Retelling Hamlet in Elsinore

Retelling Hamlet in Elsinore

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

Retelling Hamlet 
in Elsinore

Julián Carrera 

October 2019

Elsinore, Golden Glitch Studios’s retelling of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, starts on a familiar note, dramatizing a version of the play’s second scene. Instead of starting at the court, however, the game starts with Ophelia, near a pond. Polonius is asking for her help convincing Claudius, the present king of Denmark, to speed up the process for Laertes to leave. He wants to ask for the king’s blessing, but Claudius is busy discussing the risk that Fortinbras poses to Denmark. 

Ophelia sets the gears in motion by getting Gertrude to tell Claudius, and Laertes is given the blessing to leave. The day goes on. At night-time, Laertes, Polonius, and Ophelia get together to say a final goodbye before Laertes departs in the early morning. Once all is said and done, Ophelia goes to sleep. A horrible nightmare unfolds before her eyes: a ghost, a play, an uncovered murder, a madman, and herself in a pond, drowning.

The dawn of the first day: Hamlet in Ophelia’s room. Taken during gameplay on PC.

After her nightmare, Ophelia finds Hamlet in her room, speaking about the murder of his father. After this, he bolts out of the room, apologizing. The plot of Hamlet then goes on as it usually does, but some things are different at first sight, mostly in casting choices and the gender swap of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. On a deeper level, however, some things have changed. No longer is there a troupe of actors playing “The Murder of Gonzago.” Instead, there is a one-man troupe, led by a familiar character: Peter Quince, leader of the rude mechanicals from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Peter Quince introducing himself. Notice his face. Taken during gameplay on PC.

Everything, at least during the first “run” of the game, plays out as it normally does. There are some more characters present, like Irma the cook and Lady Brit, Queen Gertrude’s lady-in-waiting, but apart from that, not much different happens. Quince puts on a one-man show of “The Murder of Gonzago” using masks, Hamlet kills Polonius, and Ophelia dies. However, she does not drown. Rather, at one point during the first run of the game, a hooded figure appears and, for no apparent reason, kills Ophelia. She then wakes up, only to find Hamlet in her room, once again speaking about the murder of his father, and once again bolts out of the room apologizing. Ophelia is trapped in an endless cycle that inevitably ends with her death and the deaths of the people who always die in Hamlet.

Ophelia has met with a terrible fate, and Quince somehow knows about it. Taken during gameplay on PC.

Something, however, is rotten in the state of Denmark. Time is looping, and it seems that no matter what is different in Elsinore, Ophelia always dies. On top of that, Quince seems to know much more than he is showing. No one else notices the oddness of time, and yet Ophelia can influence what happens every time.

Most —if not all— pieces of journalism about Elsinore end up comparing it to the film Groundhog Day, and with good reason: both are narratives that rely on the constant repetition of the same day (or, in Elsinore’s case, the same four days) to tell their story. While this comparison seems to have at least some ground, I think the comparison is not entirely accurate. Elsinore seems to be more akin to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, not because of any similarities in gameplay, but taking inspiration in repetition.

The Happy Mask Salesman from Majora’s Mask. Notice the similarities to Quince.

Taken from the listing for Majora’s Mask on Nintendo’s website.

Majora’s Mask has the player relive the same three days over and over while making progress in different parts of the game every time, under the premise that, at the end of the final day, the moon will crash on the fictional land of Termina and kill everyone, unless the player can do something about it. It is this game that Elsinore seems to draw the most from, considering the nature of the time loop and the knowledge the player accumulates as they go. Quince acts as a sort of guiding figure, giving the player hints on what to do, similar to the Happy Mask Salesman from Majora’s Mask, who starts the player’s quest to, first, retrieve what was stolen from them, and then to retrieve Majora’s Mask, an artefact that was stolen from the Happy Mask Salesman. The most important connection, however, seems to lie in Majora’s Mask Bombers’s Notebook, an object the player can get that shows a timeline of all characters the player can interact with: it shows when the player can do things to help characters, it shows meetings, and it shows windows of opportunity. Elsinore takes this interface and turns it into a timeline that shows the player what things have happened, what events will happen, and in what window of time they will happen, letting the player keep track of their current time cycle. As players play more and more, and cycles occur again and again, Ophelia gets more and more information to try to save everyone and stop whoever is murdering her. Whenever a new cycle starts, Ophelia keeps everything she learned from previous cycles, allowing the player to try different things.

Elsinore interprets the story of Hamlet in different ways, and it takes liberties with the play, taking elements from many of Shakespeare’s plays and putting them in Elsinore Castle. So, for example, Horatio jokingly flirts with Ophelia saying, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” There is a small text the player can find, called “8 Signs Your Nobleman Might Be Treacherous,” a piece of flavour text poking fun at characters from Shakespearean plays like Brutus (“Stay indoors on March 15 if possible”), MacBeth (“Even the most heartening prophecy can’t revive this relationship”), Othello (“Stay away from pillows”), and Hamlet himself (“Sometimes he tells you to get to a nunnery. […] Send this uncouth boy sulking back to university!”) In other cases, characters travel through plays, not just Quince, but Othello, too.

A screenshot showing Othello speaking to Ophelia.

Courtesy of the game’s website.

Elsinore is full of multiple possibilities and endless retellings of Hamlet. In my own gameplay, during the second cycle, Ophelia lets Hamlet know that she overheard Claudius’s confession of murder at the altar, which gives Hamlet an incentive to kill Claudius before even staging “The Murder of Gonzago.” This change, of course, comes with its own set of problems.

All in all, Elsinore gives players an entrance into the world of Hamlet through Ophelia and gives them a chance at changing the play’s story. Though it is just a bit over 400 years of Shakespeare’s death, the bard’s stories are still produced and worked on, with love letters to the works, like Elsinore, still being produced.

Julián Carrera is a Literature and Creative Writing student at NYU Abu Dhabi.
FURTHER READING
LITERATURE AND
CREATIVE WRITING
LITERATURE AND
CREATIVE WRITING

6 More (Lists) of 12 (Novels)

6 More (Lists) of 12 (Novels)

6 More (Lists) of 12 (Novels) 

 

Here are six more contributions Electra Street’s “Twelve Things Project,” which collects suggestions for works, ideas, and events that might be included in a future dictionary of global cultural literacy. [Click here for the first set of lists and here for more information about the project.]

Once again, the lists below come from different segments of the larger NYUAD community. But any Electra Street reader is welcome to submit a list. If you’re inspired to contribute by what you read below, scroll down to the bottom of the page for a link to our submission form.

Sabyn Javeri
Assistant Professor, Arzu Center for Literature and Languages, Habib University, Visiting Assistant Professor, NYUAD
 

Brick Lane by Monica Ali
The Cost of Living
by Deborah Levy
Disgrace by J.M Coetzee
I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops by Hanan Al Shaykh
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Life and Loves of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon
The Lover by Marguerite Duras
My God Is a Woman by Noor Zaheer
Outline by Rachel Cusk
The Quilt and Other Stories by Ismat Chugtai
The Submission by Amy Walden
Sultana’s Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

Read More about this List

BOOKS THAT MAKE YOU RECONSIDER

These books helped me find my own voice as a writer, creatively as well as stylistically. They challenged my perceptions, made me reconsider my biases and helped me experiment with craft. These writers have powerful voices, and their books helped me find my own voice as a writer.

Sultana’s Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

Rokeya Hossain wrote this feminist utopian novella in 1905 in English to make her point about the lack of opportunities for women compared to those who held the reins of power.  Everyone should read this book because it subverts the image of the oppressed Muslim woman and shows how women have offered resistance through the ages but in different ways. Also, the fact that she is relatively unknown, never getting her due, makes this the first book on my list.

The Quilt and Other Stories by Ismat Chugtai

Ismat Chugtai was a fiery female writer writing in the early 1900s writing about things such as gender politics, homosexuality, child sexual abuse, and marital rape at a time when such things were not acknowledged much less discussed. She is one of the first South Asian writers to objectify male characters and toy around with the idea of gender-role reversal, bringing forth the idea of toxic masculinity in South Asian Muslim culture. Her stories are important because they show us that the personal is political, especially when it comes to South Asian literary history, from which women writers like her are often excluded. It’s important to me because when I was growing up in Pakistan, as a young girl, I had no female literary heroes to look up to. Reading her made me realize that I come from a rich history of fiery female writers who were not afraid to raise their voices. So why should I be?

The Lover by Marguerite Duras

Duras breaks every rule in the book when it comes to writing. She defies all conventional publishing wisdom, and she gets away with it. I chose this novel because her writing gave me permission to find my own voice.

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

This is not a novel but a memoir. Perhaps it was the timing of when I read it, but it really made me understand that there is something universal about the pain and pleasure of being a woman who is financially and emotionally independent. This book made me think about so many things, about motherhood, about the wage gap between men and women, about lifting heavy groceries, about the stamina needed for writing …

Outline by Rachel Cusk

I chose this novel for its craft. Outline lacks a traditional plot because it is a series of conversations. But there is such a synergy in Cusk’s words that the outline of the plot begins to emerge as you read. Read it for the skill and for the uniqueness of her writing style….and for the courage it takes to experiment.

