For Women’s History Month we’re celebrating all women — not just those in the Anglosphere. Here are ten female writers from all over the world whose works are available in translation.
1. Elena Ferrante (Italian)
Yes, some Italian scholars have claimed that the anonymous Elena Ferrante might actually be a man. Interviews have been faked claiming to out the writer behind the pseudonym. But the fact remains that Ferrante’s identity has never truly been confirmed, and her writing has served to reclaim “women’s fiction” from the unserious stigma around it (the campy, soapy cover art of her novels plays on this idea).
Although she’s published nearly a dozen novels, Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet (pictured above) are undoubtedly her most famous. They’ve already been considered new classics, translated into 45 languages, and turned into a popular HBO series. The books tell the story of two girls growing up in an impoverished neighborhood of Naples in the 1950s, and follows the different directions their lives take as they come of age and grow into adulthood. Ferrante displays an incomparable ability to capture universal feelings, mother-daughter relationships, and female friendships in such a way that makes her fans feel known and understood.
2. Sayaka Murata (Japanese)
Sayaka Murata writes delightfully weird fiction. Two of her novels have been translated into English so far — Convenience Store Woman (2018) and Earthlings (2020) — with an upcoming short story collection set to come out later in 2022.
Murata’s writing aims to challenge societal conventions by highlighting their absurdity. Convenience Store Woman follows a woman in her thirties who is perfectly happy with her job at a convenience store, which others look down upon. She begins to experience a deep mental and physical connection to the store that grows as the novel progresses.
Sayaka Murata has won multiple prestigious Japanese literary awards, including the Akutagawa Prize. Her works typically deal with themes of nonconformity, asexuality and rejection of relationships, and the absurdity of society.
3. Jenny Hval (Norwegian)
You might already know Jenny Hval as a musician — she’s released seven experimental and art pop albums over the past twenty years — but she’s also published three well-received novels to date.
Jenny Hval is another writer who loves to embrace the weird in her books. Paradise Rot is told through the eyes of Jo, a student who moves into a defunct converted brewery in Australia and strange things begin to happen in the apartment. As she develops a physical relationship with her roommate Carrall, she also becomes transfixed by the biology of rot and decomposition.
Hval’s style frequently veers into grotesque as she deals with subject matter like sexuality, religious hypocrisy, and witchcraft. Her writing is experimental and dream-like to read.
4. Mariama Bâ (Senegalese, translated from French)
Mariama Bâ was born in Dakar, the capital city of Senegal, in 1929. She published two novels in her lifetime, So Long a Letter (1980) and Scarlet Song (1981). Both books serve as dialogues for African postcolonial womanism (it’s important to note that she rejected the label of feminist because of its focus on Western values).
So Long a Letter is a short epistolary novel in the style of a letter from the main character Ramatoulaye who is mourning her deceased husband. It presents thought-provoking ideas about the role of women in African society and is a nuanced portrait of grief.
5. Yōko Ogawa (Japanese)
Yōko Ogawa’s novel The Memory Police exploded on to the English literary scene in 2019 — a whole 25 years after it was originally published in 1994 in Japan. In the meantime, Ogawa was busy winning every single major Japanese literary award.
The Memory Police is part science fiction, part magical realism. The story unfolds on an unnamed Japanese island where objects and concepts are “disappeared” one by one from the peoples’ consciousness. It’s illegal to hold onto objects that have been disappeared and this is enforced by the titular memory police. The main character of the novel harbors a man with the rare ability to remember these objects and concepts that no one else is able to.
Many of Ogawa’s novels are similarly high concept, including a short story collection titled Revenge in which each narrative is tangentially related to the last. Her clear, understated writing style makes for some veritable page turners.
6. Isabel Allende (Chilean, translated from Spanish)
It’s been said that Isabel Allende is the world’s most widely read Spanish language author. Before becoming a novelist, Allende worked as a journalist. She conducted an interview with the legendary Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who encouraged her to pursue creative writing instead.
Her 1982 novel The House of the Spirits began as a letter to her dying grandfather and developed into a sprawling generational postcolonial story that follows the Trueba family in the context of Chilean political turmoil. She uses a magical realist style inspired by Gabriel García Márquez.
Allende’s twenty-first novel Violeta was published in January 2022.
7. Svetlana Alexievich (Belarusian, translated from Russian)
Svetlana Alexievich was born in Ukraine, lives in Belarus, and writes in Russian. She’s a legendary Nobel Prize-winning writer and “oral historian,” who shapes peoples’ first hand accounts of war and suffering into impactful narratives on the page.
Alexievich is perhaps best known for her books The Unwomanly Face of War (1985) which is comprised of stories and testimonies of women in World War II, and Voices From Chernobyl (1997), a harrowing collection of personal anecdotes from those who suffered from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Voices From Chernobyl served as the basis for much of the 2019 HBO miniseries Chernobyl.
Her inclination to preserve the voices and experiences of women and children in war is revolutionary in its perspective. Currently, Svetlana Alexievich is leading protests and speaking out against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
8. Basma Abdel Aziz (Egyptian, translated from Arabic)
In addition to being an accomplished writer, Basma Abdel Aziz works for the Egyptian Ministry of Health, as a psychiatrist and human rights activist. Her short stories have won major Egyptian literary awards, and her satirical novels have been compared to Franz Kafka and Aldous Huxley.
Abdel Aziz’s 2013 novel The Queue is a dystopian, absurdist story about the totalitarian government of a fictional Middle Eastern country. In a pretty Kafkaesque manner, the state is bureaucratically overbearing and drowns its people in mandates and paperwork so that nothing can get done. The main character, Yehya, is shot by government forces in a riot. The novel follows his struggle to survive in a state that uses propaganda to argue that it never injured anyone.
9. Han Kang (Korean)
South Korean writer Han Kang began to make waves among English readers when her novel The Vegetarian won the prestigious Man Booker International Prize for fiction in 2016.
The Vegetarian is the unsettling story of a woman named Yeong-hye who decides to quit eating meat and experiences some intense ramifications for her decision. First she’s ostracized by her husband, family, and society at large before a much stranger transformation takes place over the course of the three parts of this novel.
Han’s writing is inspired by music and visual art, and her style and imagery definitely reflects this.
10. Igiaba Scego (Italian)
Igiaba Scego is a prominent voice in Afro-Italian literature. Born in Rome and of Somali descent, her work focuses on Italian postcolonialism and presents the effects of trauma on both personal and national levels.
Her novel Beyond Babylon focuses on a cast of five characters across three countries (Italy, Argentina, and Somalia) as they try to reckon with their powerlessness against governments that enable their mistreatment.
Although Scego is the author of nearly a dozen works, Beyond Babylon and Adua are her only novels that have received English translations so far.