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
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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
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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
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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 ManParadise 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
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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
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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
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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.
[EDITORS’ NOTE: If you missed our screenings of Ellis on the NYUAD campus or would like to see it again, you can download a copy for free from iTunes.]
The short film Ellis directed by the artist JR and starring Robert De Niro pays homage to all of the immigrants who entered the United States by passing through the immigration station at Ellis Island outside New York City.
Ellis Island is the stuff of American history and mythology. From 1892 to 1954, it was the threshold through which millions of would-be immigrants were required to pass in order to realize their American. Located in Upper New York Bay near the Statue of Liberty, it was the busiest immigrant inspection station in the United States, and in its peak years — between 1905 and 1914 — an average of 5,000 immigrants per day were processed by immigration officials on the island.
If you were lucky, you spent just a few hours at the island, before receiving permission to proceed to the mainland. You would have had to answer twenty-nine questions, including your name, your occupation, and how much money you were carrying. (You generally needed around $20 to gain approval — about $430 in today’s money — because the US government wanted new immigrants to have funds to support themselves as they tried to start their new lives.)
Some never made it past that threshold, turned away because they had contagious disease, or criminal records, or seemed to be insane. Some of those who seemed to be sick were sent to the island’s hospital facilities. Many stayed there for quite a while. Some died there.
Today Ellis Island is a museum, but the hospital facilities are still abandoned and in disrepair. The visual artist JR recently mounted an exhibition of contemporary photographies pasted onto the walls of the abandoned building. “Walking around the abandoned hospital on Ellis Island, I could feel the presence of the hundreds of thousands of people who passed through, and of the countless ones who didn’t make it and got turned back.” The exhibition and the short film that it inspired are the artist’s attempt to “to ﬁnd the story behind each person who left his or her country. I want to know what made them leave everything and everyone behind, even when they knew they’d never be able to come back. It takes so much courage.”
This moving short film looks back to the American past but prompts us to think about todays refugee and migrant crises around the world. As JR puts it, “There were immigrants in Ellis a hundred years ago, there are migrants now, and there will be some in a hundred years, so we have to do what we can to try to relate to each individual story.”
[If you’ve seen the film and have thoughts about it, please share them in the comments section below.]
A STUDENT’S EXPERIENCE OF “PARABLE OF THE SOWER: THE CONCERT VERSION”
The first week of classes is hardly a busy one, from an academic point of view of course, so the chances are that you will probably accept a free ticket to a concert if it’s offered. Even though I had not read Octavia E. Butler‘s Parable of the Sower and did not know much about Toshi Reagon’s concert edition of the novel, I took the ticket I was offered and went to the concert, held at the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Center in early September. I had no expectations — and came out with all kinds of ideas rushing through my head. The American singer portrayed the novel’s ideas in her own musical language, which molded science fiction with African spiritualism.
Lights out, complete silence, and then … nothing. For quite some time, the audience waited with anticipation for the performers to start playing. The orchestra started playing soft African music and the singers’ faces looked like forms of art. When Toshi made her appearance on stage, her voice swayed with cheer and the stage became vibrant; anticipation spread through the audience.
I didn’t know the music — none of us did — but it felt familiar and warm, and intense. Among the singers, two women caught my attention: They were both tall, sitting sideways on chairs and facing each other, and had mesmerizing voices. Their posture and their slight smiles, which they managed to keep through the entire show, held hints of wisdom and passion. Because the opera was co-written by Toshi’s mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon, who founded the African American a cappella singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock, some of the songs reminded me of church songs that I’ve heard in movies. I’ve always found it intriguing how prayer can sometimes be best transmitted through music and dance, and the two women at the back of the circle of singers seemed sometimes to be leading the prayer songs. They looked like the care-takers of Toshi and the other singers. The women’s voices seemed to contain the other voices, bringing them to a communal revolt against what is happening to the world of Parable (and, perhaps, our own).
