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A crash course in diversifying your bookshelf

Is your reading list looking a little monochrome? We’ve compiled 15 books to help you broaden your horizons

In the past year, I’ve made a conscious and intentional effort to read in an inclusive and representative way. For me this means reading perspectives that differ from mine, about experiences that are new to me, and learning from people who have lived in ways that offer precious teachings. It also means reading nonfiction and fiction in equal measure. Consuming the news and nonfiction about important but heavy topics can be emotionally draining; whereas poetry and comics can uplift us when we feel weltshmerz or despair.

This is why I’ve put together a list of books by writers, poets, and artists from a range of backgrounds. When read in the order presented, it creates a narrative arc of its own. The list builds from a slow crescendo of more accessible books to heavy-hitters that draw on academic and historical research, finishing with a few books that unearth the kinds of futures we want to create.

These titles will humble you and fill you with wonder. But most important, they will hopefully also inspire you to create your own stories in ways that are most representative of your experiences.

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9 hopeful books about schizophrenia

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The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

This is a deeply considered and gorgeously rendered work, part memoir and part clear-eyed assessment of the past, present and future of genetic study. Mukherjee, both a physician and gifted writer, begins by describing the several members of his family whose lives have been devastated by schizophrenia. In order to better understand schizophrenia, he explains all of genetics generally, unraveling the fascinating story of how researchers have come to know what they do about genes. Arriving in the present day about halfway through the book, he then shifts into exploring the ramifications of genetic knowledge today. He discusses such matters as race and gender and identity and intergenerational trauma and psychiatric diagnoses like schizophrenia. I think the world would be a better place if everybody read The Gene.

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg

This 1964 novel fictionalizes the author’s self-described descent into and recovery from schizophrenia right before the dawn of psychopharmaceuticals in the late forties and early fifties. The book rivetingly animates the protagonist’s elaborate inner world, and the devoted efforts of her psychiatrist — who is based on a real-life doctor, Dr. Frieda Fromm-Reichmann. Rose Garden was initially published under a penname at the behest of Greenberg’s mother. It resonated with a surprising number of readers, becoming an unexpected bestseller and inspiring many adaptations. Today Rose Gardenremains something all too rare: a widely read story about schizophrenia written by someone who had herself been diagnosed. It’s a very powerful and formally daring work, one that remains as necessary as ever.

Agnes’s Jacket by Dr. Gail Hornstein

In this memoir, an academic psychologist traces her own journey toward a more scientific and historically grounded understanding of madness. I recommend this book particularly for mental health care professionals seeking to better understand schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses, and to those partaking in the debates about how to best treat people diagnosed. For those interested in psychiatry, I also recommend Dr. Hornstein’s thorough biography of Dr. Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (of Rose Garden fame), To Redeem One Person is to Redeem the World.

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Finding Eastern and Western selves through Eastern and Western stories

Gish Jen investigates the effect of Western cultural influence on storytelling and identity.

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Namrata Poddar: In exploring cultural assumptions and differences, your book aptly reminds the reader that the East and the West aren’t mutually exclusive binaries, or for that matter, strict geographical concepts. And yet, it repeatedly reminds the reader how differences in Eastern and Western conceptions of the self do dominate our understanding of creative practices. Can you reiterate your understanding of East–West perceptions toward the self? What do you think are some of the factors engendering this cultural gap?

Gish Jen: This is an enormous simplification but in a nutshell, people in Western industrialized societies, especially the U.S., tend to imagine ourselves as avocados: We imagine ourselves as having a big pit at our center, to which we must above all be true. What’s more, we are preoccupied with the features of those avocado pits, and the ways in which they are unique. In other parts of the world — and, I should say, many parts of the U.S. — people are also unique, courageous and capable of independent action. They have just as much integrity and just as much creativity. But if you ask them why they just undertook what they undertook or made what they made, they will not say because they did it to be true to their avocado pits. Rather, they will say they did what they did out of duty or obligation — because they wanted to repay someone for something, or because their religious beliefs demanded it of them, or because they saw themselves as a part of a great artistic tradition. This might entail self-expression, but it will not be self-expression for self-expression’s sake. That is, the reason will not be their avocado pit.

The factors contributing to this difference? There are way too many to list. But to give you an idea, they range from the realities of rice farming to the experience of immigration to the American frontier to the invention of the horse collar.

