10 inspiring French female writers you should read
Updated: Mar 19, 2019
On culturetheque, we celebrate French-speaking female authors who through their work keep pushing boundaries and talk with wit and sometimes humour about difficult themes such as difference, double culture, war and love. Be it comic books, prose, fiction or autobiographies, they all are grounbreaking and we urge you to discover their work.
Les années, Annie Ernaux
Considered by many to be Annie Ernaux’s defining work, The Years was a breakout bestseller when published in France in 2008. The book spans the timeframe from the author’s birth in 1940 up to 2006, and moves from her working-class upbringing in Normandy to her years teaching French literature in a lycée, living in the Parisian suburb of Cergy, raising two sons and eventually divorcing. Details of personal memory are given a voice and the subtle transformation of culture is palpable. We encounter local dialect, old slogans, the war in Algeria, Sartre and the Beauvoir, Agnès Varda, May 1968, Edith Piaf, nuclear treat, unemployment, immigration and the advance of technology. But it is not a straightforward autobiography; rather it is told in a choral “we”, which sometimes shifts into the third person, so the author appears as “she”. On its publication in France, The Years came as a surprise: it was in many ways a departure: both an intimate memoir “written” by entire generations, and a story of generations telling a very personal story.
Les loyautés, Delphine de Vigan
In Loyautés, Delphine de Vigan depicts a turbulent world where people struggle to live with their own silence after choosing to keep certain details secret. The loyalty will be that of Helen, high school teacher who tries to protect one of her pupils or that of Theo who does not want to betray his parents and drinks to forget. Loyalty, a nice word that may seem outdated today and yet should be the guardian of every moment of life. Loyalty can, however, either be life-saving or become a straitjacket. What is the weight of our responsibility? A poignant novel that challenges the blindness and social absurdity that lead us to silence in the face of terrible acts.
Nos richesses, Kaouther Adimi
When Ryad leaves Paris and lands in Algiers to empty and repaint an old building, soon to become a donut shop, he knows neither the history of the place nor that of its former occupants. It is only by stumbling upon Edmond Charlot’s diaries that Ryad will discover the young’s man dream of becoming an editor of young writers of the Mediterranean and open a library that would double up as cultural hotspot where artists and intellectuals could meet and exchange. Charlot’s notes are also a powerful reminded of the war, the bankruptcies and compromises of the political and intellectual elite.
With Richesses, Kaouther Admini delivers a powerful story of youth, ambition and courage while paying tribute to an important personality of French literature: Edmond Charlot, first editor of Camus.
Notre vie dans les forêts, Marie Darrieussecq
Notre vie dans les forêts describes a futuristic and dystopian world. The city is so urbanised that you can see neither the ground nor the sky. Marie, the narrator, works as a psychologist under the supervision of robots who record and analyse every single comment made during the sessions. Marie owns a clone; a dormant body preserved in a specialised center. The clone will allow Marie, in case of health problems, to have a bank of personal organs. However, Marie has fled - along with others - the confinement of a world where everything is connected, controlled, robotic and she now lives in a forest, and is devoted to the complicated task of liberating others.
Zeina Abirached - Le piano oriental
In this autobiographical work, Zeina Abirached talks about the life of her grandfather, a young musician who invented the famous oriental piano - an instrument that can play a quarter of a tone lower than the classical European piano. The story of her grandfather's trip to Vienna is coupled with anecdotes from Zeina and her departure from Beirut to Paris. The stories intersect and through a sleek black and white style, the words and sounds reverberate. Zeina Abirached speaks to us with tenderness of family, music and double culture.
Racket, Dominique Manotti
Throughout her novels, Dominique Manotti has tackled many topics such as occupation, football and horse racing. Despite this diversity of substantive topics, politics are never far away and world leaders often get their fair share. In Racket, she was interested in the world of international finance and some of its amoral aspects. More specifically, she was inspired by the story of the acquisition of Alstom by General Electric. Legal tax optimization, spying, corruption, and other tendentious speculations are all present. Dominique Manotti is best known for her capacity to write accurate and precise books which sheld light on complex and unknown facts.
Habiletés sociales, Camille Cornu
Habiletés Sociale is a coming of age novel whose main character suffers from autism. After spending her adolescence in a foster home, she is taken over by a hospital to learn how to decode her emotions and those of others. At the head of the social skills training are Dr. X and his team. This novel, tinged with absurd notes, denounces the authoritarian side of social conventions, present on every face, every body, every street corner. Since our behavior has an impact on others, it is constantly monitored. Through the sharp eyes of the young woman, we are forced to question our habits and our relationship towards difference.
Dans le faisceau des vivants, Valérie Zenatti
Valerie Zenatti was the translator of the Israeli novelist and poet Aharon Appefeld since 2004. Following his death on January 4, 2017, she writes a story about her mentor and friend. She learned a lot from him, from his aesthetics. She describes the intensity of their relationship: a fraternity crossing time. She also tells how after learning from him, she is now learning to "live without him".
Dans le faisceau des vivant reminds us what kind of writer Appefeld was: a great novelist who studied the question of happiness, the warning signs of the worst, and reconstruction after the second world war. As an 8 year old child, he had been separated from his family and learned to survive by himself for several years. Through writing he found solace, and in his stories, he rebuilt a family home.
Les grands espaces, Catherine Meurisse
Catherine Meurisse takes us on the road of her childhood in Poitou, in the 80s: her parents had decided to leave the city to settle in the countryside and raise their children in an old farm, in the middle of a bare ground where everything was still to be done.
"Les grands espaces" is also the story of education and values that parents passed on to their daughters, while at the same time sharpening their critical thinking by teaching them to observe how the countryside was (badly) treated by the policies responsible for its management. Finally, it's the story of a little girl who grew up discovering a drawing talent and then became a caricaturist.
L’art de perdre, Alice Zeniter
On the occasion of an exhibition project for the art gallery where she works, Naïma immerses herself in the history of Algeria, the country of origin of the painter in the spotlight, but also of her father and of her grandfather. The latter having never spoken to her about their roots, she knows almost nothing of the reasons for their immigration. Her grandfather Ali, a Kabyle mountain dweller, died before she could ask him why history had made him a "harki". Yema, her grandmother, could perhaps answer but not in a language that Naima understands. As for Hamid, her father, who arrived in France in the summer of 1962 in hastily set up transit camps, he no longer talks about the Algeria from his childhood.
In a powerful and audacious novel, Alice Zeniter tells a story of fate, between France and Algeria, of successive generations of a family trapped in a tenacious past. But this book is also a great novel about the freedom to be oneself, beyond social injunctions.