Author and historical consultant on witchcraft and magic

What She’s Having: Stories of Women and Food, by Dear Damsels

Nov 28, 2023 | Blog

Themed anthologies can feel like a gamble for the reader. Some recycle random literary bric-a-brac – old, quirky or famous, perhaps, although reading like a scrapbook of clippings. But the Dear Damsels collective have a wiser approach, looking forward to new writing not back to greatest hits. They announce a theme for their next book, invite contributions that are as individual as their authors and then publish only those submissions they judge to be the best. What She’s Having therefore has sixteen chapters of uneven length and various form – stories, essays, documentary or fictional, and poems – that are as fresh and cohesive as any reader could wish.

Because the book’s theme is “women and food” the obvious analogies are with puddings, traybakes, stews: a spoonful of this, a pinch of that, blend to perfection and add heat. The book isn’t a buffet, but a harmonious meal. And it’s meant to be nutritious, too: comfort eating at its best, although there is some salt and a little bitterness among the sweets. Because of this there’s an ingredients warning at the start, not for nuts and gluten but for body image, death, eating disorder and other unhappinesses. That said, this is a kind book. Grief does not outweigh the joy of memories but is held in balance with them, adversity is lived through and with. We all need a bit of that honest comfort. Whether it’s an essay on apricots and language, a story about baking for a prisoner, an elegy for a loved cook or a poem about a peach, each chapter feeds the reader.

What impressed me most was the delicacy of the writing. All the observations, whether in fiction or fact, are so thoughtful, so richly layered, so carefully moulded that each chapter feels precious. You can feel the passionate precision and intensity of the writers’ crafting. This might be related to the precarity of the collection, a determined, brave statement by editors and contributors at a time when cultural work is made to feel risky and publishing and bookselling are threatened. There’s no entitlement here, no famous names and brands on the cover, but a hard-won right to write. Dear Damsels began by crowdfunding, and the contributors’ biographies testify to the sheer effort of sustaining literary activity. Every one of them has earned their place in this outstanding book. What’s She’s Having is her just desserts.

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