The Life and Loves of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon

At first this seems like a ridiculous novel. But then when you reflect upon it and absorb it you realize what is ridiculous is the impossible standards of beauty and morality placed on women…. This is the story of a tall woman who goes through extraordinary lengths to conform to societal standards of a delicate feminine beauty, amongst other things. I chose it because it makes one think about the pressures of femininity placed upon women, and the fact that often these are self-imposed.

I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops by Hanan Al Shaykh

This is a beautiful collection of short stories, set across Lebanon and London, which shows the violence of history through women’s’ eyes. Hanan writes beautifully and traces the pain of civil war, of exile and of lost beauty. This is a book which talks about politics without advocacy, without sermonizing. Simple stories of everyday people caught in global politics—they have much more impact than authoritative novels that try to tell you what to think. Read it for the beauty of the storytelling.

Disgrace by J.M Coetzee

When I first read this book, I thought it was about arrogance and privilege and one’s invisibility to it. The second time I read it, after a gap of ten years, I thought it was about shame and guilt and self-sabotage. It’s a book which will make you think about why we do the things we do, why we accept things the way they are, and what it takes to create change, whether in the world around us or simply deep inside our own selves.

The Submission by Amy Walden

I feel the literary history of the American novel has been split into before and after 9/11. But very few novels address this directly. Walden does, making us think about the before and beyond in ways that are not often very creative and engaging, but nevertheless important.

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

She was called the female Salman Rushdie when her book was being launched, and her book carved out a much-needed space for BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) writers to tell their stories. It’s another story that she was never allowed to tell any other story. I chose this book because it is a reminder of the single story that is expected from Asian authors. It makes me think about so many things, about representation, about identity, about publishing, about politics, about orientalism and othering.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

The fall of Dhaka is told from the eyes of a child, the homesickness of an immigrant through a housewife who cant find the right kind of Indian fish, the infidelity of a housewife through a car ride with a Sikh taxi driver … This is one of the most complex yet also simple pieces of storytelling that I have ever come across. Read it for the craft.

My God Is a Woman by Noor Zaheer

I came across this novel in a skip. I picked it up simply because it had God’s name on it and some deep-rooted religiosity in me feared throwing God’s name in the thrash. But when I held the book in my hands, faintly smelling of wall paper glue, I was struck by the title. I started reading it and read it in one straight sitting. I can’t really remember what happens in it but I know it left me with a strange empowering feeling. This was a time when I was just discovering my own voice as a writer, and I remember it gave me courage and a sense that stories matter. Besides, what a title! You have to read a book with a title like that!

Lauren Kata
Archives and Special Collections Librarian, NYUAD

1984 by George Orwell
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
The Harp in the South by Ruth Park
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Read More about this List

If I had to impose a one word theme across the list, I’d select “Accessibility.” These are novels that help us to access the past, other cultures, or other histories through stories and characters that humanize complex experiences, making it easier for us to connect and understand. They give us different perspectives by offering us access to small insights into different psychologies. They are also novels that I’ve observed being accessed and consumed and enjoyed across spaces, age groups/generations, cultures, and countries. 

1984 by George Orwell

“Who controls the past …” As an archivist, I’ve always been particularly attentive to the themes in 1984 and how Orwell and this novel sets us up to be critical citizens about the power of information and who controls it. In terms of global cultural literacy, I’m interested in how different readers would take the novel and consider its (prescient) themes in different dynamics across hemispheres. Also: what is it about dystopian settings that sustains?

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

In the past few years, on airplanes and reading rooms and coffee shops, across different countries, so often I’ve seen this book tucked under the arm of fellow travelers. It’s clear to me it’s a beloved and quite accessible novel (so many of my self-described “non-reading” friends and family members all claim to love it). I think pilgrimage stories can be very accessible in general, especially in this age of mindfulness. The Alchemist is also a short and non-complicated read covering many universal themes.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

I included Alice because of how it continues to inspire cultural creations, products, representations and pop culture, and I appreciate those references. It’s always interesting to me how derivatives reimagine and ripple across the globe.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I chose this novel because Adichie is such a strong, contemporary voice to help us access (toward understanding) the complexities of being part of the African diaspora, of different ways racism is experienced, of migration experiences and struggles, of the meaning of “home” and “homeland”; and through very thought-provoking language and writing. When literature—through dynamic, well-rounded characters and everyday scenes!—can do this for us, that’s notable. 

Beloved by Toni Morrison

With Beloved, Morrison created a story and characters who provide access to the psychological, traumatic, and multi-generational impacts of slavery. Awareness of those impacts, and slavery’s legacy, is a path toward cultivating a shared global understanding through literature. The novel is also a heartbreaking and literally haunting story of an American family that’s raw, violent, dark, and also very much about love, and sacrifice; it was an incredible experience reading it.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Aside from the fact that The Count of Monte Cristo was a beloved shared book between my father and me, I chose it because I find it accessible in terms of multiple, and dramatic, universal themes, for example: love, separation, revenge, regret. This novel for me is a fun way to experience these themes as they are presented in an earlier era, and through fascinating and vivid characters. This is also one of the world’s classic novels that taught me how to flex my “patient reader” muscle; how to navigate through a large book with many characters, keeping track to get to the rewarding conclusion. 

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

I included Everything Is Illuminated on my list for a couple of reasons. OK, first: it is one of the few novels I have read for which the film version broke the cliche of “the book is better.” In fact, I recommend the experience of reading the book along with experiencing the cinematic interpretation of the characters and this poignant story.  The characters and the story became so real; beautiful and comical and painful. The idea of crossing generations and boundaries to come to a deeper understanding of one’s own history and identity, and to unearth truth, was also accessible to me.  

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

About a decade ago, I started to become aware of how often I’ve been offered a copy of The God of Small Things as a “must read” by friends, colleagues, and students; which illustrates not only the novel’s popularity but also how different people have found the story to be accessible. For me, this novel was a different way for me to access India’s political past and the emotional dynamics of the caste system!—through a tragic yet beautifully, poetically-written family story. 

The Harp in the South by Ruth Park

Reading this novel, set in the Surrey Hills neighborhood of Sydney in the 1930s, added a layer of understanding of Australian culture and society, which added value to my first-time visit to that city (like a good tourist-traveler, I read the novel during my stay). As I walked the streets, seeing the end caps and kiosks that proudly displayed multiple prints and editions of The Harp in the South, I was also struck by how certain titles are woven into a place’s “brand.” Reading the story itself was a door into imagining what the now gentrified streets surrounding my AirBnB in Sydney once were. An earlier version of life there became accessible to me.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire is a masterful example of how an author can weave a story employing multiple narrator perspectives. As a consequence, my experience reading the novel was very cinematic, yet with all of the bonuses that come with knowing the characters’ thoughts through the novel’s narrative. I included it in our list of novels that might help cultivate a culturally literate citizenry because it’s precisely these multiple perspectives that taken together, bring us closer to the quite complex, contemporary issues and stereotypes Shamsie explores. 

The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende

In my note about The Count of Monte Cristo, I described it as a book that requires a lot of stamina and muscle for navigating a dramatic saga. Similarly, Allende’s Chilean saga also requires the reader to patiently follow her story through multiple generations and time, in order to experience various different themes. If one agrees that magical realism is a genre that “communicates culture,” then The House of Spirits could contribute to a “global cultural literacy” in Allende’s use of the genre and what we learn about her culture through those examples.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

I included a Jane Austen novel on this list because of her sustained popularity and (seeming) ubiquity. I find the novels to be easy reading, and easy access to a life of an earlier time and society. So what? Well, I like when novels offer that window of connectivity. I think another interesting aspect of Austen’s novels is her style, and the way she writes characters almost as personas, in order to present different examples of principles and arguments. To that point, I chose Sense and Sensibility for my list, as opposed to Pride and Prejudice, because I think it better illustrates that style (P&P being hailed more as “the” classic romance and Elizabeth Bennet as an ultimate heroine).

Taneli Kukkonen
Professor of Philosophy and Interim Dean of Arts and Humanities, NYUAD

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
Dune by Frank Herbert
The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco
The Four Wise Men by Michel Tournier
The Inimitable Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz
Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
The Wanderer by Mika Waltari

Read More about this List

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Because in the end, solidarity is all we have.

Dune by Frank Herbert

Because space opera is the best kind of opera.

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

Because nerd culture has taken over the world.

Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

Because conspiracy theories should at least be this playful.

The Four Wise Men by Michel Tournier

Because the global elites, too, may one day end up in the salt mines.

The Inimitable Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

(Or any Jeeves novel, really). Because for all the reprehensible legacies of empire, at least it gave us Bertram Wilberforce Wooster.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Because … do I need to tell you?

Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz

Because locality matters.

Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevski

Because something in these portraits should strike home with everyone.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Because with the looming ecological catastrophe, hope has to be hard-won.

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Because, in some circles, social mobility is best left to sociopaths.

The Wanderer by Mika Waltari

Because a Finn should nominate at least one Finnish book, and this one has (reasonably historically accurate) swashbuckling in the Ottoman empire.

Note: These are very clearly the picks of someone who grew up in Northern Europe. That’s alright: we all come from somewhere.

