In a discussion centering around the question ‘What’s a Woman For?’ authors Leni Zumas and Sophie Mackintosh explored the literary, political, and lived experiences behind their writing, and their hopes for the future of feminist fiction.

The event was chaired by Stephanie Merritt, critic and feature writer, who led a clear discussion of the topic at hand as they moved passionately through concepts of control and women’s autonomy. From the outset, it was clear that both authors were keen to promote one another’s work, and so the discussion that followed was well connected and created an aura of support and empowerment that naturally engaged the audience.

Zumas was at the Festival to talk about her most recent novel Red Clocks, a story set in an America where abortion is illegal, and Mackintosh’s debut (and Man Booker longlisted) novel, The Water Cure, hauntingly explores a world where women are not safe in their own bodies and must go to great lengths to protect themselves against a toxic society. Though both branded dystopian, neither story is that far removed from our own world – a truth both authors kept coming back to throughout the event.

Merritt kicked the discussion off in this vein by addressing the “Margaret Atwood comparison”. She humorously referred to her as the “towering colossus of dystopian feminist fiction” and asked both authors how they felt about being compared to her. Both Zumas and Mackintosh had clearly given thought to this as they smoothly expressed their admiration for Atwood, but were clear to draw attention to the danger of overusing certain comparisons – especially in the case of Margaret Atwood and dystopian feminist fiction.

Zumas admitted that in both books “there is so much about the control of women’s bodies, and in that way it makes sense to draw those connections,” but stressed the importance of being able “to look at and tackle issues of treatment of women without comparing.” Mackintosh echoed this idea and touched upon “the need for a new language” to classify the different stories of female experiences.

Expanding on the idea of providing space and opportunities for a variety of experiences to be heard, Merritt also drew attention to the structural style of the novels. Both Red Clocks and The Water Cure have multiple narrators, an important choice for both authors as they confidently talked the audience through their reasoning for providing a multitude of angles in which to experience their respective stories. They both brought up the fact that there are already so many voices that aren’t heard in everyday life, and so in their novels they were wary of silencing any of the characters they felt should have a voice of their own.

When the event opened to audience questions, the exploration of the role of feminist fiction and its current perception in publishing and society was continued, and it was clear from the exchanges that transpired there was a strong sense of connection between the largely female audience and the conversation taking place on stage. An audience member asked “What is the future of feminist writing and where do you want it to go?” to which Zumas responded “I’d like to see an ever broader range of how stories are told.” Sophie furthered this with an unwavering glance to the audience, succinctly stating “For feminist literature not to be a thing… simply a part of the amazing spectrum of the human experience.”