For reading week this year we asked CIPS‘ distinguished members to recommend a novel to their students (and to all students of good writing).
Rita Abrahamsen: Director of CIPS and Professor of Public and International Affairs
For over twenty years, all my course syllabi of African and postcolonial politics have included a list of relevant novels. From these long lists, how to choose just one? After some reflection, the choice was easier than I expected: It had to be Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah. The novel is a stinging critique of postcolonial politics in the fictional West African country of Kangan, but it is also a funny and at times nail-bitingly exciting read. Without giving away too much of the plot, the novel centres on three friends who, after a military coup, find themselves in the roles of president, commissioner of information and editor of the nation’s main newspaper. Things begin to fall apart, to quote another of Achebe’s novels, as the President is seduced by power, surrounds himself with ‘court jesters’ and yes-men, and ultimately seeks to become ‘President for Life’. The ensuing tragic power play gives rise to one of my favourite descriptions of the arbitrariness of authoritarian power: ‘worshipping a dictator is such a pain in the ass’, says the editor of The National Gazette. ‘It wouldn’t be so bad if it was merely a matter of dancing up side down on your head. With practice anyone can learn to do that. The real problem is having no way of knowing from one day to another, from one minute to the next, just what is up and what is down’.
Anthills of the Savannah can be read as a damning indictment of Nigerian politics, a fictional account of Achebe’s earlier analysis in The Trouble with Nigeria. But Kangan could be many countries, in Africa and beyond, and while published in 1987, the novel remains strikingly relevant to today’s erosion of democracy and freedom – again well beyond the African continent. It is a masterful, multi-layered and deeply human story about politics and power. Read it, and let it be the inspiration to explore Africa’s rich and vibrant literary tradition.
Nipa Banerjee: Senior Fellow and Adjunct Professor, School of International Development and Global Studies
The reading lists I give to students do not include novels and stories, but quite often, I discuss thematic contents of literary works that add a human touch, stimulating, often indirectly, interests that no number of academic citations can. Such a piece is India’s National Poet, Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s memorable short story Kabuilwalla, the man from Kabul, written originally in Bengali in 1892 and, later translated into English.
In the early 19th century, thousands of men from the distant land of Afghanistan traveled to the Indian city of Calcutta (Kolkata) in search of livelihood. Tagore wrote the passionate story of a Kabuliwalla, Rahmat, a vendor of dried fruits and nuts in Kolkata, and his beautiful friendship with Mini, a five-year-old girl from an aristocratic family. The familiar scene in Mini’s neighborhood was that of Mini listening intently to her elderly friend Rahmat’s stories about his homeland – the high, scorched, and blood-colored forbidding mountains, where the camels, the turbaned merchants, and wayfarers dwell. While the bond of friendship between Mini and Rahmat deepens, the two adults –Mini’s father and Rahmat- also connect on a human level – their common ground being fatherly love- they both have daughters they love dearly.
Kabuliwalla is a heart-rending story of human connections transcending differences in age, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, culture, and more- social class, educational attainment, and income. Over the next century, this story shaped a romantic image of Afghanistan’s Kabuliwallas in India. The story touches the young hearts of students in Canada, studying civil conflict situations, such as those in Afghanistan, the homeland of little Mini’s adult friend – the fruit seller from Kabul. Students ask why the apparent lesser differences in Afghanistan’s current context cannot be overcome through human connections.
Perhaps students expect a leader to emerge who will promote a process cultivating the ethos and values that would help reconcile political differences, bond Afghans together, and usher in peace based on kindness, generosity, and compassion for all Afghans. Tagore’s story had played a role in driving my interests in Afghanistan, and I will continue to recommend the story to my students.
Jacqueline Best: Professor in Political Studies
I am going to break the rule here and suggest two novels that I think are hugely useful for teaching about the role and shape of power in politics, particularly in the global political economy. The first is George Orwell’s 1984. I teach this novel in my first year Introduction to Politics course, and it’s always astonishing to me just how applicable its insights are to today. I think I could teach an entire course on the novel—or include it in every single course I teach. In particular, I like the way that the novel identifies the relationships between power and language, points to the importance and fragility of political memory, and highlights the central role of emotion in mobilizing political consent to the unthinkable (e.g. the two minutes of Hate).
