12 Books with the Inspirational Female Protagonists

I hope you all are doing well. I would like to share with you a few book recommendations with the Inspirational Female Protagonists. These are characters dealing with loneliness in its various forms, trauma, ageing, poverty, life within strict religious and social norms, no opportunities for ‘better’ life. I have tried to include titles from a variety of different countries. I hope this list will be of use to you.


Flowers of Lhasa by a Tibetan writer, Tsering Yangkyi, offers a compassionate image of fragile lives marred by lack of opportunities, poverty, and resignation. Flowers of Lhasa is a powerful tale of four young women, migrant workers : three Tibetans, and one Chinese, who leave their close-knit rural communities behind to look for a better life for themselves and to support their impoverished families in the city of Lhasa, a religious and cultural capital of Tibet. The titled ‘flowers of Lhasa’: Drolkar known as Dahlia, Xiao Li known as Cassia, Yangdzom known as Azalea, and Dzomkyi known as Magnolia live in a small rented room, their temporary shelter, their home where they share their joys and sorrows. They are like a family and always look out for each other. When they first come to Lhasa, lowliest odd jobs are the only employment they are able to find. Their income is not enough to cover their own basic bills, let alone allow them to support their elderly parents in the countryside. With the enormous level of empathy, the author portrays the human toll of poverty, lack of financial support on people’s psychological, emotional, and physical well-being, especially women without financial resources, and born without privilege. “When us poor country girls come to the city, we fall in love with the bright lights and the last things we want is to go back home. I had to keep living somehow, I had no choice.” FULL REVIEW


Sanmao belongs to the 20th century most iconic women. She was a writer, traveler, and university teacher born in China in 1943. She then moved to Taiwan and as an adult in the 1970s she travelled extensively across Spain, Germany, Central America and spent a few years living in the Western Sahara where she closely encountered the native Sahrawi culture. Stories of the Sahara provide an unique insight into Sanmao’s and her husband, Jose’s life mainly in Western Sahara in the 1970s. This book captivated and inspired millions of Chinese readers for decades and it offers an interesting perspective of North Africa from a non-Western female traveller’s view. We learn about Sanmao’s life in the desert, her beautiful relationship with her Spanish husband. Through her words we witness a free spirit of Sanmao, her lust for adventure and refreshing childlike curiosity of the world around her. Stories of the Sahara are partly memoir, partly travelogue, filled with warmth, wit, compassion and unique observations, written during the times when many women would have only dreamt of this kind of adventure. Sanmao’s life was interesting and tragic at the same time. I highly encourage you to read about her life prior to reading this book (a short bio will do). Stories of Sahara are such an engaging, immensely enjoyable and timeless read. Sanmao gave us an extraordinary glimpse into the Sahrawi people and their way of life. Above all this Stories of Sahara constitute a great portrait of the quest of one individual to locate their place in the multifaceted world.


This Mournable Body by the Zimbabwean writer, Tsitsi Dangarembga tells a story of a middle-age woman, called Tambu living in Harare (Zimbabwe) who is trying to find her way in this world. Tambu leaves her stagnant job as a copywriter with hope that she will find a better job where she is treated with respect and appreciation. Every time there seems to be some hope for a better future and life, Tambu is served again with another disappointment and humiliation. Her life is far more depressing than the one she have imagined. This book portrays the essence of human condition in the current times, when there is no hope, just despair and constant struggle to exist. Dangarembga explores the contemporary Zimbabwe, the impact that the past and present have on the life of an ordinary individual with high dreams, and how those dreams and hopes are shattered. It is an excellent depiction of the Zimbabwean society, urban versus rural life, traditional norms versus push for modernity when it comes to social customs. This Mournable Body is also a very universal tale; it tackles many social issues that people in other countries have to deal with as well. This a great piece of literature.


An Unnecessary Woman by the Lebanese writer, Rabih Alemaddine tells a story of a 72-year-old woman, Aaliya who lives in Beirut. She is a recluse who lives her life through literature. It is a portrayal of an older woman who looks back at her life and tries to determine whether her life was meaningful, whether her life was ‘necessary’. It is also about the position of women who do not fit into the stereotype prescribed by her family, the society she lives in. I love the fact the protagonist is an elderly woman as there are not many novels, stories focusing on older women. The story of Aaliya shows that women can be nuanced regardless of their ethnicity or where they come from. This tale is a confession of an introvert, a love letter to literature. This book is full of reflections on loneliness, disconnection, treatment of the outsiders by the society. We travel with Aaliya across the present and the past, through the history of her family, her failed marriage. The complex and rich history of Lebanon provides a background for this story. An Unnecessary Woman is full of the nuanced musings, inner monologues on life of a woman who has decided to defy social norms to live in accordance with her true herself. One of my favourite quotes from this book: “I identify with outsiders, with the alienated or dispossessed. (…) I like men and women who don’t fit well in the dominant culture, or, as Alvaro de Campos calls them, strangers in this place as in every other, accidental in life as in the soul.” FULL REVIEW