Sunny Liu
Financial Analyst

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Bhagavad Gita by Veda Vyasa
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Man Paradise Lost by John Milton
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Guanzhong Luo
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Read More about this List

INSPIRED BY FOOD

The rationale from this list stemmed from my love of the culinary arts. I’ve always found food to be a great conduit for culture, and it’s often said that the great cuisines around the world are Turkish / Ottoman, Chinese, French, Indian, and Italian. I have very limited knowledge of Turkish / Ottoman culture, and I’m sure people from NYUAD would be vastly more qualified in submitting lists including books from that culture. I have tried to include the rest.

Picking Dante’s Divine Comedy for Italy led me down the path of including additional Christian novels as Abrahamic faiths have dominated Western culture for the past two thousand years. The Brothers Karamazov enlightens us about Orthodox faiths, which in America tends to be forgotten, and touches Russian culture. Finally, I wanted to include some of my own American influence in this list and give voice to Black America and Southern America. These two communities and their interactions form some of the persistent conflicts in American culture, and their synthesis creates the contradictions we see in American life today.

If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino

Italian, post-modern novel about the joys of reading. Great start for a reading list, and outlines the joys that should come from experiencing the books going forward.

The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Next is a modern Chinese science-fiction novel with scenes from the Cultural Revolution, modern day China, and thoughts of future problems and paths of progress. Helps frame and understand the mind of modern China in political and technological terms. I find the Ken Liu translation to be great in introducing the idiosyncrasies of Chinese creating friction for the reader and hopefully guides them to explore more of Chinese culture. Also leads into The Dark Forest, which is an incredible book in its own right.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Guanzhong Luo

Epic Chinese historical novel known throughout the East Asian world. Its cultural implications are still felt today as modern Asia hearkens back to this setting in this time period like Western Europe does to Medieval times. It’s the counterpoint to The Three Body Problem above. The beauty and scale of this novel should help readers understand China’s reverence for its history, contributing to the conservativeness we see in Chinese society today.

Paradise Lost by John Milton

Moving from Eastern thought to Western thought. Few things have influenced Western thought as much as the Bible, and the background of the story of the Bible is set in Genesis. Milton’s epic poem renders that story in astonishing detail, and the characters in this poem continue to resonate with people and culture today. Not strictly a novel, but its importance in culture is so vast it should be included.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The culminating work of Russian and Orthodox literature. The Brothers Karamazov explores the Russian psyche and its relation to Christianity. It helps the reader explore Orthodox Christianity and its underlying themes, themes which shaped Western thinking until The Great Schism.

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

 The culminating work of Italian and Catholic literature. What The Brothers Karamazov is to Russian Orthodoxy, Dante’s Divine Comedy is to Italian Catholicism. Yes, there’s quite a bit of focus on Christianity in this part of the list, but it is one of the largest religions in the world and has influenced Western thinking for the past two thousand years. Also not strictly a novel, but I think it fits well enough that it should be included. 

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Moving on, we explore the poor, rural south in this novel of Faulkner’s. America’s culture, these days, is fractured and uneven with a stark urban / rural divide. This novel helps bridge that gap.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison 

Personally, I found this novel engrossing and captivating, having read this in a feverish haze of 16 hours. It’s an incredible work of art that depicts the varied life and experiences of African Americans, and we should praise the depiction of those experiences especially in such fine prose. I find Invisible Man much more engrossing than comparable novels like Native Son.

Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust

For the beauty and lyricism of Proust and French culture.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano

I’m not well versed at all in Latin American culture, but I’d love to read this book. A modern Latin American novel, but also an ode to Latin American literature, with sentences as light as air and as grounded as earth.

Bhagavad Gita by Veda Vyasa

 I’m not well versed at all in Indian culture either, but the Bhagavad Gita seems to have had a profound influence on Indian and Hindu thought and culture. From my understanding, this book is a classic in Indian literature, so I’d love to read, learn, and understand more about it.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

I close with this book to remind us to keep a sense of humor and not take ourselves too seriously. Remember that human culture is still sometimes absurd, contradictory, and insignificant in comparison to the universe. Let’s keep ourselves humble and keep learning / reading about the unexplored cultures out there.

Ken Nielsen
Associate Director of the Writing Program, Director of the Writing Center, NYUAD

Babettes Gaestebud (Babette’s Feast) by Karen Blixen
Borgmesteren Sover (The Mayor is Sleeping) by Martha Christensen
Ditte Menneskebarn (Ditte: Towards the Stars-the 1922 translation) by Martin Andersen Nexø
Fiskerne (The Fishermen) by Hans Kirk
Gör mig Levande Igen (Make Me Alive Again) by Kerstin Ekman
Haervaerk (Havoc) by Tom Kristensen
Himmel og Helvede | Den Yderste Graense
(Heaven and Hell / The Outer Limit) by Kirsten Thorup
Profeterne I Evighedsfjorden (The Prophets of Eternal Fjord) by Kim Leine
Sommarboken (The Summer Book) by Tove
Sult (Hunger) by Knut Hamsun
Vinterbørn (Winter’s Child) by Dea Trier Mørch
Wilhelms Vaerelse (Wilhelm’s Room) by Tove Ditlevsen

Read More about this List

 

Babettes Gaestebud (Babette’s Feast) by Karen Blixen

Most people only know Karen Blixen as Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa, but I find Babette’s Feast to be her best text. In it she combines her keen sense of observation with her tight yet meandering prose. It tells the story of the foreigner who enters a tight knight and religious community. It’s a story of disruption of change and turtle soup. It tells a story of a religious community on the West coast of Denmark—a place that I feel connected to.

Borgmesteren Sover (The Mayor is Sleeping) by Martha Christensen

Christensen is one of Denmark’s most important social realists. This particular novel (her novel Dansen med Regitze (Waltzing Regitze) is more famous) tells the story of an alcoholic wife of a mayor during one lonely night of deciding whether or not she has to leave her husband. Christensen’s prose allows us insight into the mind of the protagonist in a way that, through repetition, provides us a sense of the quiet desperation of a woman forced to make a change.

Ditte Menneskebarn (Ditte: Towards the Stars-the 1922 translation) by Martin Andersen Nexø

Nexø’s novel is an early example of social realism in Danish. Nexø’s novel describes the life and struggle of Ditte—the novel’s protagonist.  Nexø is also the author of Pelle the Conqueror, but I personally find Ditte Menneskebarn to be a better novel. 

Fiskerne (The Fishermen) by Hans Kirk

In his first novel, Kirk describes the life of a group of fishermen and their families on the Western coast of Denmark in the early 20th century.  It’s a story about religion and the battle between the more pious and the less pious, but, more than that, it’s a story of how religion is necessary to survive the harsh living conditions on the Western coast and the task of sailing the North Sea. My father was a fisherman and this book has always been special to me.

Gör mig Levande Igen (Make Me Alive Again) by Kerstin Ekman

A war is happening somewhere in Europe. A group of women have a reading group and meet to discuss literature and how to escape the cynicism and darkness they see around them and in themselves. Ekman—also a great crime fiction writer whose Händelser vid Vatten (literally Incidents by Water, English translation Blackwater) is also a great read. In Gör mig Levande Igen Ekman uses a symphony of voices to tell a complicated and multi layered narrative about the anxiety of Swedish society, change, and anxiety. If you can, read it in Swedish. Ekman is almost impossible to translate.

Haervaerk (Havoc) by Tom Kristensen

Haervaerk follows the human deroute of Ole Jastrau as he attempts to escape his bourgeois life by drinking himself to death. Kristensen takes us on a magnificent and vivid journey of self-destruction. A fascinating study of masculinity in all its glorious fragility. And a key novel to read about Copenhagen in the 1920s and 1930s.

Himmel og Helvede | Den Yderste Graense (Heaven and Hell / The Outer Limit) by Kirsten Thorup

Thorup is—in my opinion—one of the most important contemporary Danish novelists. Himmel og Helvede is an epic novel about Maria and her life in 1980s Copenhagen marked by her existence in an environment of colorful characters in her parents’ kiosk and boarding house. Den Yderste Graense follows the same characters and their intertwined lives. I read and reread these books as a teenager.  Thorup’s prose is beautiful, dark, at times meandering, but always precise.

Profeterne I Evighedsfjorden (The Prophets of Eternal Fjord) by Kim Leine

Leine has become an important novelist in the early 21st century.  His work (including his first novel Kalak) on the Danish relation to Greenland (a complicated colonial relationship) is one of the most interesting in its honest assessment of Danish history and power.

Sommarboken (The Summer Book) by Tove Jansson

Jansson is probably most famous as the writer who invented the Moomin universe. In her prose for adults (not that adults shouldn’t read the Moomin books, please do), Jansson is sparse and precise and tells a moving story of the relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter during a long Finnish summer.

Sult (Hunger) by Knut Hamsun

I remember vividly reading this novel. Following the starving protagonist walking through Oslo was at once terrifying and funny to me as a young teenager. Years later while visiting Oslo for the first time the novel colored my experience.

Vinterbørn (Winter’s Child) by Dea Trier Mørch

Vinterbørn is—to me—a key feminist novel from the mid-1970s. Mørch tells the story of a group of women brought together by giving birth at a hospital in Copenhagen. They’re from all layers of society and the novel tells a complicated story of women’s lives. It’s illustratred by Mørch’s own prints. I remember reading this novel and feeling being given insight to a world that I will otherwise never have access to.