The second novel I would recommend is Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, which opens a window on the role of the opium trade in fueling the rise of the British Empire and explores the everyday lives of those who were fodder for imperialist ambitions in the nineteenth century. I have found myself increasingly teaching the evolution and dynamics of the international political economy by examining the key role of colonialism and imperialism in creating the highly unbalanced set of economic patterns that we live with today, and have always wanted to teach this novel as way of making that history real to my students.
Marie-Eve Desrosiers: Associate Professor in International Development and Global Studies
One of the most important, but challenging part of my teaching is trying to translate the ‘lived experiences’ of some of the essential notions and realities at the core of my research, such as war or authoritarianism.
The novel I selected and often return to is Edem Awumey’s Explication de la nuit, recently published in English under the title Descent into Night. The book follows a Togolese man named Ito Baraka at two specific points in his life. We encounter him, younger, still living in Togo, as he starts engaging with some of his friends in political protest through ‘tracts’ or political leaflets. He is then jailed under brutal and violent conditions for his political activities. We also meet him years later, now living in Canada, a man broken by his experience of repression, incarceration and by his own betrayal of his political companions back in Togo. Awumey’s book talks of political aspirations and the exhilaration of belonging to a movement aimed at changing political realities. The aspirations and the fact that they are largely carried by young Ito and his friends speaks of the energy and courage of young activists, as we have also seen in more recent waves of protest in Africa. But Awumey’s story is also a lucid one about the brutality of dictatorship in the face of challenge, of an authoritarian regime reaffirming its control through violence.
Because of its play on two sequences, Awumey’s book also allows to break down the rigid notion of ‘there’ and ‘here’ we too often encounter regarding realities such as war or political violence. Because we met Ito Baraka years later as an older man in Canada, the novel speaks of exile, and the journey away from violence, retold by Awumey with great sensitivity. Baraka, though in Canada, struggles between a violent past, which he cannot forget, and living a ‘not so shiny’ present in his new country. His situation helps illustrate how the journey away from political violence is never simply a physical one. Awumey’s work allows us to build a bridge mentally between political repression and our Canadian context, to realise that we encounter wars, political violence, etc. and their impacts every day. They are not ‘distant’ out there realities for many of us/around us, even if we like to imagine them as belonging to very far away settings and foreign to our ‘safe settings’.
I would encourage my students to read Albert Camus’ The Plague [La Peste]. A haunting tale of survival and resilience and of the ways in which human beings confront death, The Plague is above all a story of ageless moral dilemmas, profoundly relevant today. Camus’ definition of heroism—ordinary people doing extraordinary things out of decency—rings true in our times, on many different levels. And the book’s closing sentence can be read as a powerful warning against complacency: “The plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good…it can lie dormant for years and years …it bides its time… and perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city” (p. 308, Kindle Edition).
Scott Simon: Professor and holder of the Co-Chair in Taiwan Studies
Ce roman taïwanais est une œuvre de fiction écologique apocalyptique. Il alterne entre les histoires de l’adolescent Atile’i sur une île fictive du Pacifique qui est envoyé sur un bateau pour mourir et finit par se retrouver sur un vortex de déchets ; et la professeur Alice Shih sur la côte est de Taïwan qui souffre de dépression après la disparition de son mari avec son fils lors d’une randonnée dans les montagnes. Le roman présente les peuples autochtones de Taïwan et la biodiversité de l’île, mais sert également d’avertissement sur les risques du changement climatique. Cela nous encourage à réfléchir à nos relations avec la nature et avec d’autres humains.