The songs were my study-guide into the book. Each song turned a theme in the novel into a musical note that reached into the diverse audience. In one song, the stage roared with energy as Toshi raised questions that transformed the roar; she asked us what we would do to be safe, what compromises would we make? The lyrics painted a picture of utter violence and chaos in my head, which the mixture of voices brought to life. The show turned me to the subject of the novel: a girl who can feel other people’s pain and other sensations as if they her own. The songs of the concert allowed me, a member of the audience, the chance to role-play. Suddenly, like the novel’s heroine Lauren Olamina, I couldn’t formulate my definition of things like humanity, ethics, compassion, and other terms I thought I knew so well.
These emotions of fear and worry, however, started me thinking. Maybe this quality is exactly what is needed in this world; maybe people need to feel the pain they’re inflicting on others, whether it’s direct or not, in order to stop all the awful things that have been going on. At least then the world might restore a form of its humanity. And although the humanity obtained this way may seem quite selfish, it’s still better than the reality we sadly live in.
One song in particular brought out my memories of my personal loss, the painful experiences of my loved ones, and the sense of collective loss we feel when we wake up every day to heartbreaking news about the humanity slowly withering away from our world. This song, a solo entitled “Has Anyone Seen My Father” and sung by Shayna Small, was about loss, the inevitable part of life that leaves scars on all of us. The woman who sang stood alone in a spotlight, and the song was soft and slow, so that we could digest the words of confusion and pain that the singer brought to life. She was searching for her father, a hard-working preacher who had suddenly disappeared, and the words repeated, highlighting her sense of helplessness, fear, and despair.
One of the final songs, my favorite, offered a powerful change of tone and emotion. Entitled “God is Change,” the singers stood and surrounded Toshi, as she moved from one place to another. They sang words that I wish a lot of the people in the world right now could hear. Mirroring the novel, the song promoted open-mindedness and adaptation, reminding us that religion is supposed to be guiding and kind, not binding and forceful. The song is a powerful message for all the people of the world to better understand their own religions. Change is good, and people can adapt to the changes of the world without giving up their spirituality. I walked out of the Arts Center with music in my ears and thoughts dancing around in my head, challenging the idea that only homework can get students to think when they’re outside class.
Growing up in New York City in the 1970s, I came to love classical music, particularly music written for the piano. Though I never considered myself to be a “music student,” I started playing the piano in the third grade with a teacher who inspired me, and I used to spend my Saturday mornings browsing through records at Sam Goody or looking through sheet music at Patelson’s behind Carnegie Hall. I once played hooky from school with my best friend, Alik, to line up in front Carnegie Hall in the middle night with in order to buy tickets to see the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz, whom I would be privileged to hear live a number of times in the ensuing years. Alik could really play; his signature piece was Chopin’s G-minor Ballade. And it was he who introduced me to Beethoven’s Late Quartets.
In retrospect, though, we both had a very conventional notion of what “classical music” was. If we’d been asked, we probably would have said that “classical music” was Western high-art music created roughly between 1700 and 1900 — or perhaps 1943 (we both loved Rachmaninov). I also understood “Classical” to mean the period after the “Baroque” (e.g. Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi) and before the “Romantic” (e.g. Beethoven, Chopin, and “Rach”!), exemplified by Mozart and the early Beethoven. I accepted the conventional opposition between “classical music” and “popular music” (which I also loved: it was the heyday of the Stones and Led Zeppelin).