Wilhelms Vaerelse (Wilhelm’s Room) by Tove Ditlevsen

Tove Ditlevsen is experiencing a renaissance in Denmark and internationally with new translations being published.  Wilhelms Vaerelse is a masterpiece of autofiction—a story about a divorce as experienced by Lise Mundus. It’s Ditlevsen’s last novel before her suicide and her most experimental. The way Ditlevsen moves from hilarity to angry desperation within a sentence is awe-inspiring.

Deborah Lindsay Williams
Clinical Associate Professor and former Program Head of Literature and Creative Writing, NYUAD; Editor, Electra Street
Co-Editor, Oxford History of the Novel in English, Volume 8: American Fiction since 1940

Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
Dune by Frank
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
July’s People by Nadine Gordimer
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Maus by Art Spiegelman
The Overstory by Richard Powers
Seasons of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Read More about this List

 

Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

This book forces us to think about form and language, and it brings to the surface a history that’s been hidden to much of the world; it’s also profoundly beautiful.

Dune by Frank Herbert

Almost every day I see something in the Emirates that calls to mind something from Dune — the idea of water as wealth, the power of the dream to transform a landscape–and so it seems like a perfect novel for this place. But it is also a novel that pointed to our current global moment: the destruction that is inevitable if a world (or worlds, in Dune’s case) depends on one substance (spice, oil) for its entire economic system.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

 Sprawling, capacious, painful, beautiful prose, and a portrait of mid-twentieth century India under Indira Gandi (never referred to by name; she is only “The Prime Minister”) that you’ll never forget.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

A book about parenting, loss, imagination, ambition, compassion (and its failures)—and a fiercely articulated statement about the need for women to be full members of society.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I chose this novel because when I read it originally, it seemed scary but impossible…and it has since started to achieve the status of prophetic. Because Atwood does world-making brilliantly and because the epilogue also manages to be a fabulous satire of every academic conference I’ve ever attended (and because she wrote a sequel thirty-odd years later that manages to be equally brilliant)

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

It’s a bit of a baggy monster of a book but as a meditation on race, power, and mid-twentieth century US culture, it’s extraordinary. Not to mention that the prose is brilliantly beautiful.

July’s People by Nadine Gordimer

When it was published in 1981, the novel was a speculative imagining of the end of apartheid, which didn’t happen for another 13 years; now it is a historical novel that forces us to confront structures of complicity and obligation, loyalty and allegiance, and is also an amazingly written piece of fiction.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

It’s a novel that passes the Bechdel test–a book centered on the domestic lives of women in which their own dreams, ambitions, failures, and tragedies provide the plot–and in part that’s why, of course, it has for so long been dismissed as unimportant, a book for kids.

Maus by Art Spiegelman

It’s a novel, a biography, a memoir, a history, and a re-invention of the comic.

The Overstory by Richard Powers

Well it’s about trees, and it’s a hugely ambitious novel about climate change that made me re-think how I see the natural world. It’s baggy and perhaps gets a tad didactic — but then again, maybe that’s what the climate crisis warrants.

Seasons of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih 

Although I’ve not been able to read it in Arabic, the novel’s power still resonates: the power and damage of language, the illusory nature of civilization, the difficulty of finding “home,” the pain of belonging–and of not belonging, the need for rootedness, the violence of ordinary life and of relationships between men and women.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Beloved is often regarded as the tour-de-force, and it is, but I think this book might ultimately be the “better” novel—and it features Pilate, the amazing woman with no belly button. The story of Milkman Dead and his family is the story of transformation and loss, set in the US context, but with resonance far beyond the US borders.

Inspired to contribute a list of novels to the “12 Things Project”? Click here to get to our submission form.

6 (Lists) of 12 (Novels)

6 (Lists) of 12 (Novels)

6 (Lists) of 12 (Novels) 

 

The six lists of novels presented here are contributions to Electra Street’s “Twelve Things Project,” which collects suggestions for works, ideas, and events that should be included in a future dictionary of global cultural literacy. [Click here for more information about the project.]

We suggested that respondents might think of their lists as the basis for the syllabus of a course that they’d like to take or teach. (We arrived at the number twelve by taking the number of weeks in an NYUAD term — 14 — and subtracting two for introductory and concluding sessions and exams.) We weren’t asking for “desert island” lists of what our readers considered to be the 12 greatest novels of all time, merely a set of 12 books that they’d suggest every global citizen would profit from reading.

The lists below come from different segments of the NYUAD community: students, past and present faculty, and visitors. But any Electra Street reader is welcome to submit a list. If you’re inspired to contribute by what you read below, scroll down to the bottom of the page for a link to our submission form.

Aathma Niramala Dious
Junior, Literature and Creative Writing, NYUAD

Aadujeevitham [Goat Days] by Benyamin
Alif the Unseen  by G. Willow Wilson
The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Heroes of Olympus: Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Immortals of Meluha by Amish Tripati
The Krishna Key by Ashwin Sanghi
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
Mahashewta by Sudha Murty
Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

Read More about this List

 

BURNING BOOKS: MAGIC, MYTH AND REBELLION

Aadujeevitham [Goat Days] by Benyamin

Based on real-life situations for migrants in the Gulf, Aadujeevitham (originally written in Malayalam) is the story of Najeeb who gets trapped by his employer in the middle of desert to take care of Goats. The book struck me hard, both from Benyamin’s sensitive yet honest writing of Najeeb’s situation and my place in the Gulf too.

Alif the Unseen  by G. Willow Wilson

Wilson mashes the modern world of computers with folklore in an intricate manner that made me finished the book in a day. It’s strong plot keeps you reading till the end

The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak

The book was momentous for me in two ways: the first being that Zuzak knew the voices of his characters so well I heard them in my head. While there are many books that deal with multiple perspectives of the Holocaust and Nazi regime of World War II, Zuzak uses the microcosm of Liesel’s life to really delve into questions of death, justice and knowledge. I read the book at high school when I wondered why learning and reading were so important. The Book Thief captures what I think of literature in the contemporary times: it’s magical, introspective about what we are, a constant throughout time—and absolutely necessary, especially in times of dissent.

After all, there is a reason they burn libraries first in wars.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I clearly have a fascination with books burning (the story behind, not the action itself). The book, titled after the temperature at which the book burns, follows Guy, a fireman, who doesn’t put out fires, but instead makes fires out of books, which are illegal in this speculative world. Interestingly, screen-based media seem to be okay.

Heroes of Olympus: Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan

Rick Riordan’s expansive Greek Mythology series is also a blast from my high school days. Mark of Athena is my favorite from the Heroes of Olympus series, which mediates between Greek and Roman Mythology. It focuses on my all-time favorite female main character Annabeth, who is the demigod daughter of Greek Goddess Athena as she is tasked with finding the statue of her mother. This book highlights a kind of warrior that is often ignored in adventure books: the scholar. The highlight of the book is that Annabeth uses her intelligence to get past her obstacles in the journey.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie 

I have a soft sport for Antigone, and Shamsie really elevates the Greek tragedy to meet the complicated structures of modern politics and how it seeps even to the family level. I really enjoy reworking of mythologies and old stories and Shamsie does justice to Antigone

Immortals of Meluha by Amish Tripati

The first in the Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripati, this novel reworks the mythology of the Hindu god of destruction, Shiva, into the human world of the city of Meluha, with the idea that the gods were first human. I admire well done reinterpretations of mythologies and this book has done exactly that, building up the nuances present in the folklore to the different hierarchies within the people of the city.

The Krishna Key by Ashwin Sanghi

Like Immortals of Meluha, Shanghi incorporates the mythology of Lord Krishna from The Mahabharata into a anthropological thriller where the main character Ravi has to solve the murder of his childhood. With placing the biography of Krishna alongside Ravi, the story is extended beyond the epic and goes into questions of history, lineage and how far do our myths follow us.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

Roy’s second book captures the tremors in the current landscape of contemporary India by combining characters from multiple parts of life with the most violent moments of Indian history. She is masterful in dealing with all the different politics of body, community, nation and world. 

Mahashewta by Sudha Murty 

Along with the Indian social hierarchies within families that woman face daily, the protagonist Anupama also deals with vitiligo creeping onto her skin and her life. Sudha Murthy’s strength is simplicity and this book, in its simple writing captures the characters and hierarchies they are a part off, with a bittersweet ending to match. Originally written in Kannada.

Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

I have yet to find a book that matches up to Brandon Sanderson’s skill with world-building. The Mistborn series reworks old concepts of metal alchemy in a brand-new manner, while exploring autocratic governments, hidden evils and class structures.

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

 In this novella meant for children, a boy’s trip to his local library turns dark when he gets imprisoned by the old librarian of the library and has to navigate a maze with a sheep man. The absurdity of the story gripped me till the end.

Ria Golovakova
Senior, Literature and Creative Writing, NYUAD

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Read More about this List

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar is semi-autobiographical novel, creating a poignant portrait of depression and the subtle changes in perception that accompany mood disorders. It is a tale of personal struggle from within and without, as Esther Greenwood is catalyzed into mental illness with work pressure at her internship and gender-based oppression from young men and others in her environment.

