The Present is Female

The Present is Female

The Present Is Female 

A List of 12 Novels You Should Read


November 2019

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Never mind the adage that “the future is female”; the present is female, and we have Morrison to thank for it! Beloved speaks with such power and verve to the originary historical trauma of U.S. contemporary life that Morrison’s novel spurred the emergence of trauma studies as a major field of work in the U.S. academy and beyond it. I cherish this novel and do not want to imagine a contemporary Anglophone literary field without it. 

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Possibly the best novel of this millennium. (You can quote me on that.) Four friends from college make their way through turbulent comings-of-age often shaped and marred by the unspeakable traumas of late capitalism. Literary lore has it that Toni Morrison told her creative writing classes at Princeton that ”I don’t want to hear about your little life”; Yanagihara’s novel offers a wonderful example of how ostensibly personal stories can offer macronarratives about our cultural moment at the start of the 21st century.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

A rival for the title as this young millennium’s best novel so far. Smith published White Teeth within three years of receiving her BA in English Literature from Cambridge University. In significant ways, the novel reads like a showdown with the English canon in which Smith’s studies had immersed her: Opening ”early in the morning, late in the century,” the novel treats us to a sweeping, Saturnalian panorama of the post-empire. Initially panned by conservative critic James Wood as ”hysterical realism,” the novel and its successors in Smith’s oeuvre embrace the disorderly, the messy, seeing in chaos and dynamism a new way to narrate contemporary life and its peculiarities.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

A story of addiction, the post-plantation, racialized income inequality, and police brutality, Ward’s novel speaks with clarity and indignation about the reality facing Black bodies in the U.S. today. Like Morrison, to whom she professes her literary matrimony, Ward physicalizes Black female suffering in the figure of a tree. Readers of Beloved will find Ward’s climactic last scene impossible not to juxtapose with the scars on Sethe’s back, though Ward goes even further than her predecessor in discussing the web of roots that nourish the tree that comes to represent fraught U.S. history post-1619.

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

Danticat contemplates migration (Haiti to New York), institutionalized misogyny, childhood sexual trauma, and the interconnections of language with race and gender. I will never forget the novel’s descriptions of “testing” rituals that intend to gauge a girl’s virginity but serve the de facto function of legitimating male physical overreach in the context of unquestionable patriachy. Read the novel for the horrors it exposes, yes, but also for its protagonist’s efforts to survive and overcome them.

Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid

Any reading of Kincaid’s novels must begin from a consideration of her relation to Antigua, the island she calls home and whose systematic exploitation by predatory tourism industries she documents in the non-fiction work A Small Place. Kincaid locates much of the social malaises plaguing Antigua(ns) in their role as perpetual servants to transient white visitors, bringing to mind what Tsitsi Dangaremba called the “nervous conditions” of postcolonial subjectivity. This novel’s explorations of depression and poverty thus gestures toward efforts to explain their occurence by the indignities that Antiguans experience as servants in their own nation. But perhaps the novel’s deftest move occurs in its discussions of female homosocial relations and lesbian desire in the private sphere—a rebuttal of Western queer studies discourses that see private queerness as deficient and premodern. Annie John challenges Western readers to check their/our assumptions of what modernity looks like, and to ask to what extent we caused the problems in Antigua that we now lament.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

After Morrison’s death earlier this year, Walker has become the custodian of U.S. moral consciousness. No less grandiose claim would do justice to Walker’s role in shaping contemporary U.S. awareness of the legacies of plantation slavery and the contemporary realities of the post-plantation and gender violence. Nor does it seem grandiose to elevate Walker to this position of cultural arbitrarion and record-keeping if we consider the shaping influence The Color Purple and its author had on younger novelists. Zadie Smith may have grown up in London, but speaking about her earliest literary exposure at Stanford University earlier this year, she said: “Toni Morrison [and] Alice Walker […] for those of us who grew up Black-British, our models were [U.S.] American.” With a legacy that crosses the Atlantic Ocean, Walker offers narratives that explain our contemporary moment and demand moral actions to undo our freighted legacies.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

As the most prominent women writer in the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston created the discursive space for African-American women to narrate their own realities—to give accounts of themselves. The line of inspiration from Hurston via Morrison to a plethora of (queer) women novelists (of color) working today makes Their Eyes Were Watching God required reading for anyone who reads contemporary novels. But what makes Hurston’s novel more than required reading is her capacity for world-making in African-American vernaculars. Their Eyes Were Watching God inserts itself in flood narratives from Gilgamesh and Noah/Nuh through Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, warranting that we read Hurston not just for her historical role in clearing discursive space, but as a poetic master in her own right.