That conventional notion of “classical music” went out the window years later when I began listening to Kronos Quartet‘s Pieces of Africa (1992), which would eventually top Billboard’s chart for “World Music,” a category that became popular in the 1980s as a marketing label for non-Western “traditional” music. Founded in Seattle in 1973 by violinist David Harrington, the Kronos Quartet sought to overturn the conception of “classical music” that I shared with so many other people. Harrington had apparently been inspired to form the group after hearing a radio broadcast of the avant-garde composer George Crumb’s Black Angels (1971), a work written for “electronic string quartet” that in which the players were required to use (in addition to their stringed instruments) maracas, water glasses, and paper clips (as picks) and to speak and make other vocal sounds. In 1978, the group had formed a tight collaboration featuring Harrington (violin), John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), and Joan Jeanrenaud (cello). They became known not only for performing an unusual repertoire but also for eschewing the traditional dress code for string quartets, wearing clothes that recalled the styles of New Wave rock’n’rollers. They tried to create a special ambiance in their venues and often played in front of projections. The quartet gained international recognition with their 1987 album White Man Sleeps, which took its title from two pieces by the minimalist composer Kevin Volans that made use of harpsichords, a viola da gamba in African tuning, and Western percussion instruments. In 1989, the group’s recording of Steve Reich’s Different Trainswon a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition.
Since that time, the trio of Harrington, Sherba, and Dutt has been joined by several different cellists after Jeanrenaud left in 1999 to pursue different projects: Jennifer Culp (1999–2005), Jeffrey Zeigler (2005–2013), and most recently Sunny Yang (2013 to present). By one count, the quartet has recorded 43 studio albums, two compilations, five soundtracks, and 29 contributions to other artists’ records. Along the way they would challenge not only the meaning of “classical music” but also the construction of the emerging construction of “world music” as something that was “traditional” but not “classical.” And they would seek to break down the boundaries between the classical and the popular, including arrangements of songs like Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” in their repertoire.
Citing the group’s early “near-total commitment to living composers, and also explored jazz, rock, and folk music,” the New Yorker‘s music critic Alex Ross described Kronos in 2006 as “a kind of all-terrain vehicle in contemporary culture.” The group’s music, he wrote, demonstrated “the constructive power of a pluralist, rather than a fundamentalist, view of the world.”
Harrington once said, “I’ve always wanted the string quartet to be vital, and energetic, and alive, and cool, and not afraid to kick ass, and be absolutely beautiful and ugly if it has to be. But it has to be expressive of life. To tell the story with grace and humor and depth.”
That’s a good description of the music that Kronos has been making during its residency at the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Center this week. Kronos is presenting five shows during the residency, each featuring a different program, for a total of some 40 different pieces by composers from 27 different countries. All-terrain indeed!
The first piece at the group’s early show on Wednesday, September 16 in NYUAD’s Black Box Theater was “Mugam Sayagi” by the Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh (which can be heard on the quartet’s 2005 album of the same). Yang carries her cello in the dark up a set of steps at the side of the platform stage and began to play the haunting cello refrain with which the piece opens. As the lights slowly rose to reveal her stunning red dress, one could also hear the strains of a violin floating from somewhere, seemingly outside the hall. The mystery is soon solved as the Harrington, Sherba, and Dutt join Yang onstage just before the piece explodes into its brilliant pizzicato section. Yes, Kronos knows how to make an entrance.
The rest of the program featured “Oh Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me,” arranged from song by an unknown Iraqi composer”; “Escalay (Water Wheel)” by the Egyptian Nubia composer Hamza El Din; and “Good Medicine” the concluding piece from the cycle Salome Dances for Peace by the American composer, with whom the group has a long relationship. Indeed, the group has commemorated the composer’s 80th birthday by releasing a five-disc box set of its recordings of his work.
Perhaps the highlight of the program came in the middle, the world premiere of “Sunjata’s Time: 3. Nana Triban” by the Malian composer Fodé Lassana Diabaté, who joined the group onstage, playing his signature instrument, the 22-key balafon. The piece was commissioned as part of the group’s “Fifty for the Future” initiative, which is designed both to commission new work for string quartets and also to train students and emerging professionals to follow and extend the path that Kronos has blazed. NYUAD is a sponsoring partner of the initiative, and the Kronos concerts at NYUAD feature world premieres of pieces by Diabaté and by the Chinese composer Wu Man. The NYUAD programs include the work of two other composers who have received commissions as part of the initiative, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh and Aleksandra Vrebalov.
