Writer and editor Karyn Kloumann didn’t know who the subjects or contributing authors would be when, in 2005, she conceived of a book honoring the lives of women excluded from conventional narratives of history. But she knew it was a book she needed to see to fruition. The result of what she calls her “passion project with a 13-year incubation period” is Fierce: Essays by and About Dauntless Women. The collection won the 2019 BookLife Prize Nonfiction Contest. The contest drew hundreds of submissions in the categories of memoir and autobiography, business and personal finance, self-help and relationships, and inspirational and spiritual.
“Fierce is more than a celebration of a diverse group of activists, agitators, and iconoclasts whose lives and accomplishments have largely been ignored by history,” wrote guest judge Anya Yurchyshyn (My Dead Parents) in her critique of the book. “It’s an examination of the systematic oppression that led to this erasure and continues to exclude women to this day.”
In 2015, Kloumann set to work creating what she calls “a brilliant anthology by writers with heart and soul—but not at the expense of their sharp intelligence.” She reached out to authors via a Facebook group. “I was seeking a diversity of life experiences, by geography, age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation,” she says.
Part of Fierce’s power stems from contributors’ passion for and connection to their subjects; in each essay, the authors distilled the essence of their subjects and projects to one-word descriptions such as deliverance, blind, and revelry. “Asking each writer to choose a single word to describe their broad direction ensured that each essay would have its own unique arc and positioning within the whole,” Kloumann says.
Lakota writer-activist Jonnie Taté Walker writes about White Buffalo Calf Woman, a figure from Lakota folklore. Author-playwright Kara Lee Corthron’s essay features 20th-century nightclub owner Ada “Bricktop” Smith. Debra Brehmer tells the stories behind the women in Manet’s painting Olympia: the artist (and painter’s muse) Victorine Meurent and her fellow model Laure.
Meera Nair’s subject, Nangeli—a lower-caste 19th-century woman in what is now the southern Indian state of Kerala—achieved mythic status after protesting a tax imposed on lower-caste women for covering their upper bodies. “When the tax collector came to her hut to collect the tax, Nangeli cut her breasts off and presented them to him and bled to death,” Nair says. “Her action was so shocking that it led to the tax being repealed.” She felt drawn to the story as a result of her own experiences of caste inequities in India. “As I write in the essay, watching people being served on separate plates and glasses and the many small humiliations being visited on the lower castes daily made me question the whole system and my place in it,” she explains. Nangeli frequently appears in portraiture as a symbol of resistance and, Nair says, continues to permeate the consciousness of many women in Kerala.
Betsy Andrews wrote about the Night Witches, the nocturnal Soviet all-women WWII bombing regiment. She says a psychic once told her that her Russian grandmother was a Baba Yaga figure. Andrews mistakenly believed that the Night Witches were named after Baba Yaga: “The wolf, the grandma, and the woodsman of Little Red Riding Hood all rolled into one... a Russian crone who walks around on chicken legs, with a fence whose spikes are topped with the glow-eyed skulls of her victims.” As she researched the Night Witches, she learned that they weren’t named after the crone but had been named by the Germans—who, Andrews says, “saw witches as one-dimensional and evil: to be burned.”
Andrews recalls that the Night Witches took her “on a wild ride into the complicated heart of not the grandmother, but the daughter. These young women were daughters of a state that was synonymous with a vicious father figure: Stalin. As a daughter of a man who was himself more wolf than woodsman, I felt a kinship to the Night Witches in their response to the Nazi invasion.”
Andrews’s creative journey led not only to a deeper understanding of her subjects and herself, but also of the ways in which history has represented—or not represented—the lives of women. “Daughters are human, and humans are violent, are victims, are resistors both passive and active, are perpetrators and collaborators, and survivors,” she says. “To fully see any young woman in a situation of extremity, to realize her humanity, we must see her complexity.”
The act of reclaiming and celebrating women’s stories means showing both elements of light and shadow, vulnerability and strength. In the introduction, Kloumann writes that she envisioned a coven when imagining the cover of the book. The final cover shows the single words from each essay interlinked and is inspired by a witch’s ladder, which is based on a 19th-century artifact. The ladder is a symbolic object used in witchcraft and modern Wicca.
“Like a witch’s ladder, Fierce straddles the space between positive and negative,” Kloumann says. “It does so by advocating for awareness and the destruction of unreasonable and unjust power structures to make way for creating a more evolved and principled society.”
Whatever the future holds for the book, Kloumann says she “would love Fierce to have a radical collision within the education system, which is pointedly deficient in specifically nonwhite, female, and nonbinary viewpoints about history, and further underscores the importance of documenting our own narratives.” She adds that the book’s driving purpose is “historiography—which means understanding why historical events have been interpreted so differently over time. Historiography enables us to understand what biases may have shaped the historical record by critical analysis. So historiography would be my defining word.”
In the words of contributor Caitlin Grace McDonnell, who wrote about the 17th-century opera singer and sword fighter Julie d’Aubigny, “History is a story, and the story we have been told is a lie. By shining light on these important women who survived and thrived and changed the world despite incredible obstacles, we are getting closer to telling the story of how we got here and where we need to go next.”