The stories that replaced my textbooks
How do you know what it’s like to live in a developing country if you’ve never done it before? How can you understand the weeks without enough water, the fear that pervades every evening’s conversation, the allusions to “before” ?
Textbooks are rarely enough. And that’s where these novels come in: all of them, written within the last century, tell stories that bring to life the trials and tribulations that people so typically face growing up in countries ravaged by war, genocide, dictatorship, or merely a severe lack of resources.
On secrets, everywhere, all the time:
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez: “Suddenly, the dark fills with spies who are paid to hear things and report them down at Security. Don Enrique claims Trujillo needs help in running this country. Don Enrique’s daughter says it’s about time women took over the government. Words repeated, distorted, words recreated by those who might bear them a grudge, words stitched to words until they are the winding sheet the family will be buried in when their bodies are found dumped in a ditch…”
On how colonialism split apart national identity, and obfuscated the concept of home:
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai: “Looking a dead insect in the sack of basmati that had come all the way from Dehra Dun, he almost wept with sorrow and marvel at its journey, which was tenderness for his own journey. In India almost nobody would be able to afford this rice, and you had to travel around the world to be able to eat such things where they were cheap enough that you could gobble them down without being rich; and when you got home to the place where they grew, you couldn’t afford them anymore.” –
On loss as a constant companion:
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe: “You think you are the greatest sufferer in the world? Do you know that men are sometimes banished for life? Do you know that men sometimes lose all their yams and even their children? I had six wives once. I have none now except that young girl who knows not her right from her left. Do you know how many children I have buried—children I begot in my youth and strength? Twenty-two. I did not hang myself, and I am still alive.”
On the poverty and provincialism that populates much of Europe’s history, and its remnants percolating life today:
The Island by Victoria Hislop: “After the endless disappointing cups of Nescafé, served as though the tasteless dissolving granules of instant coffee were a delicacy, Alexis felt no cup of coffee had ever tasted as powerful and delicious as this. It seemed that nobody had the heart to tell the Greeks that Nescafé was no longer a novelty – it was this old-fashioned thick and treacly fluid that everyone, including her, craved.”
Have you read any of these books? Which your favourite books? Which ones would you recommend ?