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Read non-Western writers in 2015

Last year, I resolved to read more women writers. And I did. Going from 20% to 50% was surprisingly painless (as I suspect getting rid of casual sexism generally is if you are willing to just take a moment to think about your choices). There are still fewer women than men in my library, but when we have gone off the rails in bookshops this past year, we have kept an eye on the gender of the authors we are buying (and if, as a result, we have had to buy more books than normal, that is a consequence I am willing to suffer).

In fact, reading more women was so easy, there is no real sense of achievement in having managed it. I suspect that would have been different if I had resolved to read only women this past year; but my aim is not a one-time gimmick, but a more balanced way of reading overall. On that note, I have also realised I would have had a greater sense of achievement if nearly all the writers I have read were not white Westerners of the anglo-American persuasion.

On the whole, setting out to read more women highlighted the fact that I read only one type of women (and men). I intend to do better in 2015. While I will keep up my reading of women's writing, I will try to include a greater percentage of non-Western writers. Having looked through my bookshelf, I confess I find this a little daunting (in fact, I suspect it will be a rather more challenging endeavour than reading more women).

This is partially my own fault: I tend to get stuck on England and a few other European countries, and so even the US (or South America, which I am here counting as part of the West) becomes wildly adventurous for me. But a larger problem is the fact that I am rarely pointed in the direction of non-Western books.

If one crops up, it tends to be written by an author like Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World, Never Let Me Go), who moved to Britain when he was five; or Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient), who moved from India to Canada in his twenties; or Vikram Seth (A Suitable Boy), who lived in both England and the US for years; or Amitav Ghosh (The Glass Palace, Sea of Poppies), who was also educated in Britain before moving to America; or Dai Sijie (Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress), who moved to France and writes in French; or Jung Chang (Wild Swans), who lives in Britain; or Amin Maalouf (The Gardens of Light, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes), who has been living in France since before I was born; and of course Nnedi Okorafor (Lagoon), who was born in Nigeria, but lives in America and teaches at an American university.

Or it is someone who is long dead, and whose writings have taken on the status of a classic (often with an orientalist tinge to how it is read), like Sun Tzu (The Art of War), Morihei Ueshiba (The Art of Peace), Confucius (The Analects), Miyamoto Musashi (The Book of Five Rings) and Yamamoto Tsunetomo (Hagakure). Or, let's face it, they are Nobel Laureates, like Wole Soyinka (Death and the King's Horseman), Mo Yan (Life and Death are Wearing Me Out), Orhan Pamuk (My Name is Red), Gao Xingjian (Soul Mountain), Naguib Mahfouz (The Cairo Trilogy) and Kawabata Yasunari (The Master of Go, Snow Country). Or, you know, it is Haruki Murakami.

Outside of these, the list of non-Western authors on my horizon is distressingly short. There are quite a few religious texts, and some poetry. Also, I am rather looking forward to picking up a collection of Arab travel writing called Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North, which includes Ahmad Ibn Fadlan's 14th c. account of the Vikings seen through the eyes of Arab civilization (a nice switch, I thought). And I read Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet when I was probably too young to appreciate it; it might be time to give him a second chance.

There is Sei Shōnagon, whose Pillow Book is an utterly lovely piece of Heian Japan (a thousand years ago). I suppose this places her in the "dead and classic" group, but she seems to me to have escaped that fetishising of budo and Eastern wisdom, probably because it is a woman's account. It is probably time I finished The Tale of Genji (one of the many candidates for the world's first novel) by her rival at the imperial court, Murasaki Shikibu.

In addition, Tanizaki Jun'ichirō has been on my list for a while. I bought his The Makioka Sisters after someone called it the Japanese Pride and Prejudice, and the more I hear about him the more I want to read it. His The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi sounds rather wonderful, too.

I also own a book by Mishima Yukio, Spring Snow, which is the first in a tetralogy he completed just before his seppuku after a failed coup d'etat. I think I bought it by accident a few years ago (yes, I do occasionally do that), and it has stood untouched on my shelf. This might be a good year to change that. And I should really read more of Akutagawa Ryūnosuke's short stories. I read "Rashomon" and a few of the others years ago (after a spectacular Kurosawa binge), but I suspect there is more to be had.

