Reading is a Radical Act

Reading is a Radical Act

by Claire Martini

A professor of mine once justified a syllabus comprised almost entirely of male writers with the flip comment that perhaps women had not yet written a "seminal" body of work. Therefore, women did not belong in the Western cannon. Now, I know this to be false. Yet it demonstrates how as women writers and women readers, we are tasked with shouldering the work to undo the sexism, racism, and classism upheld within the literary establishment.

The work begins with our bookshelves. In hopes of sparking internal dialogue and community conversation, I'm collecting women writers who have been influential and important to me. Reading is a radical act; little else can supplement lived experience in its power to change minds. Who are your favorite women writers?

1. Terry Tempest Williams

The Hour of Land

Terry is an unparalleled storyteller, naturalist, and mentor. She is also an activist; most recently, she and her husband Brooke bid on BLM oil and gas leases near Arches National Park, and they continue to hold the ground for alternative energy development. Her most recent book, The Hour of Land, celebrates our National Parks as a microcosm of our very American problems as she asks what we may learn.

Terry's words always push me to go deeper: "We lose nothing by loving."


2. Luci Tapahanso

Blue Horses Rush In

There’s a reason Luci Tapahanso was honored as Navajo Nation’s first Poet Laureate. Prayer meets place with her lyrical words. I revisit Blue Horses Rush In whenever I need to be reminded of what's at the center.

Listen to Luci Tapahanso's poem "This is How They Were Placed for Us" in English and Navajo.


3. Claire Vaye Watkins

Gold Fame Citrus

Full disclosure: I’ve only just finished Battleborn, Watkins’ literary debut, but can’t wait to get my hands on Gold Fame Citrus. Watkins is part of a growing genre of “Cli-fi”(climate fiction) that deals with global warming. NPR describes Gold Fame Citrus as plausible reality, the day after tomorrow: "Just over a too-near horizon where everything is drought and lack and death. Where the water is gone and the people are gone and the southwest has become a wild, weird, rolling apocalypse that, sure, is a fiction today but might be history by next year."



4. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

From colonialist expansion to indigenous resistance, this peoples’ history “explodes the silences that have haunted our national narrative” for 400 years. Her work is of particular importance to contextualize contemporary struggles here in the Southwest. Fun fact: Dunbar-Ortiz was a prominent activist in the '60s and '70s, working primarily on labor and war issues.

She writes, “The history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism—the founding of a state based on the ideology of white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a policy of genocide and land theft.” 


5. Amy Irvine


From the opening line of Trespass--"My home is a red desert that trembles with spirits and bones"--I knew I would love this book. It echoes Refuge (by Terry Tempest Williams), but with a cast and tone all its own. Irvine tells the story of her retreat to canyon country after her father's suicide and the all-too-human struggles she encounters in Monticello, UT working to protect Utah's wilderness.


6. Leslie Marmon Silko


Leslie Marmon Silko tells us why we need stories: “They aren't just entertainment. Don't be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death.”

Reading this landmark novel is the first step towards seeing the world with Silko's eyes, where the sacred unfolds every day. "I see myself as a member of the global community," she says. "My old folks who raised me saw themselves as citizens of the world. We see no borders. When I write I am writing to the world, not to the United States alone."


7. Judith Nies

Unreal City

Have you ever wondered why the Southwest's water, energy, and people are the way they are? Well, chances are Nies will answer your questions in her investigation of coal, water, tribes, and politicians. With journalistic rigor, Nies comes through with policy analysis (she tells us the coal and water leases "violated every guideline the Department of the Interior had set up for leasing on public lands") yet never loses sight of the contemporary implications of all this politicking. If you work on climate justice issues, Unreal City is a must-read.


8. Ellen Meloy

The Anthropology of Turquoise

Meloy’s writing changed the way that I see in the desert. “The Anthropology of Turquoise” focuses on color and light across cultures and throughout history, chasing the importance of this particular blue-green straight to Meloy’s heart (and mine). To be fair, I love everything she's ever written. Try "Eating Stone” for the world's funniest account of bighorn sheep mating rituals and “The Last Cheater’s Waltz” for a serious look at the Southwest's role in nuclear armament and why we're still affected, generations later.

Ellen asked questions about home that I had not yet learned to form. Her urgency lives on: “I would like to do whatever it is that presses the essence from the hour.” 


9. Gretel Ehrlich

The Solace of Open Spaces

A friend gifted me with her dog-eared copy just before we graduated. I toted the short book on multiple backpacking trips to reread Ehrlich's spare prose and feel the harsh Wyoming winds. She opened my city-girl mind to the solitary struggles of ranch life, while retaining a deep wonder for the world. This is a classic. Here's one of my favorite passages: “All through autumn we hear a double voice: one says everything is ripe; the other says everything is dying. The paradox is exquisite. We feel what the Japanese call aware--an almost untranslatable word meaning something like beauty tinged with sadness.” 


10. Isabel Allende

Hija de la Fortuna

Wild card! You’ve probably read Allende’s House of the Spirits and are wondering what she's doing on a list of Western writers. But one of Allende's lesser-known novels tells the story of a young Chilean immigrant chasing gold (and love) in California. From a true master of the form, this is an abundant and multicultural tale about the part of the west where our water goes.


A few other favorite Western writers to watch: Tacey Atsitty, Ashley Davidson, Jaqueline Keeler, Brooke Larsen, and many more.

Happy reading!

P.s. Make sure to support your local, independent booksellers and public libraries.