Min Jin Lee, Porochista Khakpour, and Other Authors Share the Women Writers Who Inspire Their Work

The best writing often comes from reading. Every author has a formative book or two that pushed their pen to paper, whether it was the tattered novel assigned in high school English class or the nonfiction tome discovered on a cramped bookstore shelf.

Literature, like most disciplines, gives more credit to its founding fathers than its foremothers. But many female writers have cultivated a canon of their own outside the mainstream. In Catherine Lacey’s standout novel, Biography of X, there are traces of Swiss author Fleur Jaeggy’s twisting Italian narratives. Min Jin Lee’s contemporary forays into early adulthood angst mirror the groundbreaking romances of Jane Austen. Téa Obreht turned to Rebecca West’s pages on Yugoslavia, Obreht’s own understudied homeland, for instruction on travel writing. 

Here, six women shaping the literary landscape today spotlight the female writers who came before them and continue to occupy their bookshelves and minds.

Portrait of Fleur Jaeggy. Image courtesy New Directions Publishing.

Catherine Lacey

Catherine Lacey is the author of five books, including the 2023 bestseller Biography of X, about piecing together the life story of an artist who suddenly drops dead in their office. Her debut nonfiction tome, The Möbius Book, is forthcoming, as well as a second short story collection titled My Stalkers.

“Fleur Jaeggy makes perfect, short books filled entirely with chilling sentences and characters that seem to stare up from the page and through my skull. Jaeggy is neither my contemporary, nor my countrywoman, nor do we share the same mother tongue, but her work has affected me deeply and keeps me afloat. The capitalist precept that an artist should know the audience her work is meant to reach is totally stupid in light of Jaeggy’s power. I am her audience; it is a pleasure to know she’s never once thought of me.”

Portrait of Toni Morrison. Image courtesy of Kathy Willens for AP/

Min Jin Lee

Min Jin Lee—author of Free Food for Millionaires, about coming of age in New York, and Pachinko, a sprawling epic set in Japan—is a National Book Award finalist and runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. She’s currently in the midst of her third novel, American Hagwon, and a nonfiction work titled Name Recognition.

"My O.G. writing teachers are Toni Morrison, Edith Wharton, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Alice Munro, Zora Neale Hurston, Joan Didion, Park Wan-suh, and Virginia Woolf. Through their luminous work and honest struggle, they edify and nourish. Their visionary characters, grand narratives, and sharp arguments raise the standards for great literature as they do the near-impossible work of bringing in the needed points of view that were denied.”

Portrait of Rebecca West, 1952. Image courtesy of Baron for Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Téa Obreht

Téa Obreht’s 2011 debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, is an Orange Prize for Fiction winner and National Book Award finalist. This month, she released her follow-up, The Morningside. The novel’s protagonist and her mother have been exiled from their homeland and are living in a deteriorating luxury tower full of strange characters.

“It might be impossible to write in English about folktales of the former Yugoslavia, where I’m from, without having some awe for Rebecca West’s travel memoir of the region, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. It is similarly impossible to write about folklore in America without finding yourself indebted to Toni Morrison. Then there’s Shirley Jackson, a master of the unseen and unsaid, and Karen Russell, a totally original and incomparable voice, infused with a kind of loose, wildland magic I can neither explain nor understand. I also love Vesna Goldsworthy, for her sharp, no-nonsense elegance; and the late great Dubravka Ugrešić, who, in addition to writing expansive, ingenious, courageous works, lived by her principles even, and perhaps especially, when she knew the cost would be enormous.”

Portrait of Carol Emshwiller, 2006. Image courtesy of Ellen Levy Finch.

Kelly Link

Kelly Link, a best-selling short story author, Pulitzer Prize finalist, and MacArthur fellow, released her debut novel last month. The Book of Love follows three high school students who have long been missing and are suddenly resurrected from the dead by their music teacher.

“I had heard of Carol Emshwiller long before I met her—in my MFA program, a friend asked me, ‘Have you read Carmen Dog? It’s published by this small press, Mercury House, and I think you’d really like it. It’s weird.’ I had not, in fact, read Carmen Dog, a large-hearted, feminist fable in the manner of Candide. When at last I did, it was love at first sight. I set out to track down everything Emshwiller had written. As it so happens, I became a regular attendee of a peer workshop that Emshwiller also went to. She told stories of how her writing was first rejected, ‘because it was so close to the writing of Donald Barthelme. I had never read Barthelme, and so I went to read him so I could change what I was doing.’ She also once triumphantly told another writer, ‘Every time you have used the word ‘penis,’ you should have said ‘phallus’ instead, and every time you used ‘phallus,’ it ought to have been ‘penis'! No one else in the workshop could quite parse what she meant by this. Eventually my very small press (much smaller than Mercury House) published her novel The Mount, in which Earth is conquered by aliens who are more analogous to prey animals than predators, as well as a short story collection, Report from the Men’s Club. ”

Portrait of ZZ Packer by Marion Ettlinger. Image courtesy of Penguin Random Publishing.

Venita Blackburn

Writer Venita Blackburn published her first collection of stories, Black Jesus and Other Superheros, in 2017. She followed that up with How to Wrestle a Girl in 2021, a finalist for a Lambda Literary Prize. At the top of this year, she released her debut novel, Dead in Long Beach, California, a story that wrestles with the depths of depravity we reach when overcome by grief.

“I was raised in a kind of matriarchy, so naturally developed a deep appreciation for the voices of women, their judgments, creativity, self-righteousness, humor, and vanity. When I finally found my favorite books (Sula by Toni Morrison, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, and Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer) as a young writer, they were instantly recognizable but also foreign. I didn’t know we were allowed to write like that, to bare our insecurities and intelligence without shame. Women were my teachers and deaconesses. They brought me to mathematics, language and God, all of which I still find dubious. I remain grateful for their gifts.”

Portrait of Jamaica Kincaid courtesy of the author.

Porochista Khakpour

Porochista Khakpour has released two novels, a memoir, and a collection of essays, each received with growing acclaim. The Civitella Ranieri fellow is set to release her next novel, Tehrangeles, this year. It tells the story of a family made rich off of a microwavable snack empire who are undone as deeply held secrets come to light in the process of filming a reality television series.

“Jamaica Kincaid will forever be an author I think of when I reflect on women authors who have inspired me. I love how she straddles the line between experimental literature and a lyrical naturalism most akin to poetry. I love her own personal story too—how she came to the U.S. as an immigrant and pretty quickly found her world in NYC. I was able to visit her native Antigua last year and all I could think of was her short piece ‘Girl,’ in which a mother instructs her daughter on how to carry herself as a young woman and as a result rattles off a catalog of all things Antiguan. Whether she’s writing New Yorker ‘Talk of the Towns’ or columns on gardening, she’s a writer I never ever skip.”