Earlier this year, I stumbled across The Penguin Book of Women Poets in a wonderful used bookstore (it was there I picked up a gorgeous two-volume edition of The Mill on the Floss from the early 20th century for what even the bookseller admitted was way too little money). I leafed through it, expecting a text that would - like almost all anthologies - focus on Anglo-American writers. At first glance, it seemed like the anthology was actually quite diverse and I impulse-purchased it.
It was only later when I got home that I realized how diverse this collection actually is. The collection starts in what they call "The Ancient World", but it's not limited to our typical scope of "classics" - alongside the predictable Greek poetry (and Sappho fragments), there's Egyptian, Israelite, Chinese and Tamil poetry too. The book then progresses to the "Middle Period" (600-1500), which includes writers from Ireland, Wales, England, Arabia, Sanskrit India, Japan, Germany, Korea, China, Moorish Spain... And onward in history: Italy, and Sephardic ballads, and Vietnam, and Mexico, and Sweden, and Cuba, and Turkey, and New Zealand Māori, and Native American. It's a stunning display of what the world has to offer, even when certain literary traditions (African, for example) are completely ignored.
The collection is imperfect in many regards, but the thing that struck me most was how practically every writer in the collection is by this point "classic". The collection was published in 1978 - even the contemporaries of the era are now classics. But many of them remain untranslated overall.
I talked about classics a lot last year, as well as the problem of untranslated masterpieces. There's something extremely frustrating in going through lists of women writers from around the world (and from vastly different eras of history) and discovering that only a handful have been translated. The same process happened with The Penguin Book of Women Poets - dozens of women writers from almost all walks of life, with rare collections here and there.
Perhaps I'm being unfair. After all, in any given collection of men (or... any given collection that dubs itself generic and then has only 15% women writers), many writers will also only have recognition within the context of the collection. Women are not unique in facing almost insurmountable difficulties in getting translated, we know this already. Yet the gap seems ever more frustrating with women writers because of how senseless it remains in the modern context.
When rediscovering writers today, why don't we look at those underrepresented women writers? What's stopping us from bringing to light those classic works, those classic writers?
Women have always written: in ancient times, in modern times, in medieval times. Did they always write as much as men? Of course not, there have been periods in history where women were not taught to read and write. (On the flip side, women today seem to write more than men by most measures and yet here we are.) I could never expect perfect parity when it comes to classic translations. But I do expect basic representation. I do expect publishers of "undiscovered classics" to identify those texts that were written by women writers as well. I do expect literary and historical scholars to commit as much attention to women throughout history as they might to contemporary men.
It's this sort of discrepancy which makes me desperately want more publishers to take part in the Year of Publishing Women. Yes, you'll probably always have more classics by men than by women. Most years will probably see only one undiscovered classic by a woman writer brought to light. But can we have one year when we get some of those well-deserving classics by women writers? One year when we can focus on how women demanded rights, criticized slavery and built abolitionist movements, fought in revolutions, ruled countries, fell in love, lived lives, wrote songs and poems and stories, and existed? Throughout all of history, across the entire world?
Is that too much to hope for...?