NP: As a creative writer, I’m particularly intrigued by the ways in which your book shifts the reader’s understanding of storytelling in different parts of the world. What do you perceive as some of the key differences between Eastern and Western literary storytelling?

GJ: Oh, how I hate to generalize(!) — aware as I am that, truly, every writer is sui generis. But in a general kind of way, post-19th century Western literature has tended to focus on the avocado pit — on the exploration of a single character, whose interior — visible or not — is given great consideration. This character’s idiosyncrasy is more important than his or her representativeness; the character must, above all, not have what MFA programs call a “generic” quality. And the structure of the story further reinforces the idea that nothing counts more than the avocado pit, as the pit ultimately generates the plot events.

In earlier Western literature, as well as much non-Western literature, characters are more often “types,” and often cope with, rather than drive, events. Of course, they, too, have inner lives. But the uniqueness of those lives is less important; and the overall emphasis is often on a group or network of characters, even on capturing an entire world.

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12 Indonesian books you should add to your reading list

Before Dawn: The Poetry of Sapardi Djoko Damono ( 2005 )

Author: Sapardi Djoko Damono

Translated by John H. McGlynn, this book contains poetry written by Sapardi Djoko Damono, one of Indonesia’s most renowned poets. It contains 30 more poems than Before Dawn – Suddenly the Night, which was released in 1987.

Some of the most popular poems in the 2005’s book are Rain of June and I Want, with the latter being commonly quoted by and even put to music by fans.

Man Tiger (Lelaki Harimau) ( 2004 )

Author: Eka Kurniawan

The book, which recently named a nominee for the prestigious Man Booker International Prize, follows Margio, a youngster from a rural area in Indonesia, who decides to kill a man. This leaves the whole village confused as Margio doesn’t seem like a person who could actually harm anyone. The worst crime he has ever committed is stealing a chicken, which was regarded as something that “happened out of spite”.

But, Margio really did kill the man, moreover in a brutal way. When asked why he did it, he answered, “It wasn’t me. There’s a tiger in me”.

The Land of Five Towers (Negeri 5 Menara) ( 2009 )

Author: Fuadi

Alif was a country boy from Maninjau in Padang, West Sumatra. Even though he dreamed to be another BJ Habibie, the country’s former president, circumstances led him to enroll at Pondok Madani, an Islamic boarding school in East Java.

Although disappointed at first, he learns the words man jadda wa jadda during his time there, which translates into “He who works hard must be successful” in Arabic, and later finds his life changed because of it.

Winter Dreams ( 2011 )

Author: Maggie Tiojakin

Nicky F. Rompa went to Boston, Massachusetts, to have a new life. During his stay, his new family, lover and his boss—apparently everyone around him—teaches him new lessons about living in a multicultural society.

Not only does he have to learn more about himself through it, he also embarks on a journey that will last throughout his life.

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Why Rupi Kaur and her peers are the most popular poets in the world

John Ashbery’s death in September gave my world a lurch, as the 90-year-old eminent American experimentalist was my favorite living poet. But the compensation was to discover how many others felt the same way. The appreciations became a rare public conversation about poemsrather than about Poetry, and what it is or isn’t (as in last year’s exhausting brouhaha over Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize) or whether it’s “dead,” or corrupted by elitist obscurism, or replaced by popular music, or secretly thriving. On social media, people posted their favorite Ashbery poems and passages, like this one from 1977’s “The Other Tradition,” which might seem to refer to those cyclical debates: “They all came, some wore sentiments / Emblazoned on T-shirts, proclaiming the lateness / Of the hour … ”

It was sweet while it lasted. But now the T-shirts have come a-blazing again, because the 25-year-old Canadian poet Rupi Kaur has published her second book, “The Sun and Her Flowers.” Kaur is the kind of poet who prompts heated polemics, pro and con, from people you never otherwise hear mention poetry, because among other things she is young, female, from a Punjabi-Sikh immigrant family, relatively uncredentialed and insanely successful. Her first collection, “Milk and Honey,” has sold two and a half million copies internationally since it was published in 2014. “The Sun and Her Flowers” debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times paperback fiction best-seller list in October, and has remained near the top ever since.

