

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To celebrate International Women's Day on 8 March, I asked a few of Picador's female authors to write a short paragraph about the woman that most inspired them and why. As the responses came in I laughed, got goosebumps, and felt a tear or two brewing. This collection of voices tells of remarkable women. Some stories are funny, some moving; all will – I hope – leave you feeling inspired.

Carmen Bugan
Carmen Bugan, author of Burying the Typewriter, on Lucia

'With time, she [Lucia] will become the reason I believe that literature truly nourishes the hungry. She will become the reason I love morphology and syntax, and she will suffer with me through my family’s nightmares and through my intense love of poetry, which often makes me confuse the worlds of reality and imagination. I will never, for the rest of my life, know or love a teacher more.'

This excerpt, from Burying the Typewriter, pays tribute to my literature teacher from the time when I was 10-14 years old. There were a few women in my early life who made all the difference in how I understood the world and what I can do in it. Two of them were teachers: impressive, hard-working, and tough in their conviction. But they all had one thing in common: a refusal of bitterness. In a world of mistrust, treachery, greed, and hunger, these women never gave up the conviction that they are strong enough to help. It is extraordinary now to think back on that.

Naomi Wood
Naomi Wood, author of Mrs. Hemingway, on Martha Gellhorn

Reading, researching and writing about Martha Gellhorn these past few years has given me a keen appreciation of her bravery, cleverness and independence, and she has swiftly become quite the hero for me. Gellhorn campaigned endlessly for reform to social security during the Depression, was a fearless reporter against Franco's Spain, was the first war reporter to hit the Normandy beaches during D-day, and carried on reporting on the world's ills and injustices well into her eighties. For an example of courage, grit and talent, one only has to read her reportage collected in The Face of War (and all this done when women were either explicitly or implicitly barred from the Front). Quite the woman indeed, and extremely inspiring to journalists and writers alike.

Rachael Boast
Rachael Boast, author of Pilgrim's Flower, on Anna Akhmatova

If only you knew from what rubbish
Poetry grows, knowing no shame,
Like a yellow dandelion by the fence,
Like burdock and goosefoot.

So writes Anna Akhmatova in Secrets of the Craft. She was, quite rightly, ambivalent about her vocation. She’d begun writing at around the age of ten, after suffering from an undiagnosed illness, and suspected the work would entail she’d be unable to live an ordinary life. Born in 1889 near Odessa, in present day Ukraine, Akhmatova lived through the terrors and, witness to them, documented the suffering of the people in a way that makes her uniquely courageous – Avenging Angel, perhaps. Her biographer Amanda Haight writes: ‘she had to learn that only by being faithful to her Muse would she find the strength to live’ – a kind of lyric faith that will insist on a high degree of commitment and then reward it with an experience of life that can, if we let it, take us closer to a state of complete being than any thing else. Nothing else would harmonize Akhmatova’s life. She exemplifies the personal will submitting to the larger will of the work – such is the undertone of the phrase ‘mouthpiece’.

Here's one piece of advice that I would like to pass on to others, a quote from Jean Cocteau, from Journal d'un Inconnu:

Hate only Hatred Jean Cocteau
Photograph by Karen Birmingham

Jessie Burton
Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist, on 
Louise Bourgeois

There are many women who have inspired me both in my private and professional life, and who continue to do so. But I’d like to mention the modern artist, sculptor and embroiderer Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010). Bourgeois and her work first came to my attention in 2007, when a major retrospective was displayed at the Tate Modern in London. It blew my mind – from towering sculptures you could walk around to framed, minute handkerchiefs packing a subversive punch. Bourgeois worked well into her nineties, and her repeating themes of sexuality, mothers and fathers, childhood and secret traumas manifest themselves in astonishing works of art. She was always curious, always looking for new ways to express the world as she had experienced it. She was angry too, and not afraid to demonstrate this. My favourite piece of her work is an embroidered handkerchief from 1969. Sometimes when I consider the act of writing, of creation and life in general, I often think of what she’d sewn upon it: ‘I have been to hell and back. And let me tell you, it was wonderful.’

Rebecca Wait
Rebecca Wait, author of The View on the Way Down, on Irène Némirovsky

Irène Némirovsky is a hero of mine, though I have a suspicion she may have been quite frightening in person. A sublimely talented novelist: lucid, incisive and at times rather unforgiving. Suite Française is her masterpiece. It was intended to comprise five sections, but Némirovsky was only able to complete the first two before her arrest and death in Auschwitz in 1942. The clarity and insight with which she writes about events during and after the German invasion is extraordinary given that she was living through them at the time. I am in awe of her talent, her clear-sightedness and her determination.

And a piece of advice I'd like to pass on:

Never do anything just because it's expected of you
(c) Rebecca Wait

Ellen Feldman
Ellen Feldman, author of Next to Love, on Eleanor Roosevelt

'Do one thing every day that scares you.'
― Eleanor Roosevelt

Like many women of my generation, I grew up in thrall to Eleanor Roosevelt. Who would not admire a woman who fought tirelessly for social justice and racial equality at home and peace and human dignity around the world. But it was not until I started research for Lucy, a novel about the incidents that broke Eleanor Roosevelt’s heart, that I came to understand the private roots of her public greatness. Eleanor Roosevelt had a gilded but tragic childhood. Her marriage was a magnificent political partnership and an abysmal personal disappointment. Many women have known similar hardships. But how many of them manage to turn their own misery into a humanitarian triumph? Her feisty selflessness has sustained and inspired me in the most trying moments of my own life.

Charlotte Mendelson
Charlotte Mendelson, author of Almost English, on her grandmother

I am thoroughly my grandmother's granddaughter. At least, I try to be, because she was a hero: both the bravest person and the best cook I've ever known. I have written about her in Almost English and in my essay about only knowing forty words of Hungarian, but I haven't finished yet.

Ten facts about her:

1. When she was born, the third of eight girls, her uncle was sent to register her name, which he forgot. She spent the rest of her life with the wrong one.

2. She was known as the clever sister, and became a communist, to her family's disgust.

3. She went to Charles University in Prague to study Economics; later, as a penniless and essentially single mother in London, she persuaded the LSE to give her a place, despite the fact that her entrance exam was written in the worst English they'd ever seen.

4. At the outbreak of war she saved herself, her (future) husband and several other Hungarian-Czechs marooned in Prague by obtaining false passports, partly by phoning the officer in charge and pretending to be one of her university professors.

5. She found work as a housemaid in London where at first, due to her poor English, she misunderstood her instructions and did a full week's tasks every day.

6. Eventually she was given work in a costume jewellery factory; in time she designed a necklace, then a second, was given a shelf for her own work, then another. Decades later she owned the factory where, well into her eighties, she continued to work a six day week.

7. She was an extremely fast walker and walked everywhere, when not taking the bus. She also swam at every opportunity, preferably outside, and taught me to swim.

8. She believed in culture. No gallery went unvisited, no play unseen. Once someone I knew bumped into her at a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition.

9. Her cooking – always Hungarian food – was spectacular. Thanks to her, I believe in the power of paprika and garlic, chicken soup with barley, apple compote with vanilla and lemon peel and, generally, food, in large quantities. When I was a student she would send me jiffy-bags containing carrot batons.

10. She experienced terrible suffering, pain and grief and illness, but remained the giggliest person I have ever known, until the last time I saw her.

I didn't visit her enough. I wish I had. I keep her photograph on my desk to remind me to be strong. 

Is there a woman who especially inspired you? Join in the conversation in the comments below.