Passing by Nella Larson

As a Danish citizen who crossed the Atlantic to study in the U.S., I have long wondered at Larson’s absence from mainstream Danish literary canons and at her relegation in the U.S. to niche/historicizing reading lists (“women writers in the Caribbean”; “interracial queer novels of migration,” etc.). Passing could well serve as the premier text through which to capture the African-American prose tradition of the 1920s. In its efforts to make “the great (U.S.) American novel” a story of racial passing and border-crossing, Passing might well rival Moby-Dick and Absalom, Absalom! as one example of that elusive national narrative.

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

No survey of contemporary U.S./Anglophone novels (as I am realizing that this list seems to offer) would be complete without reckoning not just with slavery, but also with the Native American genocide starting in 1492. Silko’s novel probes the limits of the novel as a cohesive form, while her narrative experiments with non-linearity to unsettle readers’ expectations of what Native American novels should represent. I think of the contemporary Native American poet Tommy Pico’s “Nature Poem” (“I can’t write a nature poem bc English is some Stockholm shit,/makes me complicit in my tribe’s erasure—why shld I give a fuck abt/‘poetry’? It’s a container”): Silko bends the novel’s form to her will, interrogating even the act of readership and suggesting its tacit extractivism.

Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

The stories of at least seven women (Yu Guan Soon, Joan of Arc, Saint Thérèse, Cha, her mother, and the Greek goddesses Demeter and Persephone) weave together and form a thoughtful, rich meditation on womanhood, trauma, and martyrdom. Dictee and its author traverse oceans and literary borders and ask whether it makes sense to persist in grouping texts togetehr in national canons given the porous nature of contemporary cultural boundaries. In a gruesome echo of Cha’s misgivings about female martyrdom, Cha died from gendered sexual violence in a brutal murder shortly after Dictee’s release. Dictee thereby presents readers with the chance, if nothing else, to commemorate Cha’s life by engaging with her work, all the while recalling the acute insufficiency of our efforts to curb gendered sexual violence.

Crimson / HOMO Sapienne by Niviaq Korneliussen

Let me conclude this list with a recommendation that differs from the eleven novels above both because it comes from the ultraminor field of contemporary Greenlandic lesbian literature, but also because it approaches representations of trauma not through dramatizations of it, but through its elision. Crimson imagines a Greenlandic society all but sanitized of its Danish colonizers. It responds to the contemporary reality of rampant homophobia with a strident vision of queer acceptance and celebration. (I worked with Professor Ken Nielsen on a capstone project about Korneliussen’s counterimaginative moves for my capstone project in 2018 and recommend the novel almost as an antidote to the Arctic Orientalism that pervades representations of Greenland, not least in the wake of the 45th U.S. President’s suggestion that he wanted to “buy” the (autonomous) island.) Read it to feel renewed hope that no matter the catalogue of traumatized texts above, a decolonial and post-violent world might just be waiting to be born.

Nikolaj Ramsdal Nielsen graduated from NYU Abu Dhabi in 2018 with a degree in Liteature and Creative Writing. He is currently a doctoral student in comparative literature at Stanford University.

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

Can Literature Survive Twitter?


Can Literature Survive Twitter?

Ria Golovakova

November 2019

Plato can rejoice: writing has finally caught up to speech.

Back in 370 BCE, the Greek philosopher lamented in his dialogue Phaedrus that written words “stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent.” In contrast to a live speaker, the author of a text is unapproachable. As a reader, you only have the words to go by, and “if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever.” If you want to express a criticism, the author needs to be there to support her writing, as “alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support.”  Except not anymore—social media has changed that dynamic.

Photo courtesy of

Authors are everywhere, and they want to talk to their readers: much like asking a question after a speech, a reader can now close the book and tag the author on Twitter, sending her all the pressing questions that the reading inspired. If the ending was unsatisfactory, the writer can be pressed to disclose more information. If a side-character was popular, the reader can request a spin-off or at least extra tid-bits about the character’s life. If the premise was controversial, the writer can be made to acknowledge the criticism. Roland Barthes is irrelevant—the author is no longer dead.