His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman

His Dark Materials is a British fantasy trilogy, vastly underrated and often dismissed as just children’s fantasy. This series was written, however, as an inverted retelling of Paradise Lost, reclaiming the Christian myth and presenting the original sin as humanity’s biggest accomplishment, not failing. These three books trace the adventures of the 12-year-old Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry across multiple parallel worlds as they wrestle with religious authorities and attempt to figure out the nature of mysterious Dust which seems to connect all the worlds together.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Bronte’s novel is one of the strongest examples of women’s literature in the Western tradition, centered on the unconventional romantic heroine Jane and the various stages of her life from childhood to becoming a governess at Thornfield Hall and meeting the mysterious Mr. Rochester. This book is filled with discussion on gender and class and the constraint that these categories impose, as well as the quiet anger that Jane feels as the victim of both classifications.

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje

Ondaatje’s fictionalized memoir is to me the ultimate tropical book. It depicts heat as an important aspect of daily reality, and the backdrop to generations of family drama in colonial and post-colonial Colombo. The political and personal histories mix together to create a compelling portrait of collective trauma and the difficulties in attempting to heal from it as a prodigal son returning to native land.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

If nothing else, Lolita is an absolutely breathtaking portrait of a pathological mind. Nabokov takes his readers to the inner world of Humbert Humbert, a pedophile obsessed with his young adoptive daughter. This novel is a psychological masterpiece, portraying Humbert’s thinking empathetically yet not excusing or glorifying him. How can one rationalize clearly immoral behavior? What is a pedophile’s perception of himself and his desire? Nabokov provides a way into thought processes that most would never even attempt to conceptualize, and guides his readers out through the disarray that inevitably follows.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy was a cultural phenomenon, defining the high fantasy genre and opening up multiple generations of readers to an epic tale of magic and good vs. evil. The original books continue to be masterpieces in their own right, despite having very successful movie adaptations.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Considered to be the best novel ever written by most Russian speakers (and many others) around the world, The Master and Margarita is a masterpiece of dark humor, political satire, and creativity in face of repression. Its main cast includes the devil, a talking black cat, a witch, and an author locked in a mental hospital, roaming around Stalin’s 1930s Moscow and causing disarray throughout many layers of its cultural elite. This narrative is interspersed with the story of Pontius Pilate conducting the trial and subsequent execution of Yeshua Ha-Nostri (known to us as Jesus of Nazareth). Religious and mythical allusions paint the portrait of political repression and uncertainty under the Stalinist regime, but revel in the freedom of the human mind.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Norwegian Wood may be considered one of Murakami’s most conventional works, but it is also one of the most beautiful. It is a sincere story of nostalgia and loss, a coming of age in Tokyo in the 1960s and a tragic portrait of modern alienation and depression. How can we deal with losing loved ones to suicide, and how can we keep growing up if the dead never will? How much can others be helped and when does responsibility for them no longer lie with us? Where can we locate reasons for living on?

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

This 19th-century romance is a masterpiece of quick wit, entertaining banter, and brilliant characterization. Elizabeth Bennet remains one of fictions most intelligent and interesting heroines, and she is surrounded by a cast of strong personalities who play out the dramas of class and daily existence in 1813 England.

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

Shantaram is a fictionalized memoir about an Australian bank robber who escapes from a high security prison and flees to Bombay, where he lives in the slums, sets up a free health clinic, works in the Mumbai underworld, serves in the Arthur Road Prison, gets freed by the Afghan mafia, works in the black market currency exchange, and leaves to Afghanistan in the middle of Soviet-Afghan war to smuggle weapons. The nearly 1000 pages are a love letter to the chaos of Mumbai and the many, many people who inhabit it and the unconventional paths that many of them take.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Wilde’s novel is one of the most successful explorations of beauty and how often it gets confounded with goodness, when in reality beautiful people can easily be immoral and evil. Philosophical themes get embellished with Wilde’s clever humor and beautiful writing, creating an overall very satisfying read. 

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

“If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross”, the first chapter opens, introducing Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return. History is shown to be terrifying both if it is only experienced once and if it re-experienced infinitely. Yet, this grand setting is for a story about four simple people: the surgeon Tomas, his wife Tereza, his lover Sabina, and Sabina’s lover Franz. Through the dramas and infidelities of their lives Kundera manages to express the political instability of 1960-1970 Czechoslovakia and the uncertainty of living in the modern world. If every decision is to be relived in eternal return, how much responsibility does it bring with it?

Judith Graves Miller
Professor of French, NYU; former Dean of Arts and Humanities, NYUAD

Algerian Cavalcade by Assia Djebar
Beloved
by Toni Morrison
Combray (from In Search of Lost Time) by Marcel Proust
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevski
Dangerous Liaisons
by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
David Copperfield
by Charles Dickens
Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee
Don Quijote
by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Home by Marilynne Robinson
Madame Bovary
by Gustave Flaubert
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Texaco
by Patrick Chamoiseau

Read More about this List

 

I have chosen novels that are, in almost all cases, beautifully written, where craft is apparent, where every sentence is a joy.  I think this is a list for people who also like to write, or at least to think about what writing can do.

Don Quijote by Miguel de Cervantes

This novel does a great parodic gloss on chivalric literature, makes wonderful fun of various pretensions, sets up the kind of partnership between a loopy master and a calculating servant (both, however, more complex than this) that we will see over and over in Western literature; and can be read in a myriad of ways that still make sense in the 21st. century.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García-Márquez

This novel offers wonder and imaginative leaps as  antidotes to the harshness of real world politics and  narrow emotional constructions.  It also offers a sharp critique of US imperialism.  And, like Quijote, it makes us laugh at characters and love them at the same time.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

It is more than a good idea to confront the most awful ghosts of history, here US history, and learn about resilience and compassion as well as about how vile human beings can be.  And all of this in the most beguiling prose style.

Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee,

This novel is a reckoning, as is Beloved, of crimes based on the notion of race and how that has played out, in this case, in post-apartheid South Africa, but it is also about shaming and confused repentance.  It is not an easy novel to live with and it is good to live with that.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

This French classic, with its ironic sub-text and  telling metonymies, captures the transformation of French society (and hence European society) at the end of the 19th century.

Combray (from In Search of Lost Time) by Marcel Proust

This novel, like Madame Bovary, also deals with transformative society, but stresses the remarkably varied subject positions of the narrator-main character, as he comes to grips with what it means to create a life through remembering it.

Home by Marilynne Robinson

This is an intimate novel, of small scope but very deep emotional valence.  It grapples with belief, with ethics, and with building community in a profoundly American setting.

Algerian Cavalcade by Assia Djebar

This is a complex, mosaic portrayal of the intersection of colonialism and erotic desire, combining with great resonance a coming-of-age story, documents from the French take-over of Algeria (1830), and personal narratives of women resistance fighters during the Algerian war for independence in the 1950s.

Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau

This is a charming weaving together of archives with stories from the post-colonial  French Antilles, communicating very successfully  people’s connection to the landscape and to oral and storytelling traditions.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

The more one reads Dickens, the more wonderful his novels become, melodrama slipping into irony, characterization becoming allegory.  The fantastical nature of the adventures, in light of our contemporary melodramatic imagination, tells us something about our own celebrity culture.

Crime and Punishment by Feodor Dostoeivsky

How do we slip into the mind of a killer?  How do we understand the slide into something resembling insanity?  How can we capture the contagious alienation of the modern subject?  Maybe this novel helps to move us to a place of understanding.

Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos

To have a taste of what epistolary writing can be ….   to plunge into a closed world coded very differently from our current times and, yet, capable of speaking to manipulation and power through desire.

Carlo Pizzati
Novelist and Journalist, Author of Mappillai: An Italian Son-in-Law in India (2018)

Candide by François-Marie Arouet known as Voltaire
The Castle by Franz Kafka
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Hunger by Knut Hamsun
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Old Masters: A Comedy by Thomas Bernhard
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Open City by Teju Cole
Pierre; or, The Ambiguities by Herman Melville
Rudin by Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Read More about this List

A CIRCULAR HISTORY OF GLOBAL CITIZENSHIP

This journey through the novels for the global citizen attempts to create a link, through 200 years of literature, between what seems local and is universal. It begins in the heart of Europe with some classics or lesser known classics of the canon and moves into a wider world, ending in an extremely timely topic, and into more specific and contemporary themes. It’s a list hooked in history but trying to prove its circularity.

[Editors’ Note: In contrast to the other lists, we present this one in chronological order of publication.]

Candide (1759) by François-Marie Arouet known as Voltaire

This novel is a marvelous satire of often unfounded optimism, a satirical work poking constant fun at Leibniz’s philosophy, which has become contemporary again as it provides a very enlightening view on the need to approach the evils of reality, not ignoring them. It seems like something a Gen-Z author could write about Millennials.

Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852) by Herman Melville

This is a pioneering novel of the psychological genre. The underlying themes of sexual confusion and transgression make it fresh and contemporary. It’s been argued that it anticipates Freud’s assertion that the sexual behavior of each human being transgresses “the standard of normality.” It is also a very early exploration of gender-fluid roles, exploring incest and open relationships. A romance satirizing romances, a philosophical work satirizing philosophers and philosophizing. Its exploration on moral relativism is an important subject of reflection for the global citizen.