After the performance of “Nana Triban,” Harrington told the audience that it was a privilege to play with and learn from Diabaté, particularly because the final arrangement of the piece will be for string quartet only, with the balafon receding into the history of the piece’s musical evolution. On its website, the group indicates that “digital versions of the scores and parts, recordings, and other pedagogical materials for each work will be made available worldwide at no charge via the internet.” I’m hoping that archive will include versions of “Nana Triban” with balafon as well as without.
You can get a sense of what kind of music Kronos is making at NYUAD by watching and listening to the following two videos, recorded at the Greene Space in New York. Both pieces — Nicole Lizée’s “Death to Komische” and Mary Kouyoumdjian’s “Bombs of Beirut” — are on the program for the final concert at NYUAD.
Both Kronos and NYUAD share what I would call a cosmopolitan vision of the world, in which cultural difference is not a problem to be solved, but an opportunity to be embraced. It’s NYUAD’s goal to ask in all of its practices, “What does it mean to be doing this here (in Abu Dhabi and in the MENA region) and now (at the start of the twenty first century)?” If the NYUAD project is, in part, about rethinking past educational practices in order to revitalize them for the future, then it would be hard to find a better model for that kind of visionary thinking than the Kronos Quartet. Kudos to NYUAD Arts Center Director Bill Bragin for bringing them to Abu Dhabi as part of the Center’s inaugural season.
In case you missed Theatre Mitu’s production of Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet that premiered at NYUAD’s Arts Center on 16 April, here is—not a review, but more of a reflective program guide to a theater experience unlike many others.
HOW TO EXPERIENCE HAMLET/UR-HAMLET:
Show up to the Arts Center 30 minutes prior to the show. Not fifteen, because by then the line gets ridiculously long and if you haven’t gotten your ticket by then – tough luck.
While lining up, go through the pamphlet and notice the 6-page bibliography. Silently question (or out loud, depending on whether or not you want to make small-talk with the stranger in front of you) whether or not you’ll be able to understand the play without knowing any of the works cited. Find the N-Sync song within the bibliography, and laugh because maybe you’ll be okay. Silently/out loud curse yourself for not being as worldly and intellectual as the bibliography clearly expects you to be. Maybe if you took that one theatre class with that one professor from that one Ivy League school, you would’ve been more prepared. Stupid class registration.
Continue lining up. Realize that you don’t know what to expect.
Make a lame joke about how this play-slash-theatre piece will “exceed your expectations,” partly because you don’t really have any.
Hamlet is the one where the guy’s wife goes “UNSEX ME HERE,” right?
Listen to director Ruben Polendo’s opening remarks, and then be ushered into the theatre in groups. Realize you’re not going to a conventional play. You’re not going to be sitting down for the next hour and fifteen minutes.
Walk around the set pieces at your leisure, trying not to bump into people while also appreciating each individual piece while also keeping in mind that you can’t stay in one exhibit for too long because at one point rock music will play from a plastic box in the middle of the set to signal the staged performance.
Hear the rock music and gather to the centre of the theater. If you’re early, watch as people slowly trickle into the front. Feel a sense of collectivity as your pulse quickens to the beat.
Watch as Aysan Celik and company dominate the glass stage. They’re elevated above the rest of us, they’re caged and yet clearly in charge. Everyone is in awe.
Repeat steps 7 – 9 two more times.
A female voice, almost like a robot, says “the installation is now closed”. There is no curtain call. You clap anyway.The performance ends.
Before I went to this Theater Mitu production of Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet , I had to admit something to myself: I am sick of Hamlet. God forbid, though, that a literature major should say that. What many others saw as Shakespeare’s masterpiece, I saw as a play about an arrogant (but, I will admit, really witty) teenager who messes everything up because he feels like he can – as if seeing a ghostly apparition is the same as getting supernatural powers.