In 2017, Andrew O’Hagan wrote in The Guardian that “writers thrive on privacy, not on Twitter, and so do readers when the lights are low,” and he lamented that the new Internet age has destroyed any notion of a “private life” outside the screen. He also wondered about the writer’s role in this digital landscape: “what if she didn’t unplug when confronted with the new fictionalities but inscribed herself into the web and reported back?” I propose to answer that question with the case study of a very Internet-active author: J.K. Rowling.

An example of
J.K. Rowling’s infamous tweets.

Photo courtesy of

The writer behind the beloved Harry Potter franchise has taken a particular liking to Twitter. In fact, she has now become a running internet joke (or meme) for her notorious use of the platform to add to and augment the series’ canon. She has posted answers to fan questions that drastically changed the interpretation of her books or contradicted them entirely, with claims that Albus Dumbledore was actually homosexual or that Hermione Granger wasn’t white. In an article for WIRED, Emma Grey Ellis claims “at this point, Rowling herself seems to be running with scissors, ready to slice up your childhood.” She compares this behavior to the culture of fan-fiction, which has exploded since the early 2000s on Internet forums and has been particularly active in the Harry Potter fandom. But Ellis recognizes that Rowling’s interventions “seem as remote and unnatural as bad fanfic,” because they do not respect the internal logic of her original stories.

Still, consensus holds that Rowling’s statements are canon because they are made by the original author. In a paper titled “The ghost of JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the ur-fan,” Dion McLeod and Travis Holland suggest that such intervention forces the fans “who wish to read the texts through the dominant authorial lens established by Rowling” to “reinterpret the meanings they had previously found in the texts.” The paper in fact proposes a new way to look at the reader-author relationship, where Rowling becomes “the ur-fan.” In this role, she interacts with the fandom in a way that a fanfiction writer might, but she is given precedence because of her status as the original author of the text. This way, her interactions with the series become a gray area of not-quite-text and almost-canon.

These blurred boundaries suggest that the text is no longer the whole story, even with authors who are less active on social media than Rowling may be. There has been a rise in authors who either started out as popular social media users or who became more successful as writers because of their social media followings, such as John Green or Rupi Kaur. Of course, one can argue that all of the authors discussed so far do not write literary fiction, and that more mainstream pop fiction may lend itself to social media interactivity. But to me it seems short-sighted to assume that the authors of highly literary works could not be interested in the possibilities that Twitter brings. The dynamic between readers and writers is now fundamentally different, and even those writers who do not appear on social media do so as a conscious decision, which becomes part of their branding.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Even if a writer is not on Twitter, some of his or her readers will be. Ellis speculates that “the future of storytelling is likely something more participatory and inclusive,” with readers actively involved in creating and interpreting literature in ways that were not possible in the past. Fan fiction, interpretive theories, analysis video essays, speculative fan art, inspired original fiction, discussion boards: readers can gather in multitudes of digital spaces and mold their favorite works as they please, potentially toppling down the author’s superiority and making literature a two-way street instead of a sermon.

Rudy Rucker’s science fiction novel Software presents a model of evolution that resonates with this  discussion. Within the story, the creator of “boppers” (intelligent and self-conscious robots) Cobb Anderson, realized that “no one can write a bopper program … they’re too complicated” but one might not have to. Instead, he “set a thousand of simple AI programs” loose, with “fitness tests” that mirrored natural selection, and mutation when “all the surviving programs were randomly changed.”

Twitter reminds me of this software battle ground, where readers instead of AI programs are all set loose and compete for likes and retweets with their contributions to a fandom. Authorial intervention or other unexpected events, as well as the simple changing make-up of users, serve the role of mutation to the general landscape. Individuals build their ideas off of each other, creating complex systems of theories and interpretations that none of them could have come up with alone. As a public forum, the internet has created a growing network the creations of which are more than the sum of its parts.

The future of literature may be in trusting the crowd and the community. After all, genuine fans tend to want the best for the books they enjoy and their engagement may increase the value of the text more than the isolation of a static book ever could. Perhaps literature has now become the new Athenian assembly, after all. If Plato saw it, maybe he would not criticize writing as much as he did.


Ria Golovakova is a senior at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing. She is interested in exploring and writing about the many manifestations of modern culture and how the forces that shape society today may differ from those of the past.