Distant View of A Minaret by the Egyptian writer, Alifa Rifaat (1930 – 1996) is a collection of fifteen short stories depicting lives of women within the traditional Muslim society. Rifaat shows Muslim women who wish to adhere to strict religious teachings and they see men as the ones who do not follow their religious obligations towards women. She challenges this behaviour but her criticism is far from the feminism as perceived in the Western world. The main themes in these stories are marriage, death, sexual fulfilment, physical and emotional abuse, loneliness of loveless life, the inability to communicate one’s feelings to others, growing old and relationship between husband and wife from woman’s perspective portrayed within the religious norms and moral values of Islam. Those themes were dealt with such frankness which I have not seen in many contemporary books. Rifaat’s stories show women who have views, opinions but still within a religious conservative framework. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that the women portrayed in Rifaat’s stories are at different stages of their lives, with a particular focus on the women of an older age. We follow the stories of a young female child, young women, middle-aged mothers, widows, single older women who are all constrained by the norms imposed by the society they live in. FULL REVIEW


Co-wives, Co-widows tells a story of two women Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou who live in a rather fulfilling polygamous marriage with the man called Lidou. When their husband dies, the bond between these women becomes stronger, they deeply care for each other and their children in the face of injustice resulting from the misogynistic social and cultural norms. This book explores the issue of love, family bonds, female friendship within the context of polygamous relationship. Co-wives, Co-widows is a reflection of certain aspects of the society of which Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou are part of. For the reader in the anglophone world reading this little book by Adrienne Yabouza is an extraordinary experience of literature from Central African Republic. Writing is delightful, full of references to local culture, with the usage of dry-wit humour. FULL REVIEW


Written in sparse, minimalist prose, Without Blood by the Italian writer, Alessandro Baricco is a poignant short story exploring themes of morality, a vicious cycle of revenge and violence, the destructive nature of war, its cruelty, savagery and its long legacy on the lives of its participants and survivors. Other themes include the existence of an individual within realm of the chaotic, unfair, and brutal world where the line between good and evil is often fluid and partially erased, the nature of truth and how we tend to believe in all the stories we hear and tell each other, without any further verification, as long as they fit into our own ideological understanding of the world. Baricco weaved a tale of profundity, with many layers of moral dilemmas and the complexity of human condition. Without Blood portrays the predicament of an individual thrown into the savagery of war including Nina, one of the protagonists in the book, and how one singular traumatic event in one’s life can have a profound impact on perpetrators, survivors and bystanders for the reminder of their lives as well as a future generation. This is a very short book, just under ninety pages which makes for a great read for those with lack of time for reading. It is a very impactful book, exploring the subject of moral choices including forgiveness and memory – how we remember our past and take for granted what information others feed us to justify their actions. It is a deeply moving portrait of a female nuanced character. FULL REVIEW


The Photographer at Sixteen by George Szirtes is an exceptional memoir.  It constitutes an exploration of Szirtes’s Romania-born Hungarian – Jewish mother’s life.  The book also provides a compelling commentary on Europe’s darkest chapters from the 20th century and its consequences on a singular life. This memoir is a beautifully written, profoundly moving and extremely thoughtful portrait of one woman living throughout the tumultuous times of the European history. The narrative is a mixture of delicate, sharp prose intertwined with Szirtes’s poetry. Throughout the book, tape recordings, photos, letters, and historic facts are used to (re-) construct the life of Szirtes’s mother, Magda (Magdalena). This book is a celebration of George’s mum, Magda Nussbacher, for whom “life was a matter of endless recovery from rejections”. Szirtes portrays his mum as a nuanced, mysterious, complex individual; he tries to separate Magda – a mother from the Magda – an independent person. The Photographer at Sixteen is one of the most beautiful and moving books dedicated to the parents and their lives. FULL REVIEW


“Solitude: it’s become my trade. (…) It’s a condition I try to perfect”. Written in forty-six short vignettes, Whereabouts portrays daily wanderings and inner workings of the narrator’s mind who is a solitary unnamed woman in her mid -40s working as a teacher and living in the unnamed city in Italy. Whereabouts is an exploration of urban solitude, alienation, loneliness, growing old, with the narrator’s beautiful ruminations on the meaning of living a solitary life, inspired by the locations of daily errands. The narrator is a very sensitive and astute observer of other people’s words, emotions, and gestures. At the restaurant, she eats alone with other people also eating alone. At the doctor’s office, she notices a woman, who appears to be twenty years older than her, also waiting alone, with no husband, no companion to support her which makes the narrator reflect on her own future in a few decades from now on. Throughout the pages of Whereabouts, the narrator attempts to locate her own place in the world, she is in the quest of an identity as well as emotional home where her body and soul can sense they belong. This book exudes some sort of yearning for a new attachment without a burden of geographical and cultural frontiers which makes Whereabouts truly universal in terms of the protagonist’s depicted emotions and thoughts. That presence of aloneness on the pages of Whereabouts is very soothing for the reader. In my view, Whereabouts is a profoundly life-affirming book about tranquility that solitary existence might offer in the similar way how our narrator experiences it – as a woman who lives a peaceful life, with no family of her own, deeply aware of her loneliness, but not burden by itFULL REVIEW


