“20 Under 40” Highlights Great Women Writers

When Terry Gross interviewed Jonathan Franzen on “Fresh Air,” she asked him about the backlash to the enormous media buzz his novel Freedom has generated. Franzen said:

It seems like there’s … a feminist critique and it’s about the quality of attention that writing by women gets compared to the quality of attention by male writers. I actually have a lot of those feelings myself and have over the years.

I began reading 20 Under 40: Stories from The New Yorker soon after I finished Freedom, and I often returned to Franzen’s on-air assessment. What is remarkable about 20 Under 40 is the racial, gender (10 are women) and geographic diversity of the writers featured in its pages. From Beijing to Miami, from Lagos to Cleveland, New Yorker editors awarded 20 extraordinarily talented young writers coveted spots on their list. All of these writers deserve their turn in the media spotlight–with the same “quality of attention,” to use Franzen’s phrase, for both the women and men.

Each writer represents a unique strand of what the future holds for English-language fiction, but as their characters run through the post-Emancipation American South and stumble through futuristic Rome, nearly every author examines loneliness. Many of the women described throughout 20 Under 40 face anxious isolation in the face of limitless options.

Nell Freudenberger’s “An Arranged Marriage” tackles these issues through Amina, a young Bangladeshi woman who devotes most of her life to plotting her escape to the U.S. Amina meets George, an American from Rochester, on the Internet. She eventually agrees to marry him and moves to New York.

Amina realizes that her modern-day marriage has more in common with her grandparents’ courtship, arranged through a local matchmaker, than with her parents’, who eloped. She’s lonely in her new life with George, but unlike the women before her Amina’s isolation stems from settling into a completely foreign life, into the overwhelming options of America. In Bangladesh, Amina’s mother and grandmother, confronted by extremely limited choices, were forced to make desperately difficult decisions. Her mother eloped with a man who failed in business, forcing his wife to imagine her daughter’s success not through advanced schooling but through marriage. Amina’s grandmother lost two sons from her arranged marriage, leaving her “quiet and heavy, like a stone.”

In comparison, the female protagonist in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Birdsong” vacillates between Amina and Amina’s elders’ experiences of limits and loneliness. Set in Lagos, Adichie’s nameless protagonist tries to navigate the growing but still limited options available to young, middle class women in Nigeria. The protagonist works for a telecommunications company and describes her discomfort traveling to rural villages on business:

Villagers watching us with awed eyes, young men asking for free phone cards, even free phones–it all made me feel helplessly powerful.

“Helplessly Powerful” could be “Birdsong’s” subtitle. Adichie’s protagonist earned a college degree and holds a well-paying job. Yet these achievements do not erase society’s expectations: It is assumed that she, like all of the women in her office, will eventually “settle down.” Without any prompting, even her lover promises not to “stand in her way” when she wants to do so. In the end, the protagonist leaves her lover, alienates her co-workers and settles on loneliness because she refuses to choose among the limited options available to a woman in her position.

Unable to tear her lover away from his wife, Adichie’s protagonist describes herself as a “slack, stringless marionette,” powerless and unspeaking. Freudenberger’s Amina defines herself as “dumbstruck” in the U.S.–overwhelmed by change and the limitless life so many Americans lead. Though Adichie’s main character is living in her home country, both she and Amina feel foreign in their surroundings.

Yiyun Li’s “The Science of Flight” similarly depicts Zichen, a divorced Chinese immigrant living in Iowa, rendered mute by her circumstances. Zichen fictionalizes her life for the benefit of her coworkers, pretending to visit an imaginary mother and father each year in China when, in reality, her father fled the moment she was born and her mother abandoned her to her grandmother to raise. Zichen uses her foreignness to erase herself, imagining only how others see her. She pictures her neighbors and landlord describing her as the “quiet, good-mannered foreigner.” Other Chinese immigrants would consider her a “loser,” she thinks, while her grandmother and acquaintances in China see her as a failure–but, in the end, as someone who was “able to build a life out of her failures.”

Each of these authors, and many of the other writers featured in 20 Under 40 describe this strong demarcation–this barrier between immigrants and the family they leave behind. These women face a new set of challenges and expectations whether they move to America or to modern, urban Lagos. Their options may seem limitless from the outside, but their struggles stem from balancing a network of shifting opportunities, choices and expectations.

Despite attempts from well-meaning coworkers, relatives and friends, most of the characters featured in 20 Under 40 decide to lead their lives alone. Readers can only hope that Zichen, Adichie’s unnamed protagonist and the many other characters detailed in 20 Under 40 discover shared joy in companionship as they navigate the future.



Jillian Weinberger is a contributing blogger to Ms. Originally from Cleveland, Jillian graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut with a B.A. in American Studies. She has worked at the National Judicial Education Program of Legal Momentum, volunteered with RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), and her writing has appeared in various blogs and publications. She also produces segments for "The Takeaway," a radio news show produced by WNYC, Public Radio International, the BBC, WGBH Boston, and The New York Times. She lives in Brooklyn.