Four Poems

Four Poems


Four Poems

Maitha AlSuwaidi

The Sun

When you describe me;
Do not compare me to a flower.
Do not compare me to the moon. 
Do not compare me to a melody. 
Think of me as the big, bright sun. 
For flowers wither,
The moon relies on the brightness of the sun to shine,
Melodies grow repetitive and boring. 
But the sun,
It is the reason you wake up in the morning. 
It the reason the flowers in the balcony of your tiny apartment back in your New York blossom. 
It is the reason the moon shines on your restless composure when you’re up all night missing me, every single night 
It is the reason you wrote all those songs about me, each morning a new melody. 
And if I, the sun, ever explode from the agony you’ve been feeding me 
I will take all source of life along with me,
Including yours. 
So, think of me as the big, bright sun.


شكراً ماما

:إلى أمي الحبيبة

أريد أن أهديكِ كل البلاغة في هذه الدنيا لأشفيَ كل الآلام التي استعرتِها من الدنيا

أريد أن أقدّم لك تشبيهاتَ نزارِ وكلمات كاظم

أريد أن أهديك كلماتي الباهتة هذه.

أقبلي مني المحبة

اقبلي مني المحبةَ في ليالي السهر والسمر

لإنني لا أستطيع أن أقدم لك الكثيرَ عدا الأحضان والكلمات

.فاقبليهم مني 

The Ultimate Guide to Toxicity 

Man up.
Man up; vulnerability is not an option, and neither is crying
In the case of the existence of tears, it should be the tears of the girl you lured to love you unconditionally, never yours
Man-age to get the upper hand, at all costs
Man-age to push her to her limits just for you to catch her before she falls
Man-date your inferiors, in other words, the females in your family that love you unconditionally
Man-euver your way to as many hearts as you can before you decide to settle down. The more, the man-lier
Man-ifest your faux affection when she abides to your demands and deprive her of it when she misbehaves
Man-ducate her resistance like you will man-ducate that salmon you will force her to cook for you. It may taste fishy and stinky, but you will enjoy eating every single bit of it. You will, nevertheless, remind her everyday of how stinky it tasted

Man-ipulate her like a subject in one of your scrutinizing studies
A dependent variable
A lab rat
A case study
An object to be acquired
And when the treatment fails to produce the result you hypothesized
When the lab rat gets sick and dies
When the case study fails
When the human you objectify becomes an object
When the wo-man you deep-down loved becomes nothing but your shadow
When she becomes nothing but the remnants of the whole person she was before you
Tuck in your toxic masculinity in the inner pocket of your expensive suit
And walk into a dark room to silently kill your shadow
And then, man-ipulate the next wo-man
Man up.


A Heaving Chest

To get used to fear is to feel heavy
To feel heavy is to drag your heart with a thin rope behind you as you trail by time’s tail
To feel heavy is to sob your eyeballs out when you realize your mother no longer is your best friend

To feel heavy
Is to feel insane
Even when you’re steady
Even when you’re driving in the right lane
It is to be willing to jump into the next person’s shoes as long as they are not yours
It is to blame


Your father
Your childhood best friend
That one harsh high school teacher
The car accident you got into last year
The one person you thought would never leave

To feel heavy is to never blame yourself
When maybe you should.


Maitha AlSuwaidi is a student at NYU Abu Dhabi. She is a writer, a poet, and a performance artist. Maitha hopes to combine her interests in politics and sociology with her practice of creative writing. She will be appearing at the 2019 Hekayah Festival at NYU Abu Dhabi this week.


Danabelle Gutierrez on Writing Poetry in the UAE

Danabelle Gutierrez on Writing Poetry in the UAE


Danabelle Gutierrez on Writing Poetry in the UAE

Aathma Nirmala Dious

In November 2018, Danielle Gutierrez and Electra Street poetry editor Aathma Dious were among a group of poets who performed in various galleries at the Louvre Abu Dhabi as part of a celebration of the first anniversary of the opening of the museum. Gutierrez’s poems “My Love as Art” and “The Muse, Frustrated” and Dious’s poem “Pathemari” appeared on Electra Street in February 2019.

In the interview below, Gutierrez talks with Dious about writing poetry in the UAE.