Leaving Japan to one side, however, India also figures on my literary map. I read Kiran Nagarkar's Cuckold a few years ago (which was an interesting retelling of the life of a Hindu saint and her somewhat disgruntled husband). And Omair Ahmad's The Storyteller's Tale is a lovely little book in which a series of stories are told, weaving elements of the earlier into the later. I also read Mahasweta Devi's Imaginary Maps (in Gayatri Spivak's translation) many years ago, and I have been meaning to return to her ever since.

Moreover, Arundhati Roy won the Booker for The God of Small Things a few years ago, and the book has been sitting on my shelf for a while now. Likewise, I have been meaning to read Vendana Singh's collection of science fiction stories, The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet and other stories. And while we are on the subject of India (or Bengal) and science fiction, I need to read more short stories by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, whose 1905 short story "Sultana's Dream" is truly magnificent.

I do not think I have ever read a Taiwanese writer, but I came across Wu Ming-Yi's The Man With the Compound Eyes in a bookshop in Edinburgh this autumn, and with my growing resolution in mind I bought it. Because of its amazing title, and because choosing to buy non-Western books is half the battle (this is how publishers get hints).

The rest of Asia is off my map, I'm sorry to say. Feel free to give me recommendations galore. Especially if you know of any women or LGBTQ writers from the area.

And I'm afraid my grasp of African literature is even more depressing. With the exception of Nobel laureates and ex-pats, there is only Chinua Achebe, who has probably been on everyone's list for a while (I bought Things Fall Apart about a year ago); Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (who I suppose falls into the "educated in the West" category), whose Half of A Yellow Sun has been on my to-read list for ages; and Tayeb Salih, whose Season of Migration to the North I only recently came across. I will try to read all three this year.

But while this list will probably be enough for me to manage 50% non-Western authors this year (certainly if I include the ex-pats and Nobel laureates; or, you know, Murakami), it also makes it painfully obvious how utterly ignorant I am about literature not written by Europeans or descendants of Europeans. The Pacific Islands are completely off my map, and Africa barely there. And while I have a tentative grasp of some Asian countries, that is all that can be said about that. Feel free to help me remedy this. Give me titles!


Paul,  07.01.15 22:17

It took a while, but I finally got around to checking this site. I'll try not to spam the comments sections too much...

This is a good idea, and one I may have to follow at some point, so I'll be interested to hear of your progress. A ridiculous share of my reading is taken up by British writers - even just American ones are rare enough, never mind non-Western ones. At some point I guess I'll run out of Victorian classics to read and will have to branch out... or reread Middlemarch yet again.

For what it's worth, I do recommend Spring Snow, the only book by Mishima I've read to date - it has one of the whiniest, most annoying protagonists of any book I've ever read, and that includes a great many fantasy series, but the writing is gorgeous, and early 20th century Japan is all kinds of fascinating.

Besides that, I could list a fair amount of Arab writers and books, but it'd be kind of cheating seeing how I've read almost none of them, or at best some short story or short fragment in class, so it wouldn't be much of a recommendation. Still, a few ideas, books I've either read at least part of, or just heard a lot of good things about - perhaps listing them will motivate me to read the ones I haven't read myself:

- Yusuf Idris, The Sin, and various other novels and short story collections (Egypt)
- Alaa al-Aswani, The Yacoubian Building (Egypt)
- Ghada al-Samman, Beirut Nightmares (Syria / Lebanon)
- Naguib Mahfouz, Children of Our Alley - still banned in various Arab countries last I heard, as the authorities don't like the book's premise of an allegory of human religious history, involving a home-owner (God) and his many children (Lucifer, Adam and various prophets)
- Ghassan Kanafani, Men in the Sun (Palestine)
- Tahar Ben Jelloun, The Sand Child (Morocco) - unlike the rest, Ben Jelloun writes all his books in French and lives in Paris, so you can debate how non-Western it is, but at least it's easy to read the original version

As for non-Arab African literature, I've read even less than you, but I heard a lot of good things recently about a book called "We Need New Names" by NoViolet Bulawayo from Zimbabwe. She studied in the US before publishing that, though, so might also be disqualified.
Camilla likes this
Camilla,  07.01.15 22:44

And thank you for the tips. Now you mention it, I have heard of some of those authors, but only vaguely, and not so that I would think of them myself. I'll look them up. I am always interested in reading banned books.
non-western writers