Lucky Breaks by Ukrainian writer, Yevgenia Belorusets is a collection of vignettes accompanied by a series of black and white photos taken by the author herself. This series of short stories, originally written in Russian and published in 2018 explores the lives of Ukrainian women, displaced, forced to seek refuge in other parts of Ukraine as a result of the war in Eastern Ukraine which started in 2014. Some stories take place in Kyiv, some in a warzone, and others in the territories occupied by the Russia-backed separatists. All these snapshots of a singular life presented in those stories focus on how traumatic historical events transform one’s everyday life, how military and political turmoil upends the lives of the ‘ordinary’ women who endured so many senseless losses. We get a glimpse into what’s now and what’s been. The book centres on women – women from all walks of life, all backgrounds, all ages. Many of the protagonists are painfully lonely in their despair to rebuild their lives in Kyiv and other parts of western Ukraine, longing for relationships, love but often sticking to their wartime habits. Their daily existence amounts to the mere survival in the ruins of war, being displaced and out of place, without social network, with no social status, with no ability to articulate profound trauma that penetrates every aspect of their lives. They alone in their existence. They rarely receive any substantial support for their permanent psychological wounds. In order to exist they must go to work, to pay bills. They are all traumatised souls, ‘ordinary women’, without financial security and comfort, without any safety net. In all cases portrayed in Lucky Breaks the issue of class and economic status is crucial and profoundly impacting daily existence of these women. In one of the stories, the protagonist mentions that we, as a society, love celebrating women but only a certain type of women. We often forget about the women ‘in some backwater, small places, remote places’ – they are often invisible, especially older women, disabled women, single women. FULL REVIEW


“The greatest mystery of my life: living in the aftermath.” The Teacher by the Israeli writer, Michal Ben Naftali is an exceptional and profoundly moving novel. The Teacher tells a story of a woman, Elsa Weiss, born in 1917, a Holocaust survivor from Eastern Europe who after WWII ends up living in Israel working as a high school teacher until she commits suicide in 1982 at the age of 65. It is a story shared by many Holocaust survivors – I read that the author of the book based Elsa’s life on the person she knew in her real life. The Teacher is an intense exploration of trauma, survivor’s guilt, loneliness, finding one’s place in the world, learning how to exist or rather just how to survive, the memory and how we perceive and remember people in our life. Elsa Weiss is an enigma, her life is an enigma – she left no trace of her life for others to explore. We learn about Elsa Weiss from the perspective of her former student who tries to trace Elsa’s life and learn more about her former teacher thirty years after Elsa jumps to her death from the roof of the building she lived in Tel Aviv. Elsa Weiss felt abandoned through her entire adult life with an overwhelming sense of orphanhood, living in fear of forgetting her loved ones. It is a story of a survivor whose name is not recorded in any history book, nor in any journal nor memoir; a story of those whose life faded from the living memory, of those with no photos of their faces preserved for the future generations; of those who were busy surviving in a new country, busy assimilating, existing, moving forward; of those who are invisible to others; of those without possessive determiners on their grave’s inscription: they are no one’s mother, father, sister or bother; of those who do not wish to be remembered. FULL REVIEW


“If someone asks you how you are, you are meant to say FINE. You are not meant to say that you cried yourself to sleep last night because you hadn’t spoken to another person for two consecutive days. FINE is what you say.” Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine constitutes a meditation about isolation and loneliness among young people in the modern world. Gail Honeyman said somewhere that what inspired her to write this book was reading an article about the experience of one young woman who said that she did not speak to anyone from the time she left work on Friday evening until she was back at work on Monday morning. This book will resonate with anyone who has experienced loneliness or feeling of being isolated or abandoned in their lives, while loneliness does not necessarily mean something negative. This is also a story about people who are introverts and treat them as ‘equal’ to the socially accepted extroverts in the Western world. This book is a soul-soothing gift from its author which can contribute to some normalisation of loneliness, aloneness and being an introvert as a way of life. One has to remember that often we can live with others, be surrounded by many people, but still feel lonely and isolated. FULL REVIEW

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