This Taiwanese novel is a work of apocalyptic ecological fiction. It alternates between the stories of a teenage boy Atile’i on a fictional Pacific island who is sent out on a boat to die and ends up a trash vortex; and Professor Alice Shih on the east coast of Taiwan who suffers depression after the disappearance of her Danish husband and son on a hike. The novel introduces Taiwan’s Indigenous peoples and biodiversity, while serving as a warning about the risks of climate change. It encourages us to think about our relationships with nature and with other humans.
An allegory originating from Book VI of Plato’s Republic, “the ship of fools” refers to the tragedy of poor governance. In addition to receiving ample treatment in social and political theory (Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, for one), the phrase has appeared as a title in many fiction and non-fiction books, ranging from the very good (Fintan O’Toole) to the good (Katherine Anne Porter) to the god-awful (Tucker Carlson). But Rossi’s novel is head and shoulders above all of them. Delightfully experimental, it is a critical meditation on Othering as a means of control, whether by state authorities or by dominant cultural constructions of gender. Humanist imagination at its best.
Christoph Zuercher: Professor in Public and International Affairs
I always believed that literature – good story telling – is incredibly powerful. Literature can help us understand things which are not easily understandable, be it because they are unusual, complex, or just unfamiliar.
Conflicts that arise around identity, ethnicity and different and clashing visions of what the “we” is and what the future for “us” should be are an example of a “thing” which is difficult to understand.
We all know that ethnic conflicts – or better: conflict that are primarily interpreted through an ethnic lens by the protagonists – are prevalent. They are by far the most frequent type of violent conflicts in today’s world. Which is why I devote a good amount of time to talk about ethnicity, collective identity and war in my class “Theories of Conflict” ( a 2nd year mandatory class in our program on human rights and conflict).
But teaching theories only gets us so far. For those of us who had the fortune to never live through an ethnic conflict, or never witness such a conflict from closer up, with all its horrifc consequences, it is often difficult to understand how and why “normal politics” spins out of control and turns the lives of ordinary people into a nightmare – and deprives them of the possibility of having layered loyalties and layered identities.
This is why I think that all ECH students (actually, everyone, but ECH students in particular) should read Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Before I tell you what Half of a Yellow Sun is about, I should say that reducing this book to a topic and to a plot is doing a great injustice to the literary quality of the novel (and to the other novels by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, above all the equally brilliant Americanah). I remember an interview in which she was reluctant to talk about “the plot” of her novels, because for her, what is being told is less important than how it is told. And that is true for “Half of a Yellow sun” – yes, it is a book about post-colonial Nigeria and the Biafra war ( a civil war in Nigeria fought between the government of Nigeria and the secessionist state of Biafra from 6 July 1967 to 15 January 1970) and how the war shaped ethnic identity, and how ethnic identity shaped the war. But it is never “in your face”. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a far too good a writer to “teach”. She masterfully tells a story and immerses her readers in this story.
The novels is set in Nigeria during the 1960s, the narrative alternates between the optimistic early years of the decade and the civil war period at the end of it. The story is told through the lenses of the members of one family. At the center are the two sisters, Olanna and Kainene, from a wealthy middleclass Igbo family. Oleanna is married to Odenigbo, an intellectual with high hopes for an independent and “modern” Biafra. The 1960s were a time when “modernity” as a future was still seen as both possible and desirable. Another main character is Ugwu, the house boy brought into the Odenigbo household from the village (and a representative of the rural population).
The story of the Biafra war is told through the experiences of these characters. The story evolves, from optimism about the possibilities of an independent Biafra, to disillusionment and civil war, with all its dire consequences. As the story evolves, we witness how politics begin to shape and remake identities, to a point where complex and multi-layered allegiances are forcefully reduced to “are you one of us or one of them”.
It is a brilliant book, beautifully written, with memorable characters. It is also a journey to the complexities of Nigeria and Biafra. And above all, it is one of the best books on how ethnic conflict is made, and I wish all my students would read it.
PS: Here is a link to an interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (BBC Hard Talk of 2014), where she talks about Nigeria, Boko Haram, Biafra, identity and ethnicity, her novel. Highly recommend.