The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
I teach it to my first years and return to the book through their degree. It is the perfect introduction to complex ideas: oppressive socio-economic political structures, forms of resistance and defiance, and the point at which violence becomes justifiable. Students always find the book challenging, disturbing and thought provoking. And that is exactly what university syllabi ought to be!
Malgudi Omnibus by R K Narayan
Every literature student should have space on her shelf for the complete works of R K Narayan. Or at least for a Malgudi omnibus, the fictional town in which he set many of his novels, including Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher. Although Narayan has had Western champions, including Graham Greene and John Updike, his work is perhaps failing to find a younger readership. I teach on the creative writing MA and MFA courses at the University of Surrey, and will be playing my own small part in trying to keep his legacy alive on campus. What we can learn from Narayan ranges from his mastery of setting (Malgudi teems with life), his gently devastating comic technique, to his ability to tackle large issues (such as India’s sterilisation programme) with a light but keenly incisive touch.
Flowers in the Mirror by Li Ruzhen
This Chinese novel from 1827 is a fantasy classic of the Qing Dynasty period, full of sophisticated philosophy, tense quest plot-lines and one of the most wonderful explorations of feminism I have ever read. Li Ruzhen picks up gender roles, caresses them, dresses them and then fully subverts them, creating a realistic, resilient, revolutionary yet humorous setting for the action of much of the novel in the “Country of Women”.
Sabrina Mahfouz, playwright, poet and screenwriter
Samskara by U R Ananthamurthy
Samskara by U R Ananthamurthy is one of the finest novels written by an Indian. In the early part of the 20th century, the idyllic life of a small south Indian village is disturbed by an unexpected dilemma, which the community asks their priest to resolve. Although he is famous for his learning, the priest discovers that the ancient scriptures are of no use to him; he must leave the village and seek out new knowledge. On the way, he encounters a prostitute. More adventures, comic and disturbing, follow, and by the time he returns to the village, the priest has changed in ways no one could have anticipated at the start of the novel. Samskara is a brilliant and moving portrait of a nation poised on the brink of modernity.
Aravind Adiga, author of The White Tiger, which won the 2008 Man Booker Prize
Absent by Betool Khedairi
Set in 1990s Baghdad, it is the story of a young woman, Dalal, for whom many losses must be reconciled. Despite the backdrop of sanctions and bombings, and despite the daily hardships of Dalal and the others who live in her apartment complex, the story is so delicately told that it never crumbles under its own weight. This must be the reason I keep coming back to it. And this: the resilience of the characters is unlike any I have encountered in other novels. It is not pat, not easily won. The men and women survive through reinventing themselves, over and over again, because they have no other choice. So they do it with innovation, even humour.
Uzma Aslam Khan, author of Trespassing and other novels
Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz
The first part of Naguib Mahfouz’s epic Cairo Trilogy, which traces the story of the al-Jawad family over three decades to the end of World War II. Mahfouz, who in 1988 became the first Arab to win the Nobel Prize, lived his entire life in modest circumstances in the Egyptian capital, but was influenced both by nineteenth-century realists such as Balzac and Zola and twentieth-century modernism.
Palace Walk is set in 1917–19. The al-Jawad family is ruled over by the strict patriarch and merchant Ahmad, who keeps his wife and daughters in seclusion, while taking full advantage of the pleasures offered by the sleazier backstreets of Cairo. His five children are, in one way or another, engaged in a struggle to find their own identities, while labouring under the twin regimes of their father and the British colonial authorities. But the novel is very far from schematic. It’s at once a tremendously readable family saga and a novel of adolescent and political awakening. The characters are fully realised and the book teems with the sights, sounds, aromas and bustle of the city. The climactic chapters, which unfold against the backdrop of a demonstration against the British authorities, successfully interweave the personal and social themes of the book. It’s a novel that achieves the rare feat of being deeply satisfying on both a political and an emotional level.
Graeme Macrae Burnet, author of His Bloody Project, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize
On Black Sisters’ Street by Chika Unigwe
In this novel, Unigwe imagines the lives of four very ordinary women in Nigeria and shows how they end up as prostitutes in Belgium. While circumstances conspire against them, they are not presented as passive victims. They are all fully-realised, flawed individuals who have agency, making unexpected choices. We follow their paths as as they forge new lives in their adopted city, hoping it will better than the problems they’ve left behind. The novel, set in Nigeria and Belgium, writes about experiences that are otherwise marginalised, demonised or objectified. Unigwe’s admirable achievement is to create exciting fiction that is powerful, humorous, shocking and puts invisible black womens’ lives in the centre of the page.
Bernardine Evaristo, author and professor of creative writing
So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba
A few years back I saw a documentary clip in which a girl in Sierra Leone, about nine years old, reaches for the words to describe her favourite book to an aid worker. The aid worker can’t figure out what the book is and says in a patronising voice: “Does it have a princess?” “No,” says the girl, “This lady writes a letter to her best friend.” The aid worker shrugs, shakes her head, moves on.
So Long a Letter, by the Senegalese writer Mariama Ba, was published in 1980. I teach it to my students in the US and they love it just as much as the little girl in Sierra Leone. Written in the form of a letter from a woman in Dakar to her best friend in America it covers a West African woman’ s life: girlhood, coming of age, the promises and pitfalls of modernity, love and its disappointments, the mixed blessings of her new widowhood, her own faults, failings and conflicts, Ba’s protagonist Ramatoulaye Fall lays her life on the page. It is a staple of African literature courses but should be read far more widely. Even personal diaries are written with a reader in mind, but So Long a Letter’s delight lies in its unalloyed honesty, it really does feel like a long look into a private world. Like a novel written by a woman who thought nobody would ever read it, perhaps.
Aminatta Forna, author and fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
Dhammapada, Buddhist text
For a non-Western work that anyone would benefit from reading, I choose the Dhammapada, one of the foundational texts of Buddhism. Composed in the 3rd century BC in the Pali language, the slim compilation of Gautama Buddha’s sayings and teachings may as well have been written last year, so powerfully does it penetrate the core of human experience. Its insights carry the timelessness of all great literature: in 423 pithy aphorisms it lays bare the universal afflictions of suffering, envy, fear, greed and despair, and illumines the psychological frailties behind them. It also offers the keys of liberation from the prison of our self-perpetuating torments: the Buddhist path of skilful and mindful action. Granted, even after reading the Dhammapada we will screw up again and again, but it does provide a framework of wise, serene, beneficent living – a goal to move towards, however slowly.
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