Book review by Lisbeth Coiman: A Teenager’s Guide to Feminism2
May 7, 2021 by The Citron Review
A Teenager’s Guide to Feminism
Editors: Stephanie Anderson, Christina Brown, and Megan Mimiaga
(Pear Shaped Press, 2020)
Pear Shape Press’ debut book, ATeenager’s Guide to Feminism, is a multi-genre anthology written for and by young women. It includes poetry, letters, essays, and short stories carefully curated by Stephanie Anderson, Christina Brown, and Megan Mimiaga, and it’s written to empower young women and non-binary females in all aspects of being a woman. This anthology not only delights the reader with beautiful writing in all genres, but it also delivers its promise to hold teenagers’ hands on their path to feminism.
When I was a teenager growing up in Venezuela in the early 80s, I read Isabel Allende’s column, “Solo para mujeres,” in El Nacional every Sunday. In her column, Allende expressed curiosity and most of the time poked fun at Venezuelan women, who so desperately tried to climb the professional ladder while struggling to meet all the imposed expectations of feminine perfection. I learned from Allende’s sarcasm that it was ok not to be a pageant-ready beauty and to carry my hair in disarray. But that was about all the guidelines I had to light my path through a feminist consciousness: sarcasm, in 500 words or less, one Sunday morning at the time. In contrast, A Teenager’s Guide to Feminism is a comprehensive anthology of fine writing, in different tones, offering young women models to look up to.
The book, which is organized in six sections, opens with a selection of poetry. The poems touch on a wide variety of themes, from menstruation to body positivity, and they revisit the concept of femininity against old expectations and under a new light. According to Samyukta Iyer, “… femininity stands strong, and with the repetition of a monotonous / alarm tone / She rises for prayer.”
Perhaps the section I enjoyed most is Letters to the Women Who Shaped Us because it pays tribute to the people who helped women build character. We don’t raise ourselves, and ultimately what our strength looks like is shaped by a woman before us. In “To You, Women, I’m Eternally Grateful,” Karisma Jaini writes, “Mom, grandma, abuela, and every teacher or mentor, every woman before, you have saved me. You have whispered in my ear at my lowest moments, calling me back to you.” Thus, these letters honor those women who have been there for us or with us in difficult or joyful circumstances as well as those who have paved the way for this current younger generation to flourish. In the section Tough Stuff, the young writers look back and tell their past selves that it’s time to find closure and move forward. A good example of this is the poem, “Recommencer,” by Linda Ferguson. She writes, “… you are slowly moving and you have everything you need.” And the section, Dear Teenage Me lets other young women know that the true woman has always been there, unafraid and unapologetic of who she is, aware of her goal to love herself first and foremost, and also to seek joy in all facets of her life.
The anthology continues with a combination of poetry, short stories, essays, in which the writers explore sexuality, friendship, love, abuse, resilience and the power of womanhood. In all of them, the writers reclaim the narrative over the female body—the expectations placed on young women to look and feel a certain way. Some of these pieces deconstruct prevalent narratives held against women. In “Gingerbread Houses,” for instance, Aruni Wijensinghe revisits the symbolism of the witch in “Hansel & Gretel” to bring us the perspective of a woman who is trying to feed her own hunger while being portrayed as a child eating monster. And in “Life Story,” Charlotte Shao invites women to allow for the arcs of their lives/stories to reveal itself, and to fall in love with their own character.
Other writers manifest feminism as intersectionality by recognizing individual experiences. Here politics of race, class, and gender cross roads and influence each other. This is most evident in Eve Lyons’ poem, “Raising a Boy.” Lyons writes:
“When we have tickle fights / it’s a lesson in when you say stop, I stop even as he keeps coming back for more / In men’s rooms I watch him enter the stall then guard the door like a lioness. / One in six boys, one in six. / At six, my son already mansplains / takes up too much space when sharing a bed / As a black man I want his voice to matter. As a man he needs to shut the fuck up.”
This poem explores womanhood from the perspective of a Black woman, who is raising her son to respect women. But at the same time she is deeply concerned about potential sexual abuse, and the pervasive racism to which he is exposed as a young man.
In A Teenager’s Guide to Feminism writers give permission to themselves and others to explore sexuality in all its glorious possibilities, from coming out proudly, to transition into another gender, or becoming polyamorous. This celebration of sexuality in any form it takes, empowers young women who are beginning to discover and make decisions with their bodies, and about the people they love. Nikki Marrone, in “Swinging Both Ways,” declares “not everyone needs a baby to feel complete.” Marrone also asks, “Did you know that deep sea squid mates with both / and that proud lions practice polygamy?”
Another important aspect of this anthology is the sense of rebellion: against patriarchy, against police brutality, institutionalized racism, and most prominently against sexual abuse. The #MeToo pieces have heartbreaking stories of sexual abuse. What we learn quickly is that young writers are not putting up with slut shaming, and are standing up against predatory behavior. Eve Lyons’ poem “How Does it Feel to Have a Sexual Predator on The Supreme Court?” made me look back at my teenage self and wonder if I would have found the courage to speak up against the highest institutions of my homeland. I did rebel against abuse and the prescribed roles set for me even before my birth, but I did not have the language of A Teenager’s Guide to Feminism, nor the consciousness to name what I was rebelling against.
What A Teenager’s Guide to Feminism does best is recognizing the individual inside a collective. In the book, the “I” is always at the center, not in the look-at-the-belly-button way, but as the means to express that each woman experiences feminism in her own unique manner. It may be by rejecting the roles assigned to her, by supporting her sisters, by writing her own story, or by stating her sexual preferences in a loud voice. The young writers tell other growing women how we react to oppression and abuse, how we raise ourselves and others, how we experience love and sex. Most importantly, they reaffirm our commitment to stand next to each other to protect all of us from a 5000-year-old culture designed to use us as doormats. In true feminist tradition, A Teenager’s Guide to Feminism will help raise a generation of strong women.
Lisbeth Coiman is an author, poet, educator, cultural worker, and rezandera born in Venezuela. Coiman’s wanderlust spirit landed her to three countries—from her birthplace to Canada, and finally the USA, where she self-published her first book, I Asked the Blue Heron: A Memoir (2017). Her bilingual poetry collection, Uprising / Alzamiento, will be published by Finishing Line Press in June 2021. Her poetry and personal essays are featured in the online publications: La Bloga, EntropyAcentos Review, Lady/Liberty/Lit,Nailed,Hip Mama Magazine, Rabid Oaks,Cultural Weekly, and Resonancias Literarias. In print media Spectrum v.16, The Altadena Literary Review, and Accolades: A Women Who Submit Anthology. An avid hiker, and teacher of English as a Second Language, Coiman lives in Los Angeles, CA.
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