Book Review: Feminist Fables for the Twenty-First Century: The F Word Project by Maureen Burdock (2015)

June 30th, 2017 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

To quote Trina Robbins in the Forward: Let’s start a movement!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher, McFarland. Trigger warning for violence against girls and women, including rape.)

— 4.5 stars —

There are so many words that come to mind when I think of Maureen Burdock’s Feminist Fables for the Twenty-First Century – and, yes, many of them are f-words: Fierce, fiery, and fun. Fabulous. Force, as in one to be reckoned with. Feminist, naturally. But also intersectional and inclusive. In the spirit of solidarity and sisterhood. With music in the cafés at night/And revolution in the air. (Borrowing from yet another folk singer.)

Beginning with the Author’s Note, Feminist Fables sent chills dancing up and down my arms.

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The five stories contained within its pages show women – of all ages, ethnicities, religions, sizes, and classes – working to combat misogyny in their communities and make the world a better place. In “Marta & the Missing,” a karate instructor named Marta decides to do what the police (including her own father) will not: hunt down the perpetrators of femicide in Juárez.

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“Maisa & the Most Daring Muslim Women” features a djinn who uses her culinary skills to save her daughter Lale from an honor killing. But once the young woman is made invisible, Maisa faces a new challenge: how to help her daughter be seen again.

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The heroine of “Mona and the Little Smile” is just a child – one who uses her art to transform her reality, and those of other children like her: namely, victims of rape.

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Meanwhile, Mumbi trains her literal butt off in order to score an upset at the Berlin marathon in “Mumbi & the Long Run.” Not for fame or glory, but for the cash prize – which she hopes will save her cousin Esther from female genital mutilation/cutting.

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The collection ends with a personal story written by Halima Mohamed Abdel Rahman, a woman who was subjected to FGM at the age of six – and went on to attend college and become a freelance journalist and activist.

The stories can be dark and depressing, to be sure, but each one ends on a note of hope, optimism, and women’s empowerment. (The sketch of Mona in her quasi-Wonder Woman getup? Pretty much slayed me, especially since I’m still reeling from seeing the first live-action adaptation on the big screen.)

Burdock’s artwork is enchanting. The black and white illustrations – which represent the majority of the book – are punctuated by the occasional full-color pages. This contrast is used to great effect, particularly in regards to the portraits of real women struck down by gender-based violence.

I especially love the intersectional nature of this book: each story takes place in a different corner of the globe (Mexico, Germany, Turkey/Chicago, Kenya/California/Berlin), and the narrative appears in both English as well as the native language of the story’s protagonist. The result is a little cramped, sometimes, but wonderful just the same.

Of course, there’s always the risk that this approach will be misinterpreted, e.g., “Misogyny is something that exists somewhere else/overseas/in OTHER, more ‘barbaric’ (read: Muslim, brown, poor, etc.) countries.” And indeed, I was dispirited to see at least one reviewer voice this attitude (“While I loved learning about these other cultures and their outdated, unfair and cruel traditions and practices, my heart hurt and it was so painful to read at the same time.”). Yet Burdock clearly and consistently asserts that misogyny and sexism – and the resulting violence against women – is a scourge without borders; it exists in damn near every country and culture on earth.

(Recall Mona, whose sexual abuse did not begin until her mother left her in the care of an uncle in America. And when she sent her art out into the world to help other children, most of them were white/seemingly lived in Western/industrialized nations.)

So just don’t, okay.

My only complaint is that the book seems to end rather suddenly. An afterward, or perhaps a list of resources or suggestions for further reading, would have made the collection feel a little more complete. Plus it would be great to have some direction to go from here: how do the girls and young women reading find their own inner Martas, Monas, and Mumbis?

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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