Aathma Dious: Let’s start by talking about your references to famous artists such as Frida Kahlo and Johannes Vermeer in the poem “My Love as Art.”

Danabelle Gutierrez: In the first version of that poem, I make no mention of the names of the artists. However, it seemed like the references got lost from the page to the microphone, so I had to tweak it for performance.

AD: Your reference to art must have played a role when you performed original poetry at the first anniversary celebration of the Louvre Abu Dhabi last fall. Was it different writing for available art pieces at the Louvre Abu Dhabi instead of choosing your own pieces to reference?

DG: It helped that the way that the galleries were divided between the poets was democratic, so I was able to choose the gallery and artwork that I wanted to write about. It was limiting, yes, but I suppose the challenge fueled the inspiration.

AD: Looking back to your work so far, what was your favorite poem to write or your favorite writing memory—and why?

DG: I am supposed to say that my favorite poem is the next one that I’ll write, because in some way it’s true, and it sounds poetic and mysterious. Hahaha. But truly, I think my favorite poems that I’ve written are the ones that magically seemed to write themselves, with little to no effort on my part, it just somehow flowed, and I let it, and it became.

Danabelle Gutierrez

AD: You mentioned in the bio that accompanied the poems that appeared last February on Electra Street that you have traveled to multiple places since you were young. How has this constant movement informed your writing and poetry? Has it shifted since your “longer pit-stop” in Dubai where you are an expat?

DG: I think the constant moving manifests in the writing in that in a lot of it the speaker of the poem is somehow always seems displaced and is always looking for a place to call “home,” it didn’t really shift when I moved to and stayed in Dubai, because while Dubai does feel somewhat like “home,” I know that it isn’t really.

AD: Right now there is a rise in the arts scene of the UAE, with writing collectives, magazines, open mics flourishing alongside government efforts to open up museums and other such spaces. How has it been navigating your place in this scene, and how different is it from when you first arrived?

DG: I’ve been really grateful because ever since I found the literary scene in the UAE. They’ve been nothing but open and welcoming. And I do love all the different groups, and I am glad that each group is so diverse and has a totally different personality. So in some I love to perform; in others, I just like to attend and enjoy the show.

AD: You are working on your third book, I believe? Is there anything that you would like to share about it and the process?

DG: Tears Across The Earth, my third book, has been in the works for a couple of years now. It has four short stories, and each short story has some poems accompanying it. The process is taking a lot longer, but I am enjoying it, There’s always something new to learn at every turn and something new to discover in every chapter. I am hoping to finally complete it by early next year, but we’ll see.

AD: You’ve won awards for acting at the 48 Hour Film Festival and the Emirates Short Film Festival, as well as from the Film Development Council of the Philippines. How does acting impact your poetry—and vice versa—considering the different demands in each art form?

DG: I feel like film is a lot more forgiving than the stage, if you mess up, you get to do a retake, plus in film, it’s a limited audience, sometimes it’s just you and the director. Performing poetry is still quite hard for me, even after all of these years, it still not my favorite thing to do, I still get very nervous and uncomfortable, not only because I am performing as myself, not as a character, but also because it’s my work and not someone else’s. Thankfully, the audiences that I’ve had the privilege of performing for have been very gracious and for that I am very grateful. 


Danabelle Gutierrez is a writer born in the Philippines and raised in Cairo, Vienna, and Muscat. She has been moving from country to country, taking photographs along the way, since she was eight-years old. Her three-decade-long life journey seems to have taken a longer pit stop in Dubai, where she now lives, loves, and writes.

She has been listed among Illustrado‘s “100 Most Influential Filipinos in the Gulf” in 2016, 2017, and 2018; was the recipient of The Filipino Times‘s “Artist of the Year Award” in 2017; and was included in FWN‘s “100 Most Influential Filipinas in the World” in 2018.

Danabelle is the author of I Long To Be the River and & Until The Dreams Come. She is currently working on her third book.

Aathma Nirmala Dious is a Literature and Creative writing major at New York University, Abu Dhabi. Her first poetry “book” involved folded up A4 papers stapled together with her short poems, accompanied by a bio written by her father and a passport picture at the age of 8.
A soul with a deep love for stories, she performs spoken-word poetry and writes fantasy fiction and personal essays.
Her cultural/national identity is a bit mixed-up as a result of  being an Indian (Malayalee) expat born and brought up in Abu Dhabi, an intersection that inspires not just the content but also the mix of English and Malayalam in her work. She’s performed at the Louvre Abu Dhabi and at the NYUAD Arts Center’s Hekayah 2018.

