Penelope Lively and Kamila Shamsie on championing womens voices

Penelope Lively and Kamila Shamsie tell Anna James why they're bringing four neglected classics from female voices back into print to mark 100 years of votes for women

One hundred years ago, in February 1918, the Representation of the People Act was passed, beginning the inclusion of women in the UK political system. As part of the celebrations for this landmark legislation, Kamila Shamsie and Penelope Lively have each chosen two “forgotten” titles by female writers to be brought back into print as part of the new Penguin Women’s Writers series. 

“The thing about women writers is that, happily, there are a great many,” says Lively, who ended up choosing lesser-known titles by well-known authors. “I very much wanted to draw attention to Mary McCarthy again; I feel that she’s rather neglected, certainly in this country. I would love to think that through this project some younger readers might come to her. Her books are extraordinarily powerful.” Birds of America, first published in 1971, is about 17-year-old Peter Levi, who is grappling with his concerns about the Vietnam war, commercialism, tourism, and the environment. “What I found so strange reading it,” Lively says, “Is how many of the issues are very much the issues of our own day; the environmentalist issue, worries about democracy and where that will lead, and being what he himself calls a guilty liberal. It’s very much a book of issues and ideas.” Lively did read Birds of America when it first came out, but she first came to McCarthy through her 1963 novel, The Group: “We all read The Group when it came out; it was very adventurous for its day and we were young women around the age of the young women in the book, so we were fascinated by their initiation into sexual life and working life. She was one of the writers we would automatically read - I wanted to revive her.”

Shamsie (above left) set out to reflect the global breadth of the suffrage movement in her chosen books, while Lively (right) has brought to light lesser-known titles that show different sides of well-known authors

Shamsie’s choices are two books that are well known elsewhere in the world, but not in the UK. “The Suffragette movement was a wonderful thing,” she explains, “But within it there were two strands; women who were for women’s suffrage in Britain but were also very pro-Empire and then some, like Sylvia Pankhurst, who said, actually, you have to expand that outwards. If you’re talking about women’s rights then you have to look all over the world, and I liked the idea of paying homage to that side of things.” 

Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai’s collection, Lifting the Veil is a collection of translated short stories and autobiographical essays including “The Quilt”, a story that lead to Chughtai being put on trial for obscenity, and the essay she wrote about the experience. “What she’s interested in,” says Shamsie, “Is what it means to be a woman in a patriarchal world and what, in particular, that does to women’s sexuality, which she’s aware of as a potent force, and as a threatening force, and one that women themselves often don’t understand because they’re not in a context that explains it to them, but when they do recognise it, how interesting it can be in terms of the dynamics.” 

Shamsie encountered Chughtai while at university, via the Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto, a close friend of Chughtai: “I remember someone saying to me well of course Manto, Manto, everyone goes on about Manto, but Chughtai is as great, possibly greater, but she’s a woman and she’s writing about women and so she doesn’t get the same due, and I thought I’d better go and read her then! She really is a significant writer; a difficult writer for a lot of people, which I like - she contests a lot of ideas about what it was to be a woman in the mid-20th century in a certain part of the world.” 

Many of the issues are very much the ones of our own day; the environmentalist issue, worries about democracy

There would be very few readers who haven’t heard of E. Nesbit, author of children’s classics The Railway Children and Five Children and It, but the fact that she wrote eleven novels for adults is a relative secret: “I had rather wanted to have a children’s book,” Lively says. “So I immediately thought of E. Nesbit but of course they are all happily very much in print which made me think, hang on, what about the adult novels, they’re completely unknown. I was aware she’d written them, but I didn’t know them, so it was a matter of great interest to me to look at them.” Lively, who grew up in Egypt with limited access to children’s books, came to Nesbit when she read them to her own children (“with pleasure on all sides”). “There is a certain joy when you find [something different] from writers who you know from doing one kind of thing,” agrees Shamsie, who was just about to start reading The Lark when we met, “I remember when Tove Jansson’s short stories were published, who I knew through The Moomins, and you just feel that here is someone you already have an attachment to, and now you get to know a different side of them.”

The Lark, originally published in 1922, is the story of two cousins whose inheritance has been gambled away, leaving them with only a small cottage and a smaller amount of cash. The book follows their attempts to make their own way in the world, complete with an accidental collection of young men and several cases of mistaken identity: “It’s very much got the Nesbit touch of humour and wit, and there’s a lot of her own background in there,” Lively says. “She got married incredibly young to a man who was totally unable to make a living of any kind, so she was the breadwinner. I think her attitudes towards self-preservation are sort of reflected in the book; which is that you pick yourself up by your bootstraps and you do what you can.” 

It was like nothing else I’d ever read; from the first sentence - which is ‘Leaving Pakistan was of course tantamount to giving up the company of women'

The final book in the quartet is Meatless Days by Sara Suleri; an unusually-structured 1989 memoir-of-sorts about Suleri’s life, family and country - Pakistan - framed around the deaths of her mother and sister, which took place only two years apart. “It’s about love and grief and the people who love and how they shape your lives, but it’s also a book that is very aware of how the context in which you’re living affects everything; gender, nation, the time in which you’re living.” For Shamsie,Meatless Days was an “instant choice - it is a book I have loved since I was 16 in the way that you love books when you’re 16, when you’re sort of obsessive about them”. 

A cult classic in Pakistan, Shamsie can remember the feeling of reading it for the first time vividly: “It was just like nothing else I’d ever read; from the first sentence - which is ‘Leaving Pakistan was of course tantamount to giving up the company of women.’  I had no idea what that meant! I remember reading that chapter and thinking, there is an intelligence here that is beyond mine but I really want to know what she means by all of this. In some ways it made me see the world around me as I hadn’t before. In fact, when I went to university in America I was very homesick for the first couple of weeks, and I went to the university library and found a copy, and had that physical sense of taking the book out of the library and feeling secure, in that way that books can be home.” 

All four books are published with new introductions by Shamsie and Lively. And in Shamsie’s words: “Writers always like talking about other writers they like, and to tie it into women’s suffrage was a very nice way of going about it.”

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