Rudin (1856) by Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev

This work is an important reflection on the conflicting archetypes of Hamlet, the excessively introspective character, and Don Quixote, the impulsive, enthusiastic, and carefree personality ready for action even if meaningless and pointless. It’s a strong lesson in the necessity to find the right balance between these two drives in order to get a hold of yourself in life.

Hunger (1890) by Knut Hamsun

This is the dire story of a starving young man whose sense of reality is slipping into a delusional existence, with mental and physical decay described in detail. It is also an investigation on a character’s inability to pursue a career, to fit in, a very contemporary conundrum. The human mind is the main object of the novel, mixed with the challenges of urban civilization, symbolized by the complexity of metropolitan life.

The Castle (1926) by Franz Kafka

This masterpiece describes our modern relationship with unresponsive and irrational bureaucracy, the interaction of the individual with an obscure and arbitrary controlling system. It seems like an indispensable eye-opener on a very universal evil—an organization keeping you from attaining your goal, although its main purpose is to help you attain it. A useful lesson valid worldwide. 

One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel García Márquez

The multi-generational story of the Buendía family is both about the inescapable repetition of history and the weight of the ghosts of the past, intertwined with the complexity of the present. An exploration of fatalism juxtaposed to idealism, which is often characterized as representative of Latin America but which, as the novel’s global success proves, is very universal.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) by Milan Kundera

This is an intriguing and refined love story but also a political tale describing not only marital intrigue and a reflection on belonging, on the Heimat (the homeland), and on nostalgia. The characters escape Soviet controlled Czechoslovakia to exile themselves in Zurich, but then are brought back by their own feelings to the Czech countryside. It’s an investigation of differences in cultures, in the contrast of an era, that of the Cold War, which is now surpassed, but which represents in a historical context, differences that are still alive in a wider global context.

Old Masters: A Comedy (1985) by Thomas Bernhard

These ruminations on the meaning of art, centering on an 82-year-old music critic who for 30 years sits on the same bench every other day in front of the same painting in a museum in Vienna for four hours at time, is an analysis of family ties, society, our relationship with the State, the importance and limits in our existence of arts and culture. It appears as a very Austrian-specific context, but it is a very global novel, with universal topics who all global citizens can and should relate to.

Kitchen (1988) by Banana Yoshimoto

This novel is way ahead of its time. Its most interesting character is a transgender woman, Eriko Tanabe, seen through the eyes of her son’s girlfriend, Mikage Sakurai, who is struggling with the loss of her grandmother, who was her last surviving relative. It is a tender story, exploring delicately the nuances of affection and of sentimental bonds. It reveals a particular Japanese sensitivity, but it reaches so deep that it touches a global nerve, which explains its international success.

Open City (2011) by Teju Cole

This walk through New York with a contemporary flaneur, Julius, a man completing his last year of psychiatry fellowship, has no plot. It doesn’t need it. The strength of this book is the investigation of our relationship to culture, music and art, through the capital of 20th century cosmopolitan identity.

The Vegetarian (English translation 2015) by Han Kang

This is the story of a generational conflict which is however ensconced in a very current setting, dealing with our relationship with vegetarianism, but also in a much wider conflict between sensibilities. It could be a simple plot of a homemaker who upsets family life by simply refusing to eat meat, but it’s a much more important work, digging deep into violent masculinity, traditional stubbornness, resistance to change, the normal versus the alternative, attempting to cohabit. It’s a powerful message from Korea.

Home Fire (2017) by Kamila Shamsie

A perfect novel for today’s global citizen, Home Fire re-imagines Sophocles’ Antigone unfolding among British Muslims in contemporary London, the Pasha family. In the end, it’s a masterful demonstration of the eternal recurrence of archetype. Instead of ancient Greece, we are in today’s London and our heroes and villains are British Pakistanis, a boy who joins the jihad in Syria and wants to come back, the attempt by his twin sister to safe him, the failure, the tragedy, the hypocrisy of power.

Jonathan Shannon
Professor of Anthropology, CUNY; Visiting Professor of Anthropology, NYUAD

1984 by George Orwell
Another Country by James Baldwin
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Death is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist by Emile Habibi
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Women of Algiers in their Apartment by Assia Djebar
Zoli by Colm McCann

Read More about this List

Unbalancing Acts: Or, Our Messed Up World

It seems as if the common thread here would be stories of oppression, whether colonial, racial, sexual, ethnic, national, or combinations of these. Literature is not sociology (thank god!) but usually can offer readers deeper insights into the human condition, including our confrontation with evil and the corrupting influence of power and money. At the same time, fiction indicates points of resistance to these malevolent forces. Most of these works also struck me as beautiful in their craft, and especially in an era of banal 140 or 280 character missives, everyone should read beautiful, powerful writing. I tried to eschew classics and the list is dominated by male authors — a regrettable product of my own unbalanced reading lists. For example, I might have added Hanan al-Shaylh’s “Zahra’s Story” to the list to include a Middle Eastern woman’s voice about women’s oppression, war, and sexual violence (perhaps at risk of perpetuating stereotypes of the region?), or Ahdaf Soueif’s “The Map of Love.” But as much as I like them, I didn’t feel as if they merited the top 12 list…. I have no excuse for avoiding Virginia Woolf, or Patricia Highsmith (everyone should read crime fiction!). But there we have it.

Finally, an honorable mention to Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. As we confront climate change, who better than Barbara Kingsolver to guide us through the complex territory of a changing world with her close observations of nature — human nature included — and how the domestic and global collide in times of crisis. Kingsolver is an excellent observer of nature (as in her “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”), and her perspicacity has the potential to bring currency to the kind of urgency about climate change that scientists, for all their data and screaming, cannot seem to manage.

1984 by George Orwell

A useful guide to contemporary living. Add to Atwood’s “Handmaid” and you have an accurate understanding of what motivates the Trump and Pence era…

Another Country by James Baldwin

I had to stop reading Baldwin in 1992 because his work was so powerful a critique of racist American society it had me depressed. But it’s essential reading not only for (white) Americans but for anyone who wants to understand the contradictions of America concerning race, class, gender, sexuality, and all those other analytical “lenses” that are more powerfully understood through literature than through, say, literary criticism (just sayin’).

Beloved by Toni Morrison

This is an amazing work on many levels: beautiful language, at times searingly painful narrative. While it treats the enduring legacy of slavery in American society, it speaks to universal truths about the power of love and family. Heartbreaking but global citizens need their hearts broken. Often.

Death is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa

This is a powerful account of the atrocities and absurdities of the Syrian revolution. Among the greatest humanitarian tragedies if recent memory the Syrian revolution is at once the most documented and the least understood. Khalifa, who remains in Damascus, writes in a way that beings us “near” to Syrians — not in their shoes but with them as they experience the cruelties and banalities  of oppression — much like Djebar’s goal in her work. Like Rushdie, he shows how fiction can be very dangerous.

There are some excellent Syrian women writers who are braver than Khalifa, but they tend to produce memoirs (Samer Yazbek, The Crossing; A Woman in the Crossfire) that makes me wonder about genre and gender constraints.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

I wanted a war story on this list — global citizens need to think about war and its consequences — but I also think global citizens should be exposed to beauty. Ondaatje’s prose is gorgeous and he evokes through the interrelated stories of the principle characters whole worlds and histories. Don’t see the movie. Read the novel. 

I almost chose Romain Gary’s “La promesse de l’aube” but a) it’s mainly memoire, b) it would seem pretentious to suggest something in French, and c) there are likely better works on WWII (and I think it’s translated into English).

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

 From dystopian fiction to current events… this work more than many is prescient, frightening, and provocative. It was curious in 1985, a bit too close for comfort as a film in 1990, and thorough depressing today in an era of rampant Trumpian misogyny coupled in an unholy alliance with theocracy and populism.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

A delightfully imaginative take on partition to be read along with Habibi’s “Pessoptimist.” Rushie’s powers of evocation are genius, and like Habibi he addresses themes of colonial legacies and the dangers of nationalist zeal through a whimsical tale, this time based loosely on the Arabian Nights. Rushdie also, through his (infamous) work “Satanic Verses” (also whimsical, like “Midnight’s Children”) shows how literature can be a dangerous affair. Art matters.

The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

Yes, another classic by a European male, but I recall this work as important to me as I struggled with conventions and the existential angst while attempting to create a meaningful life in a meaningless world. OK, I was 22 and living in Paris, so it went with the location. But the novel endures in my imagination. Some might choose Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” but this is a more compact treatment. So at a minimum more portable …

The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist by Emile Habibi

I might have chosen a novel that treats the human side of the tragedy of Palestine that is rarely aired, such as Ghasan Kanafani’s “Return to Haifa,” but this work is an equally intense though whimsical and satirical response to occupation and longing in Palestine. Habibi’s “pessoptimism” – a mix of pessimism and optimism — speaks to broader themes of displacement and memory, and is also one of the first science fictions works in Arabic since it deals with aliens as well. It also helps readers unfamiliar with the contradictions of the conflict and the history of white settler colonialism at once see why Palestinians will not forget (or be quiet; Lan Nasmat! ) and how these stories might illuminate others on the world stage today. There are many such stories, often far more overtly political, but this one offers a more nuanced entry into engagement with the loss of occupation.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

This well-known work reveals how European colonialism affected indigenous communities in Africa. It’s of course a staple in world lit and even cultural anthropology classes, and for good reason: well-written, engaging, and critical while not entirely succumbing to a naive embrace of nativism. It speaks back to empire with nuance.

