Literary Witches by Taisia Kitaiskaia, illustrated by Katy Horan
Published by Seal Press, 2017
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
This gem of a book celebrates some of the most ground-breaking and inspiring female writers from throughout history. The title, and the book’s overarching theme, comes from the assertion that their way with words – their ability to conjure worlds and incite emotion – is in itself a kind of magic. Like those accused of witchcraft, many of these writers were vilified for refusing to adhere to societal expectations, but by challenging the norm and embracing their talent, they were able to forge their own power and agency.
Each writer receives a double-page spread. On one side, we are presented with a stunningly surreal and suitably gothic portrait produced by Katy Horan. Drawing on iconography from their work to add subtlety and meaning, I could happily display each and every one on my wall. Here are some examples to whet your appetite:
On the other page, we get a few short, third-person vignettes about the writer in question. Poetic, magical, and hugely evocative, they too draw on themes and ideas from the writer’s life and work to offer a unique and artistic snapshot of their experiences, inspiration, or mindset. Do they occasionally dip into self-indulgence? Arguably so. But the fairy tale-esque tone works perfectly within the context of the book’s framing. Here are a few excerpts from different writers’ sections to give you an idea of what to expect:
On Jamaica Kincaid: ‘By day, the island of Antigua sleeps like a white, sandy lion. At night, the lion opens his jaws to swallow young girls whole. When her childhood ends, Jamaica fights her way out of the lion’s mouth and swims all the way to America. […] Jamaica puts a pot of soup on the stove. It is hearty with hurt, the hurt of nations and families. She leaves the house and goes about her business. By evening, the soup boils down to a thick black sludge. Jamaica scoops it up with her pen and writes.’
On Virginia Woolf: ‘Crossing the street on a rainy day, Virginia leaps easily from one pool of consciousness to another. She loves these puddles, the creatures wrapping around her ankles in each. But before she can get to the next street, Virginia sees her own pool: it floods with rain, rises higher, becomes a deep, turbulent river. She will not survive this one.’
On Mary Shelley: ‘At night, no matter what she does, Mary’s laboratory becomes a cemetery. Lantern becomes moon, instruments become shovels, tables turn to coffins. Mary sighs. She places her hand into the enormous, awkward paw of the waiting Creature, and they walk together among the graves.’
Following several such paragraphs for each writer, we have a brief, more traditional biographical note, as well as some recommended reads from their oeuvre.
I was thrilled by how diverse this is. There’s a fantastic mix of literary giants and virtually unknown writers from across the world. I was reminded to pick up some of the greats, and discovered some fascinating new figures I’d love to learn more about. By not limiting itself to the widely accepted literary canon, we are also presented with lots of women of colour.
Informative, creative, and beautifully presented, I know I will come back to this regularly, both to pick up recommendations, and to enjoy Horan’s gorgeous artwork. This would make a fantastic gift for anyone who loves literature, feminism, art, and a little dash of the uncanny. But don’t just get it for others. By all means, treat yourself to this little treasure trove.