This year’s theme for Canadian Women’s History Month is #MakeAnImpact. The works and lives of these twenty women writers show how women continue to shape and make an impact in Canada’s and the world’s literary scene. These books span genres from fantasy to contemporary to memoir. Some of these authors have only one or two books published; others are approaching a hundred. Regardless, their work has made an impact.
“Human rights. For everyone. Because that was the only way the world made sense. When the arc of care went far and wide, it journeyed and battled to exclude none.”–Love From A to Z
S.K. Ali was born in India but moved to Canada when she was three. She’s a new author to watch out for. She’s written two own voices young adult novels about contemporary teenage Muslim life, and she coauthored a gorgeous picture book celebrating Muslim girls and the hijabu–The Proudest Blue. Her first book raked in many awards and nominations, and I’m quite certain the two released this year are going to gather even more.
Start with: Saints and Misfits
“A septuagenarian making her debut as a novelist sounds singular, but I have plenty of company – some of the novelists I most admire didn’t begin writing until they were old. Probably not coincidentally, they are all women. Even now, the shape of a woman’s life often includes child-rearing and child-supporting that demand most of her energies for decades. Delay can also come from the feelings of inadequacy that women confess to more than men.”–Article for The Star
Katherine Ashenburg writes nonfiction and journalism that engages in specific and unusual questions from history and does so in an engaging and fun way. Her most read nonfiction book is the award-winning The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History. She published her debut novel at the age of 72, Sofie & Cecilia, to critical acclaim.
Start with: Sofia & Cecilia
“Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” –The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood hardly needs an introduction. Her oeuvre includes novels, poetry and short story collections, graphic novels, and children’s books, and she’s won numerous awards. Her work is always suffused with feminism and grapples with themes of environmentalism, animal rights, agency and complicity in a patriarchal society, and political oligarchy. She also founded the Canadian division of PEN International, a group that fights for freedom of expression for writers.
Start with: The Handmaid’s Tale. For a relatively lesser-known book, try The Robber Bride, my personal favorite.
“Did she now know what it was like to have so little agency? To be faced with such cruel options it was as if there was no choice at all?”–The Boat People
Sharon Bala’s debut novel The Boat People won several awards, including the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction, and was long listed for several others. It describes a family’s flight from wartorn Sri Lanka to British Columbia, only to be detained along with the rest of the refugees on the boat, under suspicion that they’re harboring a terrorist. Sharon Bala has also written and published many award-winning short stories. She was born in India, but now lives in Canada with her family.
Start with: The Boat People
“It was neither warm nor cold in Anna’s heart, neither cool nor blazing, it was empty, she thought, it was quiet and pure, with untouched depths they couldn’t even imagine, they being the others who let her drift like that, aimlessly, without reason, at times they smiled at her, touched her lightly with their derisory affection, then returned to themselves, to their adult preoccupations, no longer asking what she thought or felt . . .”–Anna’s World
The same age as Margaret Atwood, Marie-Claire Blais has written more than forty pieces of fiction, won two Guggenheim Fellowships, and has been nominated for the Nobel Prize. Her work is often disturbing and experimentative; for example, her most recent Soifs cycle of ten books contains no paragraph breaks. Though well-known in Canada, many of her pieces remain untranslated for readers in the United States, despite many of her novels taking place in the U.S.
“To write, for a lesbian, is to learn to take down the patriarchal posters in her room. It means learning to live with bare walls for a while. It means learning how not to be afraid of the ghosts which assume the color of the bare wall.”–The Aerial Letter
A poet and novelist, Nicole Brossard’s work explores feminist and lesbian themes and undermines patriarchal writing norms. She’s published more than thirty books. In 2013, she was awarded the National Order of Quebec, and in April 2019, she was the Griffin Lifetime Recognition Award recipient.
Start with: Selections: The Poetry of Nicole Brossard or Mauve Desert if you prefer novels
“We go to the schools and they leach the dreams from where our ancestors hid them, in the honeycombs of slushy marrow buried in our bones. And us? Well, we join our ancestors, hoping we left enough dreams behind for the next generation to stumble across.”–The Marrow Thieves
Métis young adult author Cherie Dimaline is best known for her novel The Marrow Thieves, which won numerous awards including the Governor General’s Award. She’s written five books total, her most recent one titled Empire of Wild, a retelling of the Métis story of the Rogarou–a werewolf creature. She was the first aboriginal Writer in Residence for the Toronto Public Library.
Start with: The Marrow Thieves
“Scared is what you’re feeling. Brave is what you’re doing.”–Room
Emma Donoghue was born in Dublin, Ireland but currently lives in London, Ontario. Her fiction has won several awards, and she’s written more than a dozen novels and short story collections, which vary greatly in topic, from fairytale retellings to historical fiction to contemporary drama. She also writes plays which have been performed in the National Theatre of Scotland and the Theatre Royal Stratford East, among others.
Start with: Room
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”–Lands of Lost Borders
Explorer and travel writer Kate Harris published her first book in 2017–Lands of Lost Borders–and it won numerous awards. Lands of Lost Borders combines a travel memoir with science history, philosophical meanderings, and meditations. She’s also an essayist.
Start with: Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road
“D is for Doesn’t Matter. Like, it doesn’t matter where we came from or what body parts we have, we are beautiful.”–M is for Mustache
Playwright, novelist, and children’s book author, Catherine Hernandez is a relatively new powerhouse on the Canadian literary scene. “queer. brown. writer. performer. mother” her website declares, and her work is steeped in these intersections. Her first novel, Scarborough, won multiple awards, and her children’s book M is for Mustache celebrates pride parades. She has another picture book coming out this year, and her next novel comes out in 2020.
