The struggle for women’s rights has gone on for thousands of years and true gender equality is still far from being realized.
On the one hand, “glass ceilings” being shattered suggest growing independence and prosperity. Yet billions of women around the world still lack basic personal, social, and economic rights; misogyny is woven into the norms and institutions of society; and violence against women is rampant.
In Anna Solomon’s latest novel, The Book of V., the oppositional forces of progress and reaction collide in the lives of three women from very different eras who try to overcome the stifling values of patriarchy.
Esther is subjected to the whims of a powerful Persian king; Vivian Barr faces predatory behavior in her Washington, DC, home; and Lily existentially doubts her role as a mother and wife. Across vastly different cultural milieus, Solomon shows how women draw on personal resolve, friendships, and broader communities to survive and thrive.
Solomon told Global Citizen that she was interested in exploring the power dynamics that have historically shaped women’s lives in her latest book.
“Part of what I’m exploring throughout these stories is how we have been kept from power and also how we have harnessed power and continue to,” Solomon said. “On another level, I’m looking at how utterly entwined the political and personal are when it comes to women’s experiences.
“Beyond that, and really key to why I chose to tell these stories across times, I wanted to look at the huge impact that storytelling has on our conceptions of ourselves and ultimately history,” she added. “A story that a mother or grandmother passes onto their daughter or son thinking it might be empowering might actually be oppressive. A story that a whole segment of society is told about their worth shapes not only their own lives but also history.”
Global Citizen spoke with Solomon to learn more about the book and what readers can expect.
Global Citizen: What was the path of writing and workshopping this book like? How did your background as a reporter inform your writing?
Anna Solomon: While I wasn't workshopping it, per se, I have a small cadre of readers at this point in my life and we do that for each other and that feels really necessary. It’s a real gift.
My work as a reporter was foundational for me in part because it showed me what I wasn't interested in — press conferences on Capitol Hill interviewing senators whose answers were prepackaged. But I think more so, and in a positive way, I think it showed me what I am interested in, which are the human stories beneath the headlines. Both the headlines of history and the headlines in our contemporary lives.
Reporting helped me realize how research and writing are a symbiotic process. You’re really forced to listen. Anyone who works in audio, whether you’re a reporter or doing long-form narrative, the story always starts with people’s voices. That had a big influence on me as well. It doesn’t mean I just write dialogue, but figuring out my characters voices is really critical to understanding the story.
And the last thing, in terms of learning how to tell a story, how to take life which is inherently pretty messy both in the world at large and our personal lives, is really a form of synthesis, which is what you do as a reporter.
What kind of research did you do for this book?
There was a lot of research but it was very varied. I was looking at everything from what kind of aquaponics are underway in refugee camps today to the social and sexual dynamics of Watergate-era Washington, DC, to the role of women in the ancient courts.
It was very wide-ranging and it was a lot of work. It forced me to come against a lot of stuff that wasn't widely known. At the core, I was researching story, how the stories that we are told by our cultures, by our parents, by our religious texts, how they serve those who are already in power.
Can you talk about some of the themes that you wanted to explore?
The stories weave together; they’re always overlapping. There’s one character whose story is set in contemporary Brooklyn, one in 1973 DC, one in ancient Persia. So part of what I’m exploring throughout these stories is how we have been kept from power and also how we have harnessed it and continue to. On another level, I’m looking at how utterly entwined the political and personal are, when it comes to women’s experiences.
Beyond that, and really key to why I chose to tell these stories across times, I wanted to look at the huge impact that storytelling has on our conceptions of ourselves and ultimately history,” she added. “A story that a mother or grandmother passed onto their daughter or son thinking it might be empowering might actually be oppressive. A story that a whole segment of society is told about their worth shapes not only their own lives but also history.
We’d all really benefit from facing this power that stories really have and thinking about how we engage with them.
The book covers various historical eras, from ancient times to the contemporary period. In what ways have women’s lives and the obstacles they face remained the same throughout history?
From what I’ve observed in my life and learned and read, it seems to me that women are still facing many of the same challenges that we have over the course of history, going as far back as history has been recorded. In ancient Persia, women are being bought and sold and trafficked. They’re literally not in possession of their own bodies and lives, and that is a reality today.
Women in many ways have far more rights, but our right to make the most basic choices about our bodies at this moment is being taken away at an alarming rate in the United States. The ways that [women are denied agency] are much more subtle. Even the women who are the most privileged and do feel in possession of their bodies and have quite a lot of education and economic power, many do still struggle to claim what they want and to know what they want. I think that the takeaway for me, as we see in every area of social justice, is that our history is much closer than it appears
Why did you want to tell this novel from multiple points of view? Was it challenging to convincingly differentiate them?
This is more of a craft question and the answer is that it’s a little more loosey goosey. It really is this deep, vivid imagining of these characters that allows me to get to know them so they are utterly distinct from each other. It’s only through the writing process, the writing and the rewriting and the rewriting, that I come to know my characters, the symbiosis of character and story. My character in ancient Persia, she can’t be my character in 2016 Brooklyn, but I don't start out with, "Here's the story and here’s the character." It’s more, "Here’s who I think the character is and this is how the character forms in relation to the story and vice versa."
I think it was because so much of what I was interested in was storytelling and the power of storytelling to shape our lives and history. It was important for me to capture that multiplicity and complexity. Through that I was able to explore that these women who are so different on the face of it are also so connected and so similar and have so much in common. Those connections that really give people hope and make us feel that we’re not alone.
My contemporary character is set in early 2016 Brooklyn because the election of 2016 was such a watershed moment that captured this really powerful naivete that many of us had about all sorts of things, this willed naivete. We knew that women were regularly being abused in the workplace and Black people were regularly being shot by the police, but we had been lulled into a faith in progress and we were able to turn our eye to it, particularly in relation to feminism.
What’s something that you want readers to pay close attention to in The Book of V. as they read it over the next month?
I think that, because it’s slightly different from what we’ve talked about so far, I’d want readers to really pay attention to the women’s friendships. The book really explores both how women have been socialized to be competitive in a lot of ways, to form tribes, and often in ways that are based in superficial differences. But also at the core, more hopefully, what I explore is that when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, women are our greatest source of strength and comfort. We would literally not survive but for our female friends.
I wanted to offer a vision for how we could compete less and cooperate more. It’s not an understatement to say that doing that is key to taking down the patriarchy.
The Book of V. by Anna Solomon is the July pick for the Global Citizen Book Club.
How does the Global Citizen Book Club work?
Read: Each month, we will handpick a new book to read together, relating to one of our core issues. You can purchase each month's selection at your local bookstore — or, if you're feeling lucky, Global Citizens in the US can enter to win the book here!
Discuss: Each week, we will engage in facilitated discussions with your fellow Global Citizens around major themes, key learnings, and more in our “Global Citizen All-Access” Facebook Group. Join here!
Participate: The following month, we will host a virtual discussion with the author, where you will get the chance to engage and ask questions. You can get a ticket to the event by taking action with Global Citizen and using your points, so keep an eye out on Global Citizen Rewards!