None of that mattered, though, because Theater Mitu’s production has very little to do with being a faithful representation of the Bard’s play. When you walked into the theater space, you were greeted by a scrolling synopsis of the play, where certain words change on screen in a way that completely alters the meaning of the text (ie. Horatio as Hamlet’s friend/lover/buddy/soldier). If we take the opening piece as a sort of introduction to the rest of the installations, it becomes very clear from the onset that whatever the audience believes Hamlet to be won’t necessarily be seen for the next hour and fifteen minutes. I suppose that’s the problem that Theater Mitu’s production wanted to tackle: when everyone thinks they know what Hamlet is, who’s to say what the right interpretation is?
This epistemic dilemma is at the heart of the production. As the audience waited in line to enter the installation, Ruben Polendo encouraged everyone to take their time with the exhibit and experience the pieces in whichever order they please. This wasn’t a play to see with your group of 20 friends, where your opinions become heavily influenced by what your current crush thinks. You’re encouraged to be on your own and revel in your isolation. In a way, I suppose, the isolation makes you like Hamlet: with all the deception surrounding him, only Hamlet can say what it’s like to be Hamlet.
I guess that makes Hamlet (the character) like us. No one can really know what it’s like to be you except you yourself: the experiences you go through, the choices you make on what influences you is all a matter of subjectivity. Aysan Celik plays a minor role in the individual set pieces – standing in a corner with her back to the audience while an old reel of Hamlet plays on her naked back – but onstage, as Hamlet, she mixes with the flurry of it all. As soon as the rock music stops, the actors perform alongside videos looping on the monitors attached to the cage. All the while, audience members shift around the cage, hoping for a better look. It’s very chaotic, but also very funny. At one point Celik/Hamlet performs a piece where she stands trial while mimicking the gestures of a 60’s singer (think Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons) on the screen. The famous “to be or not to be” speech gets re-imagined as a playground rhyme-slash-tap dance piece.
Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet was a lot to take in. If I were to sum up the piece, it would be about Hamlet’s struggle to find himself – or herself, for that matter. The video pieces that cut into the onstage performance, coupled with the diversity of the installation pieces suggest aspects of our experiences: what influences us, as well as what we choose to influence. Although each installation piece seemed utterly detached from everything else, each piece draws from Shakespeare’s play. Everything is influenced by Hamlet, but onstage Hamlet is influenced by everything. The beauty of Theater Mitu’s piece stems from the very fact that it does not resemble the original play, and you could easily get away with a marginal knowledge of the original text. As I was walking around, I noticed people of all ages experiencing the show. I’d bet that only a handful of people could recite the whole play by heart, and that some people in the audience have never read Hamlet at all.
At the end of the day, though, the “true meaning” of Hamlet doesn’t matter. We may argue about the merits of deconstructive theater and how much a play should resemble the original text, but with Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet, everyone’s a winner. When I saw the show, I tended to focus on ideas of psychology and the self, but that’s not to say that that’s the only thing I noticed. In fact, I could’ve written this article about the portrayal of sexual relationships, the idea of love in general, the role of gender…the list goes on. What I think of Hamlet may not be what you think of Hamlet, but it doesn’t matter.
Oftentimes when we approach a canonical piece of literature – especially with Shakespeare – we get obsessed with finding out what the “correct” interpretation is, what the “true meaning” of the text is, and what Shakespeare meant the play to be. While we should take into consideration all these things, the beauty of studying these literary texts also comes from the idea that we inject our own meaning into it. Different readers will approach Hamlet in a different way, and that’s what Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet strives to achieve. It’s not a theater performance meant to represent Hamlet in the years to come, but rather an invitation for the audience to re-experience what it’s like to construct meaning for themselves.
Miguel Syjuco (center) with NYUAD students (L-R) Patrick Wee, Gabrielle Flores, , Seongyoon Kim, Miraflor Santos Photo Credit: Bryan Waterman
CONVERSATIONS WITH AUTHORS
Miguel Syjuco won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008 for his first novel, Ilustrado. Born in the Philippines, Syjuco earned an MFA from Columbia University in New York, and subsequently a Ph.D. from the University of Adelaide, Australia. He gave a talk and a workshop at NYUAD in February 2015, which is when Gabrielle Flores, a second-year NYUAD student, conducted this interview. “Ilustrado,” which means “erudite” or “learned” in Spanish, was a term used to describe the educated, middle-class Filipinos who had been educated in Spanish and exposed to European nationalist ideals during the late nineteenth century.