Women of Algiers in their Apartment by Assia Djebar

This is not strictly a novel but a collection of short stories, but given the experimental nature of the work, we can and should consider it a novel. Djebar confronts orientalist stereotypes of Muslim women as exemplified, for example, in the eponymous painting by Delacroix (Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement, 1834), but set in Algeria of the 1990s during a time of civil unrest. Global citizens need to know more about Eurocentric imaginings about Muslim women, and this work allows readers to walk, not in the footsteps of Algerian women, but – as Djebar stated – “near them.” The proximity afforded by close reading “near” or along side protagonists might be more affective than any (spurious) claim that imagining oneself in the shoes of the Other produces empathy.

Zoli by Colm McCann

Following the theme of civilization and its discontents, here we have another great example of European hypocrisy: the treatment of Romani peoples. This superbly written tale — based like many of McCann’s work on historical research — is an excellent foray into the the byways of Otherness in WWII-era Europe. Equally relevant for today’s world of rampant bigotry.

James Traub
Sheikh Mohammed Scholars Program Principal Instructor, NYUAD

Journalist and Author of What Was Liberalism? (2019)

The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Atonement by Ian McEwen
Beloved by Toni Morrison
A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul
Bleak House By Charles Dickens
A Harlot High and Low by Honoré de Balzac
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz
Rabbit, Run by John Updike
Transparent Things by Vladimir Nabokov

 

Inspired to contribute a list of novels to the “12 Things Project”? Click here to get to our submission form.
Click here to go to the next list of novels.

Narrativizing the Refugee

Narrativizing the Refugee

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

Narrativizing the Refugee

Chiran Raj Pandey

September 2019

Caroline Brothers’ s Hinterland, which follows the lives of two young Afghan boys who are refugees from their country, is an uncomfortable novel. There is something disturbing about the way it has made me suddenly conscious of my own body. Two brothers, Aryan and Kabir, are forced to work in a farm in Greece, or swindled again and again by those who promise them safety, abused, lost, or shivering. Both are young, too young to have to be so old and daring, too innocent to be victim to an ugly and tyrannical history. 

Brothers has taken on a difficult task. Refugees define the crisis of our times, and as civil war, famine, invasion, disease, and climate change continue to escalate, so will the refugee crisis worsen. Brothers, who is also a journalist, is much too familiar with the terrible conditions in which these people struggle to live, sometimes just to survive. Her task, from her many years of experience reporting about refugee children in Paris, Greece, and other capitals of the world, is, in her own words, to break “news of Europe’s invisible child refugees on the front page.” Her novel breaks that news on every page; every moment in this novel is striking; every part of Aryan and Kabir’s journey is important; and when we leave Kabir in England at the end of the novel, we know that so much has to be written, still: life could hardly end here. 

Author Caroline Brothers will speak
at the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute on
September 10 at 6:30 p.m.

Photo credit: Rannjan Joawn

Source: carolinebrothers.com

To write about people who are so far removed from our own lives is always difficult. Immense research must go into it. The love and empathy that one must build, slowly and over a lifetime, for people who one has encountered always from a safe and innocent distance — the work is daunting. History, too, must be dealt with: one need only turn their eyes to Afghanistan for a moment to be blinded by the intensity of its past. Violence has accrued over generations, and it carries the various brands of the white world: America, England, Russia. Local brands are available, too: the Taliban, often a distant but formidable presence in this novel, are responsible for the deaths of Aryan and Kabir’s entire family. I wonder if there were such times, when Brothers was writing Hinterland, that this history proved to be too much for one individual to write about. But I am quickly reminded of the courage and trust in life that the two brothers must have had, to shoulder such a history and then dare to leave it behind.

To write about people who are so far removed from our own lives is always difficult.

There are moments in this novel that find me wishing for more: more courage, perhaps, on the author’s part, to confront history, or to find ways of narrativizing the refugee’s struggle for survival that are less interested in being coherent, or even readable, to attempt to reimagine the entire landscape of a form such as the novel, which seems ill-suited to address life when it is spinning at full-speed inside a destructive washing machine. Consider the English of the book. How are two brothers and their acquaintances, who likely barely speak the language, employing idioms that would have been foreign to their tongue? Phrases such as “Don’t worry, it’s not like we don’t have time,” or “You lost people in your family too, didn’t you,” or “You’re the only real family I have left” seem like awkward simulacra of Hollywood films. They appear out of place in this refugee novel, like old Hong Kong movies dubbed in English. I regret that the author refuses to be attentive to silences in such moments. Things said in the privacy of the camps, things that this author must have misunderstood, those things lost in the vast horizon of translatability — all seem somehow narrativized, sanitized even, for the sake of the novel.

I sit upright. My back hurts; I have been here for almost two hours now. How easy it is to be comfortable, I think, how easy it is to forget now that the novel is ended. Is literature as powerful as one would want it to be? Perhaps in the refugee’s ongoing conditions of captivity and fugitivity, speculation and narrativization are terrifying forms of violence. We abstract, when we read about Aryan and Kabir, from the specific experiences of particular people. Speculation requires us to profess control. In narrating, we draw the paths their lives will take. I can only wonder if there will ever be a different way to write this story. There is much work to be done. 

Chiran Raj Pandey is the managing editor of Electra Street and a senior at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing.

Author Caroline Brothers will speak at the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute on September 10 at 6:30 p.m.

FURTHER READING

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

FILM AND NEW MEDIA

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

Beyond Journalism

Beyond Journalism

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

Beyond Journalism

The Power of Caroline Brothers’s Novel Hinterland 

Zoe Jane Patterson

August 2019

The street is dark. You pull your scarf a little more tightly around your neck, and glance around, hoping your destination—a popular bar—is close by. This is Paris: there’s a train rattling on the bridge overhead, a man stumbling across the street, and a café where people smoke and talk around outdoor tables despite the cold. Maybe you’ve bumped shoulders with him outside the metro, or maybe you crossed a silent street to avoid his faceless figure, but if you stay in Paris for long enough you will encounter him: the refugee.

The short and singular story of refugees fleeing across Europe has been widely distributed by journalists and activists to spread awareness about their situation. There are countless refugee statements and photographs of derelict shelters peppering newspapers and social media feeds. Most articles take five to ten minutes to read. In them we encounter a nameless other, whose situation is sad and far away. Then we sigh and continue scrolling. This story is so prevalent that we have been made numb to it, and the people who live through it have been stripped of their individuality. The overwhelming number of facts have made them into nothing more than their terrible circumstances, but nobody can empathize with a statistic.

Hinterland by Caroline Brothers tells a story that a newspaper article simply cannot. It is a known fact that there are unaccompanied refugee children travelling through Europe, traumatized and vulnerable. They are only known to most people as numbers, that is until we travel with them — a feat that is only possible through fiction. The novel form allows Brothers to introduce complexity and individuality to the refugee story: the boys feel joy, have dynamic relationships, and harbor aspirations for the future, which is true for everyone, but is left out of journalism for the sake of brevity. By returning these untold truths to the well-known refugee story, the novel helps the reader to regain the empathy that has been lost in a sea of facts.

The novel takes the reader across Europe with two brothers from Afghanistan. Fourteen-year-old Aryan and his little brother Kabir travel from the border between Turkey and Greece all the way to Calais. The boys are robbed and cheated, Kabir is sexually assaulted, and they are haunted by the deaths of their family members and the fear of deportation. When they are in Paris, Aryan asks Kabir what he would tell their family in Iran about the journey so far, if he could send a message to them. “I’d tell them about the puppies and that we got new clothes and that soon we’ll be going to school in England.” Kabir chooses to remember and relay joy. He plays with stray puppies while he and his brother are doing forced labor in Greece. While he is homeless in Italy, he meets an Iranian-American couple and they buy both brothers new clothes and train tickets to Paris. When Kabir looks at the sky in the city of lights, he feels hope for a future where he can go to school. There is no room for glimmers of joy in an article that takes five minutes to read, but these moments humanize Kabir and Aryan. Their happiness is punctured by abuse and trauma, rather than their identity being reduced to the abused and traumatized.

A refugee encampment on the banks of the Seine in Paris.
Photo: Zoe Jane Patterson

Kabir and Aryan’s identities are defined and made more complex by their relationships with Afghanistan, a topic that only a novel has the breadth to tackle. Kabir asks Aryan if he is still an Afghan even though he left the country when he was four.

“Of course you’re an Afghan. I’m an Afghan, you’re an Afghan, our family is from Afghanistan.

But if someone asks, I can’t tell them what it’s like. I can remember more about Iran and Istanbul and this farm than Afghanistan.”

Despite the violence and loss that they’ve experienced in Afghanistan, the boys still feel connected to it, and defined by it. Aryan tells Kabir about home and their parents as a way of defining himself. “In that way, each becomes the keeper of the other’s identity … Sometimes he feels he could float off into space like an astronaut tethered neither by orbit nor gravity.” Without a nation or a family, Aryan would lose his entire sense of self. He has lost community and security, and feels that if he cried out, his voice would be met by the empty vacuum of space. The boys’ history and their country are part of their identity. Hinterland reminds the reader of the importance of home, and the trauma of losing it. 