“Some days I hit that wall really hard, and I have to tell myself that I don’t believe that stuff anymore. That all the things in my brain, all the little voices whispering that I’m Doing It Wrong, this is just how hegemonies work: by continuous reinforcement; by convincing people that there is only one true way (or a handful of such); by promoting and valuing, over and over, the same narratives without thought to how harmful they can be.”–Lightspeed Magazine: People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction!
Nalo Hopkinson is a Jamaican born Canadian science fiction writer. She’s black, she’s queer, she’s disabled, and her novels explore these intersections of race, class, gender, and power within the context of a science fiction setting, and infused with Carribean folklore. They’re a delight to read while also being thought-provoking.
Start with: Brown Girl in the Ring
“Violence is never the answer but sometimes, like with cockroaches, it is the only possible response.”–Blood Trail
Easily the most prolific author on this list with around one hundred books, Tanya Huff is famous for her science fiction, fantasy, and horror, many with LGBTQ+ characters. Her fiction is damn fun and she creates series to get lost in.
“Where do any of us come from in this cold country? Oh Canada, whether you admitted it or not, we come from you we come from you. From the same soil, the slugs and slime and bogs and twigs and roots. We come from the country that plucks its people out like weeds and flings them into the roadside. We grow in ditches and sloughs, untended and spindly. We erupt in the valleys and mountainsides, in small towns and back alleys, sprouting upside-down on the prairies, our hair wild as spiders’ legs, our feet rooted nowhere. We grow where we are not seen, we flourish where we are not heard, the thick undergrowth of an unlikely planting.”–Obasan
Interned with her Japanese-Canadian family during WWII, Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan, which addresses this part of her life, has become essential reading for all Canadians. She’s been awarded numerous awards and honors for her fiction and for her activism in bringing to light the history of Japanese internment in Canada. She’s a Member of the Order of Canada, a Member of the Order of British Columbia, and the Japanese government awarded her the Order of the Rising Sun.
Start with: Obasan
Terese Marie Mailhot
“In white culture, forgiveness is synonymous with letting go. In my culture, I believe we carry pain until we can reconcile with it through ceremony. Pain is not framed like a problem with a solution. I don’t even know that white people see transcendence the way we do. I’m not sure that their dichotomies apply to me.”–Heart Berries
While Terese Marie Mailhot has only released one book so far–Heart Berries–the book became a New York Times bestseller and was nominated and won multiple awards. Heart Berries describes Mailhot’s traumatic upbringing on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation. Raised by a social worker mother and an abusive alcoholic father, Mailhot’s memoir is written in fragmented prose as she grapples with memory and trauma.
Start with: Heart Berries
“Words are seeds, Casiopea. With words you embroider narratives, and the narratives breed myths, and there’s power in the myth. Yes, the things you name have power.”–Gods of Jade and Shadow
A Mexican born Canadian, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s speculative fiction combines fantasy, horror, science fiction, and folklore, and she also frequently edits short fiction anthologies. Starting in 2017, she keeps a list of works by Latin Americans in speculative fiction. You can also check out more of her book reviews with NPR, where she consistently promotes marginalized voices.
“Always remember that when a man goes out of the room, he leaves everything in it behind. . . When a woman goes out she carries everything that happened in the room along with her.”–Too Much Happiness
It’s unusual for a short story writer to reach the level of fame Alice Munro has. In 2013, she won the Nobel Prize in Literature, a culmination of a lifetime of writing and awards. Her short stories helped shape the contemporary short story genre with their movement in time and memory, and have a strong sense of setting. She and her husband also started their own independent bookstore–Munro Books–in Victoria, British Columbia.
Start with: Dear Life
“Close your eyes. Concentrate on your breath. Remember that you were not always earthbound. Every living creature, every drop of water and every sombre mountain is the by-blow of some bloated, dying star. Deep down, we remember wriggling through the universe as beams of light.”–Son of a Trickster
Eden Robinson is a member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations, and the author of six books so far. Haisla mysticism and folklore often permeate her fiction, and her books have won multiple awards.
Kai Cheng Thom
“A sanctuary is a place where the door only locks from the inside”–Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars
Kai Cheng Thom is a relatively new writer. Her first book was published in 2016, and her work describes being a trans, Asian woman in Canada. She writes poetry, children’s books, essays, and memoir, and has been nominated for many awards.
Start with: Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir
“It’s hard to grieve in a town where everything that happens is God’s will. It’s hard to know what to do with your emptiness when you’re not supposed to have emptiness.”–A Complicated Kindness
The author of eight novels, Miriam Toews has won The Governor General’s Award as well as many, many other prestigious awards. She grew up in Steinbach, Manitoba as part of the Mennonite community, and much of her work deals with religious patriarchy and the exploitation of women. For example, Toews based her most recent novel on true events. Women Talking is Toews’ fictional account of the more than 130 women that were repeatedly anaesthetised and raped in the Bolivian Manitoba Colony from 2005 to 2009. It’s a harrowing novel about harrowing events.
Start with: Women Talking or A Complicated Kindness
“It is true, the women are the people who pass the stories down through the generations in any family. Occasionally, one of the men would tell a story. When they did, it was a very exciting event, and it was often war-related. But the women were constantly gossiping. I’ve always been a great believer that gossip is not an evil thing. I see it as an investigation of human nature and I think it’s absolutely lovely, as long as it’s not malicious.”–Interview with Elaine Naves
The first Canadian to win France’s prestigious Prix du Meilleur livre étranger with her novel The Whirlpool, Jane Urquhart is a contemporary classic of Canadian literature. In 2005 she was named an Officer of the Order of Canada. Her novels tend to be steeped in history and family legacies. She also has several poetry collections.
Start with: The Stone Carvers