Gabrielle Flores: What was the writing process like for Ilustrado?
Miguel Syjuco:Ilustrado was a book that had many distinct goals. I wanted to write a book that found inventive ways to address some of the issues that I have with writing Philippine writing specifically in English. And while I was doing my master’s Columbia in New York, one of the things I did to make extra money was be a fact checker for the Paris Review. So one day I found myself in the Butler Library stacks there in Columbia, surrounded by all these books. As I was reading all of this material, I was thinking, “Wow, this is a very interesting way to look at the life of a character, through all of these things written about them, all of these different texts.”
And so this idea that I wanted to write this book about looking at Philippine history, especially from the point of view of the role of the elite– and the failure that they had ever since the Ilustrados– this kind of came together, that, “Okay, I’m gonna write this book about this author named Crispin Salvador, and I’m going to address all of these issues. I’m going to look at Philippine history all through his work and he will be the window into that world.”
But rather than write the way we normally do when we come across a word like “bibingka,” right, and italicize it even though to us it’s not foreign–where you say “he cut into that bibingka–”
GF: Where you have to explain–
MS: ” … that delicious rice cake much enjoyed by Filipinos during Christmastime,” right? [Laughs.] Instead, I thought, “Okay, well, why don’t I write using– naturally didactic forms? Essays, email– memoir so that whereas before we used to have to explain our culture and explain our history I don’t need to anymore, right? I can use things that are naturally explaining to do that.
I think the book took three, four years, constantly working on it, trying to find an agent. I was wondering if anyone would ever want this book. I had some very close friends reading it. They were saying, “It’s good,” and, “But you need to do this.” I was editing it all the while. Then in 2007 they announced that the Man Asian Literary Prize would accept manuscripts.
So I submitted, hoping that I would just get on the long list so that agents would stop rejecting me, because they were, left and right. [Laughs.] In 2007, I didn’t even make the long list. So I spent the next year revising, and then in 2008, I submitted it again, hoping to get on the long list. And in the end, it ended up winning. And everything changed for me.
GF: I see how the novel encompasses Philippine history, but also Philippine society. It’s so hard to explain, even simple questions like, “Oh, what’s Filipino food like?” because Filipino culture is such a mix of different things.
GF: Did you come across that difficulty when writing your book? How did you know which parts of society to look at specifically?
MS: I was really focusing on this coming and going that we Filipinos have, which I believe started with the Ilustrados and has continued today. I believe the OFWs of today are the new Ilustrados. Going abroad, learning all they can, working hard, and then returning with an awareness, and their savings, and sometimes children who, you know, are learning about the culture for the first time and wanting to engage.
I came from a very comfortable background. My parents were in politics and my classmates, you know, they’re good people. They love the country. But society is such that– family, and duty, and politics are just so hard to change. These well-meaning, idealistic young kids, you know, they’re not able to do as much as they would have liked to benefit the society. You know, we call them conyo. We call them whatever. They’re spoiled brats.
But not all of them are like that and I wanted to write a book that was sympathetic in that regard and fair. One of the issues that I’ve always had with Philippine writing is that it’s always– we’re always looking for a savior and the elite are always the villains.
I wanted to write a book that was a lot more nuanced than that. Not an apology for the elite; I think I definitely take people to task in Illustrado. But I wanted to write a book that was fair.
GF: When you were writing the book, did you have a target audience in mind? Were you aiming for the book to be more for the Filipinos as a Filipino text or for a foreign audience who doesn’t know anything about the Philippines? Or do those two audiences overlap for you?
MS: I think so. I’d like to think that a good writer can write a book that reaches everyone, that they can make it rich enough and in a way maybe dense enough so that some things will reach their home audience, in my case the Filipinos, and some things will reach only the foreign audience.
