2 November 2022

Six books on the changing meaning of femininity (and masculinity!)

Posted by Alia Trabucco Zerán

Alia Trabucco Zerán is the winner of this year’s British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding for her outstanding work of creative non-fiction When Women Kill: Four Crimes Retold (translated by Sophie Hughes). The book examines four murders committed by Chilean women in the twentieth century, exploring the relationship between gender and violence. The judges called it ‘a highly original and beautifully written work, which uncovers uncomfortable truths about a society and its attitudes to female homicides’.

Trabucco Zerán has selected six more books that challenge traditional gender roles: find out more about her choices below.

Two formally inventive, hybrid books about female artists who challenged the gender roles expected of them by society:

Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger, translated from the French by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon. A brilliant book about the remarkable American filmmaker Barbara Loden and an inventive take on her 1970s film, Wanda, and its influence on the author herself. A profound portrait of a woman as a creator and a fantastic essay on the difficulties of biographical and autobiographical writing, including a personal journal where the author’s unexpected personal memories come to the surface.

Self-Portrait by Celia Paul. A moving autobiography by the renowned British painter Celia Paul, allowing her to move from the shadow of having been Lucian Freud’s partner. Paul reflects on the act of posing for others (and what it means to make others pose for her) as well as on the weight of the male gaze and what happens when it is challenged. A truly beautiful book that is not to be missed. It should be seen alongside Celine Sciamma’s film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which brilliantly subverts the male gaze to question how society views women.


Now, two excellent books about women who don’t conform to the idea of romantic love, and thus pose uncomfortable questions on issues such as sacrifice and freedom:

Seeing Red by Lina Meruane, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. If you haven’t read this already, find it immediately! Superb writing from one of Chile’s greatest novelists and essayists; this is a haunting story about losing sight and the metaphors of blindness both inside and outside the sometimes claustrophobic realm of love.

Dislocations by Sylvia Molloy, translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Croft. On queer love, aging, and finding and losing the right words when your partner gets Alzheimer’s. A beautiful, sharp book from one of the most original Argentinian writers, whose contributions to thinking about biography are invaluable. An unforgettable genre-bending book.


Finally, because masculinity needs as much examination, deconstruction and rethinking as femininity, here are two extraordinary novels on the consequences of toxic masculinity and the violence it entails.

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes is a painful tour-de-force on the sadness and despair of men trapped in toxic masculinities and its violent consequences for everyone around them. Extraordinary, propelling, powerful writing.

An Orphan World by Giuseppe Caputo, translated by Sophie Hughes and Juana Adcock is a tremendously original novel on queer desire and what happens with love when it goes beyond the demands of heterosexual romance. An Orphan World is a sad yet beautiful book filled with unforgettable images of a precarious universe.

Books mentioned in this blog post