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Could a new wave of witch books be reflecting our feminist rage?

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Magic, power, fighting back against an oppressive patriarchy… witchlit is having a moment. Here’s why. 

Witching books have always been bestsellers. From Grimm fairy tales to The Worst Witch via breakout hits including Madeline Miller’s 2018 TikTok favourite Circe, The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s The First Woman and Juno Dawson’s Her Majesty’s Coven series, witching titles that unite women with their power are the backbone of fiction. But even by the publishing industry’s standards, where trends are often rinsed until the very last penny has been extracted, the number of witching books being released this year is remarkable.

So why is ‘witcherature’ or ‘witchlit’ (as The Guardian coined the new trend) having such a resonating moment? Part of the answer lies in the readers themselves (#WitchTok has around 37.3 billion views, making this largely a Gen Z/millennial demographic) and part of it is down to stories about powerful women. 

These Wiccan protagonists are often accessing latent magic that they didn’t know they possessed. Women who face oppression, violence, misogyny, erasement and suspicion, as well as those who are marginalised by their sexuality or their refusal to conform to the traditional gender roles assigned to them; if anything resonates in our lives in 2023, it’s this.

“I think there’s been a [witchlit] connection with key moments in 20th century feminism,” reflects Weyward author Emilia Hart. “For example, Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner – about a woman who abandons life as a spinster and moves to a small village called Great Mop, where she makes a pact with the devil. That was published in 1926 at a time when many women had experienced greater independence during the Great War and had at last obtained the vote, but were still largely under the control of male relatives.

“Then second-wave feminism saw huge academic interest in the witch trials and this also bled into the arts. In the 1960s you see Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle, Sylvia Plath’s poem Witch Burning, Anne Sexton’s poem Her Kind. Then in 1976, Caryl Churchill wrote the play Vinegar Tom, which uses the 17th century witch hunts to comment upon the unequal treatment of women in the 1970s. Now, of course, another 50 years have passed and we’re still writing about witches! But I think that’s because it still – sadly – feels relevant.”

Dazzling, a new book from debut author Chikọdịlị Emelụmadụ, also feeds into this power: a girl called Ozoemena arrives at a new school in Nigeria while grappling with the realisation she’s inherited a patrilineal legacy to defend her people by turning into a leopard. Emelụmadụ says Dazzling is less witchlit and more ‘creaturelit’, but its notions of female power fighting against the patriarchal (often misogynistic) status quo remain the same: “Dazzling is its own thing, but I do read and thoroughly enjoy witchlit, and in terms of giving power to those who have always been oppressed? Definitely. The demand mirrors the age in which we live.”

After all, witches are the perfect metaphor for women living in contemporary societies who want to erase their rights, their bodies and their freedoms. Given how these ‘wise women’ were persecuted, murdered and turned into pariahs, while 21st century women are facing the rollback of Roe v Wade or a UK society in which only 1% of reported rapes lead to conviction, revisiting the primal anger of powerful witches who have gone before is both cathartic and necessary. 

Drawing on male-oriented secret societies in Nigeria and West Africa, Dazzling reflects specific female oppression in those cultures but also has a wider resonance: “I think that the world – and men – have always feared and sought to control women, to strip them of the things they find comforting and natural, to shoehorn them into spaces in which they can be defined and categorised,” says Emelụmadụ. “Magic, folklore – these things cannot be measured, cannot be logicked away. Cannot be controlled. Magic and power are the oppressed’s answer to conformity and control. Magic is wild; you can channel it but not tame it.”

In Weyward, there is a direct line drawn between three generations of women and how the knowledge of their own bodies is eradicated by men. Alongside witchlit, two of the biggest new non-fiction books, This Won’t Hurt: How Medicine Fails Women by Dr Marieke Bigg and Rebel Bodies by Sarah Graham, articulate how Western medicine has been designed by men for men and why and how women need to understand and advocate for their own bodies.

“It felt really important for me to write about the rediscovery of a lost power – whether that’s a literal, supernatural power as in the novel, or simply a belief in your own resilience – for two different reasons,” explains Hart. “Partly, I wanted to draw a link with feminism: a legacy of ideas handed down through generations of women.

“I had a stroke when I was in my mid-20s, which really impacted my self-perception. I developed a distrust of myself – not just of my body, which had failed me once and might do so again, but also my mind. I wasn’t sure if I would ever be strong enough to accept what had happened to me. But over the years I did learn to trust my own body again, and I realised that the future still held so many exciting possibilities. I became hopeful again. So in a sense, I did feel as if I’d rediscovered a sort of power, like the Weyward women do in the novel. Although – and I might be biased here – I think their power is definitely cooler.” 

What witchlit offers is hope. In Weyward, acknowledging our world, nature and our connection with it can help us to deal with difficult times while also recognising our own inner power as women. And, as Emelụmadụ deftly explains, this shows us what female power looks like: “With the advent of Christianity, certain practices in my culture were demonised and amongst them, the reverence of one’s forebears. I see it as my duty to seek and to remember, to create and to record. I think I’m powerful too and I did not come from nothing. There must have been other women like me and it is my job to remember and include those women, these goddesses and mothers, for us.

