Knowledge Matters blog

30 June 2023

Finding Forgotten Women in the Collection | User Stories


Zing Tsjeng used the British Library to write the Forgotten Women book series. The four books contain the stories of almost 200 unsung women: the leaders, artists, writers and scientists who’ve shaped our world. The series was reissued as an anthology in March 2023. Zing is the Editor in Chief of VICE and VICE UK. 

The Forgotten Women books were the first books I've ever written, so they have a special place in my heart. I think the process politicized me in a way that I didn't quite grasp at the time. There was something about the impact of reading about so many women's lives that meant my brain started automatically making connections and finding patterns. 

I talk about freedom fighters and resistance fighters; left-wing political activists; LGBTQ+ activists. While my politics were always like that to begin with, I think something about reading about the twists and turns of these women's lives made me engage even more. I might not have the same background or heritage as these women, but I could see all the commonalities that I share with them, and that felt really empowering. 


Who is this woman?

When I pitched the series to my publisher, Octopus, the editor, Romilly Morgan, was talking about archiving women's history. At the time, I'd just seen a terrible Pirates of the Caribbean sequel on telly. You don't normally see Asian people in these big blockbuster franchises, but I spotted one elderly Asian woman in the background, and I wondered, who is this woman? 

It turned out that she was based on a real-life woman called Ching Shih, who had married into a pirate dynasty in China. When her husband died, she took over the whole thing. She brought the fleet together under her leadership, and went on looting, and eventually she got so good at it that the Chinese government actually paid her to retire. Rather than chasing her down and bringing her to justice, they were like, we literally cannot work with this. Please take this big bag of money and disappear. And she did. 

She was the first woman who came to mind when Romilly was talking. Because, in a way, she is remembered, enough for somebody to think it would be a fun cameo for her to appear in Pirates of the Caribbean, but she was never the main focus of the story. When really, to me, that story is way more interesting than anything else in Pirates of the Caribbean. Also, the area she's from, around Guangdong, is where my family originates from. 


Nobody’s looked at this in so long

Forgotten Women was the essay crisis of a lifetime. Initially, I went to the British Library because I just needed somewhere quiet to work, which I think is how most people approach the British Library. 

Then for Forgotten Women: The Writers, a lot of the books that I needed to refer to were the forgotten women’s original works, some of which were out of print. So I ended up using the collection quite a lot. I’d never really used it before, so it was a real discovery process in how to use the Library and how to call up books. 

I would do eight-hour, nine-hour sessions in the Library. Stop for lunch and then not leave until it closed. It was fascinating to see what I could call up: a lot of stuff that I had thought wouldn't exist anymore.


This shouldn’t be out of print

There’s this long-forgotten poet, Valentine Penrose, who was part of the whole crew around photographer and war correspondent Lee Miller in the first half of the 20th century. She'd written really interesting, very abstract poetry, and a lot of it was completely out of print. In the British Library, chunks of her poetry were quoted in a different book, about Lee Miller. 

So I called that up, and even that book hadn't been used very much. It was really old, almost falling apart. Being able to see the original poetry, I was like, this is really good. This shouldn't be out of print. But what I've learned from publishing, unfortunately, is that things go out of print all the time. 

In a way, I really enjoyed the research element. The hard bit was actually in synthesising all the information into each short biographical profile, so that it told a gripping story but didn’t try to oversimplify anything. 


It feels really airy and peaceful

I wrote most of the books in Social Sciences I. I've never worked in any other reading room; I don’t know why. I think I found my reading room. I just love the way it's built and designed, with that mezzanine floor and enormous height. It feels really airy and peaceful, and is, obviously, completely silent. I just felt it was a really contemplative place to do work – other than the time I brought in a pen by accident and it was taken off me. But once I got to grips with the rules, everything was fine. 

I think I must have visited the British Library when I was a really little child. When I started writing the books, I hadn't been in the Library for years and years, but somehow I knew where things were. So I think I must have some sort of residual memory of being brought there as a tourist. Because once I entered the Library to write Forgotten Women, I thought, I'm home! Once you find your space – once you know where the locker rooms are – you relax, and you're like: this is it, this is my library.

You can read more about and purchase Forgotten Women here.


As told to Lucy Peters.