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  • Writer's pictureShruti Jain

Book Club Theme for July: Feminist Story-Retelling

Updated: Jan 3



NOTE: July, 2023 Book Club Meeting to be held on Sunday, July 30th, 8:30 pm IST. Details will be shared on your mail, once you have filled this form:


If you have been active on the internet for the last few days, there is less chance that you missed the Barbie (2023) bus, driven by Greta Gerwig (the writer behind thought-provoking explorations of femininity including Frances Ha, Lady Bird, and Little Women) and Noah Baumbach (the writer behind The Marriage Story).


What makes Barbie (2023) stand out, after years of barbie brand being sold on sexist notions?



The answer lies in Gerwig's and Baumbach's feminist story-retelling of Barbie. On her blog, explaining why this retelling has her excited, Hannah McCann, Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne, writes:

I genuinely hope that this film ushers in a new era of critical feminist analysis that takes femininity seriously as a point of theorisation, not so easily written off as “postfeminism”. Maybe we’ll call it “bimbo feminism”.

Why are Retellings important?


Stories have the remarkable ability to transcend time and connect with readers across generations. While they tell us a lot about our present, there is also an increasing need for their contemporary adaptations. Modern retellings of classic tropes can expand the literary landscape by enhancing their relevance and accessibility, offering readers a fresh perspective and a deeper understanding.


But if a story is simply being retold, does it not raise questions about the creativity of the re-teller?


“There will always be an appetite for a retelling that offers us a new way into thinking about how we live today, for a retelling that’s beautifully written and has emotional perspicuity,” says Emma Herdman, Circe author Madeline Miller’s editor. [Read: Two sides to a story: why feminist retellings are filling our bookshelves]


One of the most fascinating aspects of retelling timeless tales is the opportunity to explore untold perspectives. In the past, many famous works tended to showcase the thoughts and lives of a specific group, usually cishet upper caste, upper class, white men, given the historical and cultural context in which they were written.


Retellings offer a chance to bring marginalized voices to the forefront, providing fresh insights and narratives that were previously silenced or overlooked. This inclusion of diverse perspectives enriches the storytelling and expands the narrative landscape.


Feminist Story-Retelling: Book Recommendations


In recent years, there has been a surge of feminist retellings of classic texts, offering fresh perspectives and reclaiming narratives from a female-centric lens. These retellings are not merely creative endeavors but serve a vital purpose in dismantling gender stereotypes, amplifying marginalized voices, and inspiring conversations about equality and empowerment.


For this month's book club, we will be reading texts that question the existing texts, myths and legends from a feminist point of view. A few recommendations [descriptions from back cover of the respective books]:



Valmiki's Ramayana is the story of Rama's exile and return to Ayodhya, a triumphant king who will always do right by his subjects. In Volga's retelling, it is Sita who, after being abandoned by Purushottam Rama, embarks on an arduous journey to self-realization. Along the way, she meets extraordinary women who have broken free from all that held them back: husbands, sons, and their notions of desire, beauty and chastity. The minor women characters of the epic as we know it—Surpanakha, Renuka, Urmila and Ahalya—steer Sita towards an unexpected resolution. Meanwhile, Rama too must reconsider and weigh out his roles as the king of Ayodhya and as a man deeply in love with his wife. A powerful subversion of India's most popular tale of morality, choice and sacrifice, The Liberation of Sita opens up new spaces within the old discourse, enabling women to review their lives and experiences afresh. This is Volga at her feminist best.




I was born on the full moon under an auspicious constellation, the holiest of positions—much good it did me. So begins Kaikeyi’s story.


The only daughter of the kingdom of Kekaya, she is raised on legends of the gods: how they churned the vast ocean to obtain the nectar of immortality, how they vanquish evil and ensure the land of Bharat prospers, and how they offer powerful boons to the devout and the wise. Yet she watches as her father unceremoniously banishes her mother, listens as her own worth is reduced to how great a marriage alliance she can secure. And when she calls upon the gods for help, they never seem to hear.


Desperate for some measure of independence, she turns to the texts she once read with her mother and discovers a magic that is hers alone. With this power, Kaikeyi transforms herself from an overlooked princess into a warrior, diplomat, and most favored queen, determined to carve a better world for herself and the women around her. But as the evil from her childhood tales threatens the cosmic order, the path she has forged clashes with the destiny the gods have chosen for her family. Kaikeyi must decide if resistance is worth the destruction it will wreak—and what legacy she intends to leave behind.