“The entirety of Dazzling is of women surviving, being, living in a place where stability is dependent on men and thus outside their own control, and the many ways in which they ensure they do not simply perish, that they thrive. Now tell me, what could be better than that?” 

8 unmissable witchy books for 2023 

  • Now She Is Witch by Kirsty Logan

    Witchlit for 2023: Now She Is A Witch by Kirsty Logan

    One of our national writing treasures, Kirsty Logan’s latest tale is a deeply atmospheric, sometimes gory but ultimately uplifting quest as two girls – Lux and Else – move through a fascinating land blighted by witch killings and where women and girls are abused, violated and othered. Filled with rising power and dark anger, they head north to seek revenge in a story that will hold you tight and not let go (out now). 

    Shop Now She Is Witch by Kirsty Logan (Vintage) at Bookshop, £18.99

    buy now

  • Weyward by Emilia Hart

    Witchlit for 2023: Weyward by Emilia Hart

    Altha is facing a trial for witchcraft; teenage Violet’s uncanny connection with nature is severed by men at every turn; Kate is held in a gleaming glass tower and is in an abusive relationship. Three generations of women across the decades are in danger, but all find power and connection in the wilds of Cumbria, leading them to showdowns with their oppressors – who have absolutely no idea what’s coming for them… (out 2 February)

    Shop Weyward by Emilia Hart (HarperCollins) at Bookshop, £14.99

    buy now

  • Dazzling by Chikọdịlị Emelụmadụ

    Witchlit for 2023: Dazzling by Chikọdịlị Emelụmadụ

    Two girls – Treasure and Ozoemena – know they have something within them, but they live in a society where girls and women are at the mercy of men. But as Ozoemena’s fellow students begin to disappear, their legacy can no longer be suppressed. Weaving together Nigerian folklore with wonderfully complex protagonists, Dazzling is a powerful and exciting read (out 16 February).

    Shop Dazzling by Chikọdịlị Emelụmadụ (Headline) at Bookshop, £18.99

    buy now

  • The Witches Of Vardø by Anya Bergman

    Witchlit for 2023: The Witches Of Vardø by Anya Bergman

    Based on real events in Norway in 1662, The Witches Of Vardø unites a dazzling cast of female characters imprisoned and brutalised at the hands of men in a fortress in the far north. From the former mistress of the king, desperately trying to plot her own freedom by accusing other women of witchcraft, to the Norwegian folklore and beliefs of the indigenous Sámi that envelop the plot, this is a wild and immersive story (out now)

    Shop The Witches Of Vardo by Anya Bergman (Manilla Press) at Bookshop, £14.99

    buy now

  • Furies: Stories Of The Wicked, Wild And Untamed by various

    Witchlit for 2023: Furies by various

    To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Virago (the ground-breaking feminist international publisher of Sylvia Townsend Warner (see above) and others), writers including Margaret Atwood, Chibundu Onuzo, Helen Oyeyemi and Kirsty Logan (again) have contributed short stories inspired by synonyms for virago – such as ‘wench’, ‘hussy’ and ‘siren’ – words that have been used to denigrate women through the years. Not strictly witchlit but definitely where power and feminist rage meet (out 6 March).

    Shop Furies: Stories Of The Wicked, Wild And Untamed by various (Virago) at Foyles, £16.99

    buy now

  • Ashes And Stones by Allyson Shaw

    Witchlit for 2023: Ashes And Stones by Allyson Shaw

    A non-fiction take on witchlit, this beautiful exploration by Allyson Shaw uncovers the erased past of witchcraft in Scotland, a country that led the way in witch killings during the 17th century. Detailing the countryside, forgotten monuments and stories of women lost to violence and fear, it’s a moving reminder for us all to connect with what’s gone before (out now). 

    Shop Ashes And Stones by Allyson Shaw (Hodder & Stoughton) at Bookshop, £18.99

    buy now

  • The Witch In The Well by Camilla Bruce

    Witchlit for 2023: The Witch In The Well by Camilla Bruce

    Uniting the ‘found footage’ of Janice Hallett’s books with Norwegian tales of ‘difficult women’ and folk horror, Camilla Bruce’s mystery unfolds as two women go head to head in an effort to uncover the tale of Ilsbeth Clark, who was drowned in the village well 200 years ago. But something dark is lurking… (out 23 February)

    Shop The Witch In The Well by Camilla Bruce (Transworld) at Bookshop, £16.99

    buy now

  • The Witching Tide by Margaret Meyer

    Witchlit for 2023: The Witching Tide by Margaret Meyer

    This debut set in 1645 East Anglia against a backdrop of the English Civil War is the tense and terrifying story of Martha, a midwife and healer who hasn’t spoken in years. As a witch hunt breaks out in the village, Martha is compelled by the arrival of witch hunter into examining women of the village for ‘marks’. But, Martha has a power of her own… (out 6 July)

    Shop The Witching Tide by Margaret Meyer (Phoenix) at Bookshop, £16.99

    buy now

Images: courtesy of publishers

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