GF: You’re reading tonight from your new novel I Was the President’s Mistress!!! How is this book different in some ways – or maybe the same in some – as Ilustrado?
MS: There’s an old cliché that you have your entire life to write your first novel, then 18 months to write your second novel. All of the short stories, all of the anecdotes, everything went into Ilustrado. But I hope this new book will be out next year, before the Philippine election.
GF: Oh, okay. Right.
MS:President’s Mistress uses certain character from Ilustrado, Vita Nova, the starlet. She’s involved with– some scandal, where she’s kind of spilled the beans on the president who she was seeing. She’s swept up into this big political thing and wants to write a a celebrity tell-all memoir. The book is a series of transcripts, of her talking about all of her 12 lovers and the 12 lovers all talking about her and each other.
It’s sort of like a she-said, he-said type of thing. Ilustrado was a bunch of different forms that the reader had to put together, like a collage or like a puzzle, President’s Mistress is sort of like a deconstructed book where it’s only the materials that a ghostwriter would use to write a celebrity tell-all memoir.
GF: So it’s kind of like that tabloid show back home, The Buzz, except deconstructed.You said that you did a Master’s at Columbia. In your mind is there an ideal sort of creative writing curriculum? I know that when I told my parents I wanted to go into literature, they were like “Oh, why don’t you go to business?”
MS: Yeah, of course.
GF: You know, doctor, medicine, or–
MS: I’m a big believer in that if you love something, you’ll be good at it. And if you’re good at it, you’ll succeed in it. You have to pay your dues to be a lawyer or a doctor. You have to pay your dues to be a writer, too.
Being at Columbia–it was a very rigorous way of looking at making fiction. Workshopping particularly. It’s not just about beautiful writing; it’s about the form, and the structure, and everything. Now, teaching creative writing– going back to your question about what would be the ideal–I enjoyed my time at Columbia, but it was very focused on literature in the sense of style, in the sense of creativity within the craft of fiction. When I worked freelance as a journalist, I learned how to find stories. And my ideal is really a program that fuses– I guess–journalism, some people would even say activism, with storytelling. Writing journalism teaches you so much. How to write to deadline, how to write to length, how to take criticism, how to revise, how to redefine the story, how to position information or withhold information, which is a very important thing; and the distinction between news and art.
So I would want a creative program with outreach programs. I would like a mentorship, fieldwork– questioning, of course, how we write, how to write. What sustains a writer in the end or at least what has sustained me is questioning why we write.
Personally, I don’t like writing. It hurts my back. It’s lonesome. I sit at the desk all day…I don’t like writing. But I like what writing can do. I like how it can examine things, and unpack things, and share insight, and be part of a conversation, and really be of this world.
GF: You kind of answered my question already a little bit, but I’m going to ask anyway. It’s a simple question but maybe not so simple: what’s your favorite part about being a writer?
MS: The hours are pretty good. [Laughs.] They’re pretty flexible. It’s a very involved work. Anybody who’s ever written a novel, be it, you know, someone as great as a Nobel Prize winner, down to or up to young writers who are doing NanNoWriMo, we’re all learning how to engage with the form and how difficult it is. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had. And I guess that’s kind of why I like it. I’m very lucky that it’s allowed me to go all over the world, and meet people, and meet other writers, and be part of this conversation: Who are we? And why are we here? And what can we learn from each other? I’m a political person and one of my tools is writing. I may not change the world through my one book, or two books, or how many books. But I’m hoping that those readers who read it will be the people who will. So it’s a long game, that the people who are questioning our society, questioning what it is to be Filipino through my work and the works of other Filipino writers, those are the future captains of industry, and politicians, and activists, and social workers, and professors, and parents.
I’m hoping that I can kind of say, “Hold on. Wait a second. Let’s stop and think. Is this right? Is this wrong? What should our country be? How do we hold our leaders accountable?” Because if they’re asking those questions, then I’m doing the job that I wanted to do.