Hinterland reveals Aryan’s deepest thoughts and feelings about himself and his home, and we are reminded of the specificity of each individual’s story by knowing him intimately. Aryan is treated as an individual in Hinterland, but he is still part of a much larger issue, which is made most clear when he and Kabir make it to Calais. Countless refugees arrive there, having crossed Europe only to encounter a kind of outdoor prison. The refugees in Calais cannot make it to a safe haven in England, but are pressed up against its border because of a hostile Europe behind them, and nothing to return to at home. The further Aryan and Kabir make it into Europe, the more hope they have that they will eventually reach safety. “Where on their journey was it that they had stopped fleeing and started running towards a future, no matter how indistinct? Yet all that time, they were only getting closer to a wall. The harder he runs up against it, the more he feels his courage fray.” Aryan and Kabir’s journey towards freedom and safety has been fraught with violence and fear, but now, on the last leg of their journey, they can’t go any further and are powerless.

Having travelled with them, the reader understands how impossible it would be for them to return home, when there is no home left, and the hostility that surrounds and corners them. Whether you read about this situation in fiction or in a piece of journalism, eventually the question becomes—what can I do? And what can policy-makers do? The failure in quick pieces of journalism to answer these questions kills empathy because readers can simply say, well it’s not my problem. Hinterland not only fosters empathy by taking us on the brothers’ journey, but also attempts to answer these questions.

The novel most deeply criticizes the treatment of refugees in France. Through the simple questions that the children ask about their treatment, it unravels these policies and points out their absurdity. At a makeshift camp in Calais, Aryan is teargassed while he’s asleep. He asks another refugee boy what is going on, and he’s told that the police teargas the camp every night. “He doesn’t understand how they could have become a target. They are not warriors and they don’t have weapons—they are on the run from those very things.” Aryan’s disbelief becomes the reader’s. This act of cruelty is pointless, as are many of the actions that take place in Calais. The police also take refugees’ firewood and shoes, and through Kabir’s conversation with his friend Hamid, the novel concisely portrays the flawed logic behind these actions.

“Why did the police keep those guys’ shoes?

To make it hard for them to walk back, Hamid says.

But why would they make it hard for them to walk back?

So they will go away. Kabir ponders Hamid’s answer for a moment.

How can they go away if they don’t have shoes? Hamid’s laugh has a hardness to it that Aryan doesn’t recognize from before.”

One clear answer to the question of what policy makers should do about refugees is to stop torturing them, to ask why they would want to live in these conditions if they had any alternative, and to react to their situation with empathy rather than cruelty and violence.

The novel also answers the question of what the individual can do for refugees. While the average person may not have the power to write new policies, or change immigration laws, Hinterland does reveal how ordinary people affect the brothers on their journey. Aryan and Kabir encounter an Iranian-American couple in Italy, who feed the boys, and buy them new clothes as well as train tickets to Paris. The novel demonstrates how ordinary people can use their privilege to make things slightly better for the people who are suffering. At the end of the novel, Brothers writes about the origins of Hinterland. She states that she wanted to “somehow give these kids a voice, so that people, if they came across them in one of our great world capitals, would at least have some understanding of who they were.” If we do nothing else, the novel asks us to really see refugees when we encounter them, not as symptoms of a problem or emblems of a statistic, but as individuals.

Zoe Jane Patterson is a senior at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing. Her piece about encountering refugees in Paris appeared last spring in Electra Street 03.
FURTHER READING

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

FILM AND NEW MEDIA

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

An Upturned Bucket List

An Upturned Bucket List

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

An Upturned Bucket List

Reading Caroline Brothers’s Hinterland

Vamika Sinha

August 2019

“KabulTehranIstanbulAthensRomeParisLondon.”

For some, this string of glamorous capitals might be a bucket list of places to visit, but for others it can trace a much uglier reality. Kabir and Aryan, two young, recently orphaned brothers from Afghanistan, recite these names to each other while on the run. It is a mantra, in that it is made up of equal parts desperation and hope.

The route materializes itself in the world of Australian journalist Caroline Brothers’s debut novel Hinterland. The brothers are only fourteen- and eight-years-old – just children. Fleeing the Taliban in Kabul, and the consequent shattering of their family, they are political refugees in search of an English education. They carry two sets of clothes on their backs at all times, scraps of food, little money, and no papers. The novel opens with them enclosed within the jaws of a truck, carrying them to the fantasy of Europe. I am reminded, eerily, of the novella by Ghassan Kanafani, titled Men in the Sun. Three Palestinian refugees arrange, with intense difficulty, to get themselves smuggled from Iraq to Kuwait in order to escape their camps and find employment. They hide in a water tank in a truck travelling across the desert. Upon crossing the last checkpoint, the story ends, only to find their dead bodies spilling out of the overheated tank. The men had died at the final moment. It was a grim reminder of the difference between life and narrative; one could be controlled, while the other had no obligation to ever reach catharsis, but simply falter, like breath, in the middle of a sentence.

With this foreboding thought, I continue to read about Kabir and Aryan, continue tracing an invisible finger across the map  – KabulTehranIstanbulAthensRomeParisLondon. Over an arduous winter, the brothers work as laborers on an anonymous farm in Greece. They are not paid, barely eat, and suffer violences to their bodies and minds in ways that children should not have the faintest conception of. They carry on. In Italy, they retch on their own fear while confronted by the police, paperless and ill-equipped in every possible way for a reality so mammoth, it dwarfs their small existences. They carry on. In Calais, they endure the even more powerful, lingering pain of waiting. Waiting for some kind of resolution. In a sense, they too are in the heated tank, travelling across Europe towards some salvation.

Brothers’s novel was adapted for the stage as Flight by the Glasgow-based theatre company Vox Motus and premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival. It will have its UAE premiere at the NYUAD Arts Center next month.

The journey is speckled with small moments of tenderness – a haircut from an Afghan wife in a corner of Rome. Fresh clothes, hot pasta, and a train ride to Paris from an Iranian-American couple, found, by some magical luck, speaking Farsi on their trip abroad. The innocent stirrings of desire on an overnight train, while catching the soft, occasional gaze of a girl sleeping across from Aryan. These are moments of ordinariness, illuminated not by their normalcy, but by their scarcity; the whole novel unfurls in the same calm, slightly detached, plain prose. 

It makes sense then that Caroline Brothers is primarily a reporter. Hinterland is her attempt at casting a more empathetic, “human” light on her lifelong journalism on migrants. Based in France, she has conducted hundreds of interviews with child refugees, trapped in their own versions of Kabir and Aryan’s journey. It becomes, quietly, more horrifying to realize that Hinterland is only fiction to the extent that it embellishes upon what is, for thousands, everyday and real.

While studying in Paris for a semester, I once found myself, along with two friends, lost on the way to a bar. Google Maps directed us to a large, pulsating establishment by the waterfront of Bassin Louis Blanc, deemed one of the ‘hottest nightlife spots in the city.’ But we were confused, stopped in our tracks by a … smell. Two rats scurried by. We fought the urge to flee. It stank of stale bodies, disuse and urine. Right next to the bar, thronged with the ‘bobos’ of Paris, the hipsters and underage, overdressed teenagers with beers in hand, was a large muddle of tents. Bodies moved within them, shifting imperceptibly, carrying on as usual, unnoticed if you didn’t stop and really take a closer look. 

“Is it a slum?

“They’re all brown…they must be immigrants.”

“Why are they partying next to a slum?”

“Do you think they could be gypsies?”  

“Does nobody care?”

Over the next few weeks, under eventual daylight, the sun fell on the truth: we had stumbled upon a refugee slum. In the middle of Paris, next to one of its most popular clubs. A few return trips yielded conversations with the slum’s inhabitants (mostly Afghan), a million questions, immigration papers waved in our faces, pleas for help in French, English, Urdu, and ultimately, fruitlessness. One of my friends left Paris to end up writing a lengthy, sensitive article about how she had tried to capture, in words, what she had experienced upon finding such a place, about her desperate attempt to twist a story out of the conversations and shine some kind of light on the refugees’ plight in Paris, and, more widely, on the larger crisis of migrants coming into Europe. 

Beneath Hinterland is buried the body of a huge political argument. One that asks us to take a closer look at the tents. What are the nuances of our border policies, our hot debates on migrants, our thousand little stumbling blocks of bureaucracy, xenophobia, fear, corruption, that place children like Kabir and Aryan in a refrigerated tank bound for England?

“KabulTehranIstanbulAthensRomeParisLondon,” Aryan asks Kabir to repeat, in the novel’s final scene, again in the mouth of a truck. I am taken back to one of the Afghan refugees in Paris appealing to me in Urdu: “Please, you’re from India. Our countries are brothers. You have to help me.” In that moment, I too became infected by helplessness. “SloveniaCroatiaGreeceItaly …” he rattled the mantra off with practice. “I’ve gone everywhere to be here.”

Vamika Sinha is a senior at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing with a minor in Music. She is a co-editor of Airport Road, food columnist for The Gazelle, runs an independent magazine called Postscript, and enjoys ramen and jazz.
FURTHER READING

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

FILM AND NEW MEDIA

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

Pin It on Pinterest