In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. Circe is a strange child—not powerful and terrible, like her father, nor gorgeous and mercenary like her mother. Scorned and rejected, Circe grows up in the shadows, at home in neither the world of gods or mortals. But Circe has a dark power of her own: witchcraft. When her gift threatens the gods, she is banished to the island of Aiaia where she hones her occult craft, casting spells, gathering strange herbs and taming wild beasts. Yet a woman who stands alone will never be left in peace for long—and among her island's guests is an unexpected visitor: the mortal Odysseus, for whom Circe will risk everything. So Circe sets forth her tale, a vivid, mesmerizing epic of family rivalry, love and loss—the defiant, inextinguishable song of woman burning hot and bright through the darkness of a man's world.




Narrated by Panchaali, wife of the five Pandava brothers, the novel traces her life from fiery birth and lonely childhood, where her beloved brother is her only true companion; through her complicated friendship with the enigmatic Krishna; to marriage, motherhood and her secret attraction to the mysterious man who is her husbands’ most dangerous enemy. This tenth anniversary edition, complete with a new author’s note, celebrates once again a remarkable and deeply human story about a woman born into a man’s world.










Vox meets The Handmaid’s Tale in this feminist reimagining of 1984

In Oceania, whoever you are, Big Brother is always watching you and trust is a luxury that no one has. Julia is the seemingly perfect example of what women in Oceania should be: dutiful, useful, subservient, meek. But Julia hides a secret. A secret that would lead to her death if it is discovered. For Julia is part of the underground movement called The Sisterhood, whose main goal is to find members of The Brotherhood, the anti-Party vigilante group, and help them to overthrow Big Brother. Only then can everyone be truly free.

When Julia thinks she’s found a potential member of The Brotherhood, it seems like their goal might finally be in their grasp. But as she gets closer to Winston Smith, Julia’s past starts to catch up with her and we soon realise that she has many more secrets than we’d first imagined – and that overthrowing Big Brother might cost her everything – but if you have nothing left to lose then you don’t mind playing the game . . .

This is a story about love, about family, about being a woman, a mother, a sister, a friend and ultimately about what you would sacrifice for the greater good.



Inaugurating a book club with a theme as powerful as Feminist Story-Retelling burdens me with the right kind of questions that should be a part of the discussion. And so, I am listing out a few questions for the ease of everyone reading feminist retellings of classic texts, here.


Possible Discussion Questions for Book Club Meeting


DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION:

How does feminist story retelling encourage dialogue and collaboration between diverse feminist voices, including those from different generations, cultures, and social backgrounds?


In what ways does feminist story retelling challenge the notion of a single "universal" female experience and acknowledge the diversity of women's lives and perspectives?


GENDER EQUALITY:

What role can male characters play in feminist story retelling, and how can their narratives be reimagined to challenge toxic masculinity and promote gender equality?


How does retelling a story from a feminist perspective challenge traditional gender roles and expectations?


POPULAR MEDIA:

How can feminist story retelling engage with and critique popular media and cultural icons that perpetuate harmful stereotypes or objectification of women?


How can feminist story retelling in different artistic mediums (literature, film, theater, etc.) offer unique opportunities for creative expression and audience engagement?


DECOLONISATION:

What are the potential implications and responsibilities of retelling stories from non-Western or indigenous cultures through a feminist lens, especially considering the history of colonialism and cultural appropriation?


Can feminist story retelling contribute to the decolonization of literature and storytelling by centering the experiences and voices of women from marginalized communities?


CHALLENGING GENDER STEREOTYPES

Can feminist story retelling help reshape cultural narratives and challenge harmful stereotypes about women?


Can feminist story retelling challenge the idealization of motherhood and explore the complexities and choices faced by women in relation to reproduction and parenting?


Book Club Details


Have you signed up for the Book Club yet?


Read the details here.


July, 2023 Book Club Meeting to be held on Sunday, July 30th, 8:30 pm IST. Details will be shared on your mail, once you have filled this form:

Looking forward to fruitful discussions. Stay Tuned for further updates.

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