Aathma was voted Best New Artist for Rooftop Rhythms 2017-18 season and has written for The Gazelle, NYUAD’s student newspaper. She also enjoys photography, her violin, movies, food, and advocating for POC representation in the arts. 





The Seams Behind a Seamless Production

The Seams Behind a Seamless Production


The Seams Behind
a Seamless Production   

Yasmeen Tajiddin

October 2019

At the beginning of the semester, when I was chatting with one of the actors in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, he casually mentioned he’d had twenty-four hours of rehearsal that week. Twenty-four hours. A full day.

After I saw the production though, it all added up. In a little under a month and a half, the cast and crew constructed an entire world on a small, intimate stage. From the shadow puppetry to the musical numbers, every detail felt intentional. This accomplishment would not have been possible without a considerable amount of work put in behind the scenes—all of which was concealed from the audience.

Ana Karneža as the judge Azdak in the NYUAD production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, directed by Orlando Pabotoy.

Photo Credit: Waleed Shah

Tori Mondello, a lighting operator, spoke to some of the work that had to be done before the actors even stepped into the Black Box.

“We had about a week of prepping the Black Box […] and that was just on the lighting side. We hung lights for them, made presets (positioning options for lights that have to be set manually) to where we thought they would need light, etc.”  

She emphasized that the seamlessness of the play should be credited to the people who were a part of tech along with the actors. It can be easy to allow the tech work to fall to the wayside because it isn’t noticed the same way the actors are during a production, but the lighting, sound design, entrance and exit cues, and prop organization are a vital part of any theatrical piece and enhance the actors’ performances.

Crowd scene from The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

Photo Credit: Nikith Nath

This work was particularly important in this production because of the limited time the cast had to prepare. The director, NYU-NY Affiliate Faculty Orlando Pabotoy, highlighted the necessity of a clear structure, which he and the crew communicated to the actors, in order to have a polished product by the end of their rehearsals. Elements like the blocking (an actor’s movements), music and lighting design had to be set in stone before rehearsals to give the actors a solid jumping-off point.

These pre-set constraints helped move the rehearsals along, and affected the actors’ ability to freely and completely explore all the possibilities for their roles. Pabotoy explained, “If you [the actors] had more time, there would be more time to explore other possibilities […] but that doesn’t mean there’s no time for that […] It happens within the structure.” The actors were free to explore, in other words, but within the enabling constraints that had already been established.

Mother-in-Law (Nabiha Nahyan) washes the Invalid (Hubert Eric Garrish) as Grusha (Bernice delos Reyes) turns away.

Photo Credit: Waleed Shah

The performance though, was anything but constrained, especially during the musical numbers. Anyone who saw the production would be convinced that the show was originally made to be a musical, but the music was actually created for this show by composer Fabian Obispo.

“We had separate music rehearsals, and we had to tie it into the story we had to tell,” explained Archita Arun, an actress in the production. Once the music was smoothly integrated into the production, the musical numbers became the most expressive and compelling parts of the play.

Grusha (Bernice delos Reyes) at the trial, flanked by Ludovia (Archita Arun) and Simon (Carlos Páez).

Photo Credit: Waleed Shah

Despite the long rehearsals, lost sleep, and high levels of stress, every person I asked said they would definitely be a part of the production again.

 “This was my first time operating a show,” Tori Mondello revealed. “To be constantly aware for almost three hours, double checking cue numbers and having fast reflexes when the stage manager gives the go was difficult, but very rewarding […] I would do it again!”

Azdak (Ana Karneža) has a dilemma.

Photo Credit: Nikith Nath

Actress Stalina Guberchenko said,“I met the most amazing people who created a warm atmosphere for both professional and creative work. All of them inspired me to move further, collaborate and create.”

During the final curtain call, the actors’ camaraderie with everyone on and off stage was palpable. I got the sense that they valued all twenty-four of those hours together and the countless hours that came after.

Stalina Guberchenko in
The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

Photo credit: Nikith Nath

Yasmeen Tajiddin is a creative writing student with a minor in Arabic at NYU Abu Dhabi.

The Present is Female

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



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

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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
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
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


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

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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


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