East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The sort of women that would look at us and consider us gnats


There this meme doing the rounds – and yes, I already told you that I can’t see why they call’em memes, but anyway…

The idea is to list five (or ten, depending on what version you find) women writers that have somehow influenced you and your world-view.
And there’s a lot of people listing fiction writers – and indeed I think I will do a women fictioneers post, maybe next week.
Right now, though, I think I’ll do my own list of authors that were and are indispensable to me… and I’ll focus on nonfiction.
But I think I’ll do six – just to be my usual wayward self.
And as a bonus, I’ll also give you a book title to check out.

Here goes, in random order…

Rachel Carson


Scientist and writer, her book Silent Spring is considered the starting point of the environmental movement, and The Sea Around Us is a seminal work about the human relationship with the oceans. But my favorite book remains The Edge of the Sea, that is a wonderful description of the coastal environment.

Sylvia Earle


Another scientist and a woman that dedicated her life to the study of the oceans. A National Geographic Explorer, Sylvia Earle’s list of achievements is too long to list here, and all her books are highly recommended, but I like and often re-read The Oceans, co-authored with Ellen Prager (but check out also Sea Change and The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One). She is a frequent speaker at the TEDTalks – and you can catch her videos on Youtube.

Natalie Goldberg


Zen practitioner and writing teacher, Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is one of the best books about writing – and about Zen – that I ever read. Her take on creativity-as-meditation (or the other way around) is refreshing and intelligent, and her works are highly recommended (check out Wild Mind). I read more Goldberg books about creativity, writing and Zen, than any other author’s, and I often return to her pages.

Rosita Forbes


Traveler, adventuress, spy, novelist, film-maker, Rosita Forbes explored the world and wrote about it. It is a well-known fact that  I have a long-standing crush on Rosita Forbes. Her books – both fiction and non fiction – are long out of print, but you can still find the wonderful From the Sahara to Samarkand: Selected Travel Writings of Rosita Forbes 1919-1937, a selection of Rosita’s writings edited by Margaret Bald. She also invented two cocktails, but I can’t remember the recipes right now.

Emily Hahn


World traveler, writer, journalist, opium smoker and all-around scandal, Emily Hahn wrote about China between the wars, but traveled extensively to Africa, India, Europe, and her books are an absolute joy, and keenly observed. She is the lady that used to go at parties in Shanghai, in the company of a monkey in a diaper. Her China to Me: A Partial Autobiography is a good starting point (and it was recently reprinted).

Christina Dodwell

d1defb5c74-CJD and png warrior

Traveler, explorer and writer, member of the Explorer’s Club, I discovered Christina Dodwell in 1992, when I read her An Explorer’s Handbook, and I decided to read everything she wrote. Dodwell traveled in Asia, Africa and became famous for her crossing of Papua New Guinea, where she was initiated into manhood (!) by the Crocodile Tribe. My favorite among her many books remains A Traveller in China, followed suit by A Traveler on Horseback in Eastern Turkey and Iran, but the list is long, and it’s a really close call.

And here it is.
And yes, you are right, I should do a proper post on each one of them. So far, I only wrote about Rosita.

As an old friend told me about twenty-five years ago

These are the sort of women that would look at us and consider us gnats

Well, maybe. Maybe not.
And you out there?
Do you have five, six, or ten women whose non-fiction books made you what you are?
The comments are open, if you feel like sharing.
We sure love to find more good books to read, and more myths for our personal pantheons.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

5 thoughts on “The sort of women that would look at us and consider us gnats

  1. Osa Johnson — Adventure

    Isaak Dinesen — Out of Africa

    Beryl Markham — more Africa

    Barbara Tuchman — mostly The Guns of August

    Currently reading Margaret MacMillan’s “The War That Ended Peace” (1914 and the road to war); Paris, 1919 is also top-drawer.


    • Both Johnson and Markham are here on my shelf – great women, great books.
      Out of Africa… I was sort of put-off by the movie.
      But as always, thanks for the suggestions 🙂


  2. Emily Hahn! Never heard of her. Thank you!

    “Chances are, your grandmother didn’t smoke cigars and let you hold wild role-playing parties in her apartment”, said her granddaughter Alfia Vecchio Wallace in her affectionate eulogy of Hahn. “Chances are that she didn’t teach you Swahili obscenities. Chances are that when she took you to the zoo, she didn’t start whooping passionately at the top her lungs as you passed the gibbon cage. Sadly for you … your grandmother was not Emily Hahn.”


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.