Publishing on International Women's Day, fresh and fierce new publishers 404 Ink's Nasty Women is an anthology Margaret Atwood describes as 'An essential window into many of the hazard-strewn worlds younger women are living in right now.'
19 October 2016 in Las Vegas. During the third USA Presidential Debate, Hillary Clinton, answering a question on social security, was interrupted by a finger-pointing Donald Trump: “Such a nasty woman.”
Within moments #NastyWoman began trending on Twitter, as women around the world co-opted the term, embracing and celebrating that which made them ‘nasty’ and standing against the misogynistic presidential candidate. Thousands shared their stories, wearing Nasty Woman t-shirts with pride. Sugar and spice be damned – nastiness united a community of women in defiance, solidarity and subversion. And, when the election results became clear, in shared sorrow.
In Scotland, freelancers – and co-founders of new publishing house 404 Ink – Laura Jones and Heather McDaid were reeling in the aftershock of the election. "I was on my way home from a show and everyone was so sad," recalls McDaid. Reflecting on the new president-elect and his remarks, the idea for a Nasty Woman book struck her. An anthology, a space for women to share their stories. She called Laura – at the time enjoying a well-deserved holiday after the duo's first magazine was published last November – and within days the two had set to work.
"The name was the beginning, I could just visualise it," remembers McDaid. "And in a way it sells itself. The key was in being the first to do it." Two weeks later the anthology was announced, its tagline 'keep telling your stories and tell them loudly'. They began by approaching friends in the UK and the USA, then put a call out on social media for submissions. "All of our briefs have been phenomenally brief," reflects Jones. "But then we've been surprised," McDaid adds. The two have lost count of how many submissions they received, and the unexpected breadth and diversity of topics covered (Jones notes Alice Tarbuck's composition on witchcraft and foraging; McDaid the insightful piece on contraception by Jen McGregor). While some contributors are professional writers, others are students, musicians, or come from the fields of teaching or STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
"We could have had lots of people writing the same thing but it would have been an echo chamber," McDaid reflects. Instead, 404 Ink actively sought to engage writers with different backgrounds and perspectives and, keenly aware of their own privilege, neither editor wrote pieces themselves for inclusion in their anthology. "We'd both heard our stories," says Jones, explaining their mutual desire to give a platform to people whose stories are not so often heard.
The result is a beautifully tailored collection of essays and accounts on what it is to be a woman in the 21st century – what it is to be a working class woman, to be a queer woman, to be a Latin woman, to be a black woman. What it is to be a woman who has survived sexual assault, what it is to be a woman who doesn't want children, what it is to be a woman who is mentally ill. "We are imperfect selves with messy lives," reads Becca Inglis's Love in a Time of Melancholia. In Go Home, Sim Bajwa writes, 'Sometimes, it feels like rebellion to claim our place without apology.'
It is a book of our times, forged in the shadow of a Trump presidency and looming Brexit; a book that marks this moment between what has been and what is yet to come. Nasty Women begins: 'They are calling him my president and I am scared out of my mind. They are calling him my president and there is bile in my throat as they ask me to respect him... They are calling him my president and my future has never seemed so bleak.' Rallying, powerful and personal, Katie Muriel's Independence Day might be read aloud in the biting cold to lend resolve to mittened protesters: “I try my best to keep the peace. Sometimes, however, peace has to take a holiday. Sometimes there are battles to be fought.” Jones reflects upon the collection, "You need the anger, you need the backlash – that's the point of art."
Angry, reflective, sober and hopeful in turns, Nasty Women is not always comfortable reading. Why should it be? In The Nastiness of Survival Mel Reeve confronts society's destructive narratives around the 'perfect' and the 'bad' survivor of rape in a painful yet affirming essay that connects them with all of the roles which women are expected to fit neatly, nicely and uncomplainingly into. “I know it is impolite,” she writes, “to talk about the time my humanity was stripped from me and I was treated like an object to be used.” She ends on the nastiness of being a survivor: “ceasing to be nice and choosing to be a little nasty instead, does not mean I cease to exist and I think that is a victory of some kind.”
“Nobody is perfect,” writes Becca Inglis, a borrowed line lends added poignancy her aforementioned Love in a Time of Melancholia, an essay on heroes and mental health, on Courtney Love and being given permission to get things wrong sometimes. Inglis – “Starved of female icons” – felt a flash of recognition when she first saw Love: “There was a woman I could follow. That was who I could be.” And despite Love's “relentless appetite for self-destruction”, Inglis pays homage to “her resolve to keep living, even when she is walking through hell.” Leave the YouTube comment threads behind – this loving, nuanced reflection on celebrity is all you need. “I have looked to a woman with flaws and many enemies.”
It's hard to single out pieces for praise in a collection where each essay is stellar. We read Claire L. Heuchan's reflections on race and the digital revolution: “Writing online built a path I wasn't sure existed.” Laura Waddell's vivid evocation of teenage years and the absence of working class stories 'as though art and education is for one class, and gravy and labour the other'. Sim Bajwa's tribute to immigrants and especially her parents: 'It's beautiful. It's a triumph'. Rowan C. Clarke facing her mother's homophobia: “How dare I be abnormal and happy at the same time?”
Even before its publication, the book is making waves on social media. A Kickstarter campaign, expected to cover the costs of publication and the payment of writers, reached over three times its original target, with a total of £22,156 pledged by 1,336 people. Having grown up backing things on Patreon, it seemed a natural step for 404 Ink to crowdfund the anthology. Pledges for Nasty Women rocketed when Margaret Atwood, author of the alarmingly prescient The Handmaid's Tale, tweeted her support, introducing the book to her many fans. She's since described the essay collection as “an essential window into many of the hazard-strewn worlds younger women are living in right now.”
Many are keenly anticipating the arrival of the book their pledges helped make a reality, and it's unlikely they'll be disappointed. In Nasty Women, 404 Ink have created something special – a book that will continue to resonate long after the first aftershocks of the new presidency have subsided, and a valuable guide to empathy and resistance in troubled times. "The next few years are going to be atrocious – we can't be on the wrong side of history," McDaid asserts. "Someone once said that if you sit on the fence, you're sitting on the wrong side."
The women at 404 Ink are Nasty Women with integrity. They also have ideas, drive and organisational finesse that would put many a more established publishing company to shame. It's easy to forget that this is their first book – but how are they feeling?
Laura Jones: "This is our first book. Total legitimate fear."
Heather McDaid: "I hope they like the book."
Laura: "They better fucking like the book."
We laugh. But I suspect they will.