7 Inspiring Biographies and Memoirs of Notable Women Around the World
What is it about a biography that makes it so enjoyable to read? I think, speaking for myself, that it’s in the wonder of reading a fantastic story and then realising: “Wow, this was someone’s actual life.”
It’s also a great way to give yourself some direction. A biography is like a map of someone’s life and through it, we are invited to read about what they did, where they went, how they got there. It’s a great comfort to know that despite all the differences we encounter in someone else, there’s always that universal bit of humanity that ties us all together.
Here we list some of our top picks that’s perfect to while away the time while social distancing. Get ready to be inspired by this bevy of ladies and their fantastic stories that go beyond time and culture.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
You don’t have to be a scientific genius to understand the heart of Rebecca Skloot’s highly acclaimed novel. Based on the life — or rather, the cells — of Henrietta Lacks, the eponymous book guides its readers through themes of poverty, racism, and the politics of medicine.
The book, which centres around HeLa cells taken from Lacks’ cervix without her permission, is exemplary in the lucid way it details both the science and the story. Now, through interviews with Lacks’ successors, Skloot pieces together two narratives that detail the scientific success of the HeLa cells while juxtaposing it to the Lacks family’s hardships after their mother’s death.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Memoir of the former First Lady of the United States, Becoming by Michelle Obama is a work of deep and personal reflection. In it, she chronicles her childhood in Chicago, the formative years of her law career, her balancing act as a mother and as an executive, and of course, her years spent at the world’s most famous address. Revelatory in its wisdom, and warm through its personal touch, Becoming is the story of one of the world’s most iconic women: defiant, powerful, and groundbreaking.
India's Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi by Mala Sen
A bandit, a rape victim, a gang leader, and a politician, Phoolan Devi’s story is retold by Mala Sen in this riveting memoir pieced together from diaries, police reports, and eye-witness accounts. Facing violence and misfortune at every turn, Phoolan Devi’s life was an incredibly difficult one. Yet despite her notoriety and the violence that followed her in life, Phoolan was also very real and very human. She’s known to have surrendered in front of a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi and the goddess Kali. Eye-opening to say the least, Mala Sen’s biography of India’s bandit queen has also been made into a film.
We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib
Samra Habib’s We Have Always Been Here is a coming of age story of sorts that speaks on sexuality and religion in daring and honest ways. An Ahmadi Muslim in Pakistan, Habib grew up under constant threat of Islamist extremists. But after moving to Canada as a refugee, Habib begins to discover herself in a way that would have been impossible in Pakistan. Her exploration of faith, art, love, and sexuality are an open book into the minds of many people who, like her, are part of a minority.
In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park
Park’s testimony to her life in North Korea is, in one word, amazing — although not necessarily in a good way. Even as a young woman, Yeonmi Park has endured more than plenty have even imagined. Born in North Korea, Park’s father was imprisoned and tortured for dealing in the black market. Branded as criminals, Park and her family were then smuggled into China where she and her mother were sold into sexual slavery before finally reaching South Korea two years later.
Park’s harrowing journey is an incredible testament to the human strength and the spirit of a woman in search of freedom.
Wild Swans by Jung Chang
Told through the lives of three generations of Chinese women, Wild Swans is both a historical memoir and an active remembrance of the author’s lineage. The story begins with Jung’s grandmother, who is a concubine to a warlord in the early 1900’s. As the story progresses, readers are taken through time from one progenitor to the next as they are introduced to Jung’s mother, a member of the Communist Underground. Once devout, Jung’s parents become increasingly uncomfortable with Mao Zedong’s ideology. The story continues on to narrate a very personal account of the Great Chinese Famine, as well as the atrocities committed by Mao’s secret police, and the forced labour they had demanded of its citizens.
Personal and dramatic, Jung’s Wild Swans is an interesting look at some of China’s most significant historical events that had taken place only a lifetime ago.
The Nazi Officer's Wife by Edith Hahn-Beer
The Nazi Officer’s Wife is a brave retelling of how one Jewish woman survived the Holocaust under guise as a German hausfrau. Young and bright, Edith Hahn-Beer had much to be excited about before the war: a wonderful boyfriend and a promising career as a lawyer. But when World War II breaks out, she finds herself scrambling for safety as a Jew in Vienna. But when then she meets Werner Vetter, a Nazi painter, he learns about her true identity but ends up marrying her anyway.
Compelling and humanising in a way that many war stories are, Edith Hahn-Beer’s The Nazi Officer’s Wife is an amazing portrayal of love and womanhood during one of the world’s most turbulent times.
Related: Everything You Need To Know About 'Becoming', Michelle Obama's Netflix Documentary