Natalie Audley reviews The Feminist Book Society’s new collection of essays
For such an engaging and promising book title, I had hoped that This Is How We Come Back Stronger would simultaneously address what weakens our genders during COVID and how we can regroup and come back stronger. The premise implied in the title is promising, but do any of these short non-fiction authors address either of the issues implicit in the book’s title and, more than that, does this collection go further and establish a way for us to move forward to a better position than we were in before?
First, there’s a lot to commend about this book, although I wouldn’t say I especially enjoyed reading it. Perhaps it is not possible to actively like a reflection on one of the toughest periods in recent history: from the BLM protests, to the huge swathes of those dying of COVID, to the momentous rise in domestic abuse cases, levity has been in short supply. This makes this collection heavy work to get through, and with very few light touches.
However, there are genuinely beautiful and stirring demonstrations of skilled writers on display. One particular highlight is the moving story, ‘The Woman in the Portrait’ about a painting from the Weimar Republic and the abuse of a young trans model at the hands of a famous artist. The story’s connection to the current trans rights movement and, indeed, the COVID crisis, is never flagged within the story, which is a shame because it feels like the links are there to be seen and that the author could explore at least some of the intersecting issues (one possible example being the rise of white nationalism). Still, this story is beautifully evoked and one really feels the model’s pain. All powerfully told by Juliet Jacques, whose memoir, Trans, was so ground-breaking in 2015.
There are other moments in this collection that jump out to me, particularly comedic writer Francesca Martinez’s ‘The Wobbly Revolution’, detailing her experiences and some of her struggles in a disablist society: “You’re not disabled… that is just a word other human being have made up to try to define you. You are perfectly you.” The encouragement to fulfil one’s own purpose is powerful within Martinez’s piece. Equally moving and touching is the story by well-established writer, Lisa Taddeo. Indeed, the collection reminds me that I really must get around to reading her debut, Three Women, at some point this year. I love Taddeo’s stirring desire to be a better woman for her daughter, while simultaneously embracing the realisation that this goal may be forever beyond her reach.
Gina Miller’s ‘Rise Stronger’ piece on how she escaped an abusive relationship, effectively demonstrates how dehumanising abuse can be and how it burrows into one’s skull and stays there. I especially like the quote, “…we’re conditioned to feel guilty about failure, even if the failure is not our fault”, as I think this speaks to societal pressures women often feel, and underscores how easy it can be to end up trapped by a partner. This fits well with Jess Phillips’ piece in the book about her attempts to pass a bill against domestic abuse in the House of Commons, where she goes through how protest meets opposition: a stark reminder of the ongoing battle we still face.
The collection also hosts the always-brilliant Laura Bates, whose crusade against sexism continues. However, while Bates’ interview, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, is good and expansive in its range of issues, I would suggest her recent hardback release, Men Who Hate Women, is a better demonstration of her skillset.
There aren’t as many calls to action in this book as I would have expected, although I do think Mireille Cassandra Harper’s piece, ‘Why Passivity Will No Longer Do’, probably fits the brief the best. This piece highlights the suffering, exhaustion and fury of the BLM movement, where the weakest aspect of supposed allyship is often simply performative. Harper also goes a step further to show how women with privilege must challenge and open up spaces for their sisters. I like how she emphasises the work required when one says one is feminist, arguing that this isn’t about simply saying “Solidarity”; it is only through our thoughts, our money and putting effort into our choices that we can empower each other.
I would love for there to have been a little more humour in This Is How We Come Back Stronger – a Hannah Gadsby ‘Nanette’ moment where a feminist recounts her trauma in a humane, humourous and illuminating way to contrast against the weightiness of the tragedies and suffering. This could have demonstrated some potentially amusing moments of the COVID experience, but I wonder if that may be too much to ask in the middle of a pandemic. Maybe we have reached the end of our collective wits and humour and lightness is just a bit too much to ask for at the present time.
Another minor bugbear for me is that there seems to be a lack of structural through-line in this book. It fundamentally lacks a backbone to hold the piece together and form a cohesive argument. Indeed, the pieces hang together on the basis of chapter headings such as ‘crying out’, ‘connect’, ‘show up’, ‘survive and rise’, ‘radical acts’, ‘imagine’ and ‘hold your pen torches high’ – the connective tissue that links these introductory categories varies greatly, with some of the writers directly addressing the pandemic, while others do not. It feels like the collection is missing an editorial eye to shepherd the stories together more succinctly.
One plus point of this book is that it contains a diverse range of women’s voices, writing about their experiences during COVID, along with how their races, religions, genders, sexualities and power have each informed and changed their perceptions of the pandemic. There is sometimes a sense that the scope is too broad, as if the editors have wanted to cram in all of the injustices of the last thousand-odd years, rather than just the ones that have come to a head in the pandemic. However, I can sympathise with this. I think this diversity of voices is probably the best element of the collection; it should empower us as women to feel united in our similarities and differences, in turn helping us consider how we can and should progress together.
This book varies in tone: from the concilitory, angry, informative, illuminating, to the occasionally wry, to sometimes patronising. The edition blends elements of poetry, political debate, non-fiction and even fiction, in a collection that sometimes works but doesn’t always hit the mark.
This Is How We Come Back Stronger, edited by The Feminist Book Society, was published by And Other Stories on 23 March 2021.
The header image shows the text “this is how we come back stronger” in red, fading from bottom to top, on a navy background. This image is a close-up of the book’s cover.