These are airport novel numbers, not poetry ones. Ashbery’s publishers were delighted if any of his books sold north of 10,000 copies, which generally happened only if he’d won the Pulitzer or National Book Award that year. But Kaur established herself not in poetry journals but on platforms like Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram (where she has 1.8 million followers, and posts glamorous shots of herself). And she’s only the biggest of several popular “Instapoets” who have graduated from being retweeted by Kardashians to publishing books, including Tyler Knott Gregson, Lang Leav, Amanda Lovelace and the pseudonymous Atticus.

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Top 10 books about growing old

We have all seen old age in action and often it is not a pretty sight. Chances are, it strikes suddenly. “It is,” said James Thurber, “one of the most unexpected of all the things that can happen to a man.” In Paolo Sorrentino’s film Youth, an elderly composer played by Michael Caine sums it up: “I’ve become old and I don’t know how I got here.”

But we should never allow catastrophe to get in the way of good humour and practical common sense. “One of the most irritating things about getting old,” a friend of mine once said at lunch, “is not having any idea of how much longer one has got. Take George’s dinner jacket. He’s nearly 80. His old one is practically falling to bits, but what is the point of getting a new one if he isn’t going to get decent use out of it?”

I am confident that my own dinner jacket will see me out. Being a mere 78, I am still enjoying late middle age. However, I am all too aware that senectitude is lurks around the corner and it occurred to me that, before it strikes, I could do worse than fill the unforgiving minute with a few light-hearted observations on the perils and pleasures it may bring. Most of the writers below have taken a positive, and often wry, look at old age, while never forgetting that beneath the eccentricities that accompany advancing years lie uncertainty, grief and thoughts of mortality.

1. The Summer of a Dormouse by John Mortimer
Mortimer was only too aware that the price to be paid for getting old is making oneself looking ridiculous. The opening sentence says it all: “The day will come in your life, it will almost certainly come, when the voice of God will thunder at you from a cloud: ‘From this day forth thou shalt not be able to put on thine own socks.’” Reading this collection of theatrical anecdotes, gossip, fond memories of friends and witty observations made while growing old disgracefully reminds one that possibly the greatest pleasures of old age is reminiscence.

2. A Positively Final Appearance by Alec Guinness
Guinness is equally reassuring to those of us who wonder what enjoyment can be found in old age. Chock-a-block with opinions on books read, plays and films seen, stories of happy times spent with old friends such as Alan Bennett, Irene Worth and John Wells, and the joys of life at home in Hampshire, this diary is interspersed with poignant accounts of the death of friends and funerals attended.

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In the age of litfests, this model of intimate literary exchange is a vastly different experience

Since 2008, the Almost Island Dialogues have offered a literary gathering that offers what expansive literary festivals cannot – intimacy and a meaningful exchange of ideas through the lens of literature. At this year’s conclave in New Delhi (December 15-17), they will celebrate a decade of the Dialogues, with writers like the Chinese poet Bei Dao, the Arabic poet Mohammed Bennis, the Argentinian novelist Sergio Chejfec, and, from India, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Allan Sealy, and Joy Goswami. Almost Island also publishes an online literary magazine as well as a small number of books. Sharmistha Mohanty, founder-editor of Almost Island, spoke to Scroll.in. Excerpts from the interview:

You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that keeping the Dialogues small and intimate is important to you. What would you say intimacy achieves in the literary space?
It is very difficult to have any meaningful discussion in a setting where there are hundreds of people and writers must speak as part of a panel for ten minutes on a very deep subject. This is what the big litfests have done.

Unlike a literary festival, which concentrates on a product, be it a book or a reading or a performance, Almost Island is concerned with process, with how things are learnt, explored, created, and created again. It is concerned with the unravelling of things, in a stretched time, in being within the labour of literature, and not in the end product of its presentation. Literature is not a performing art and it requires a certain degree of quietness and closeness for things to unfold, for writers to speak genuinely and slowly about their work and their lives. Intimacy and small gatherings allow that. I have seen it work repeatedly at our Dialogues. In our India-China dialogues our Chinese writer friends spoke with candour about everything – a father who commits suicide because he is pursued by the Party, how and why some of them were exiled – because trust could be established in the closeness of our meetings.

The great Hungarian writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai spoke to us for over three hours about his life in Communist Hungary and how his novels emerged from his life in that context. He spoke about his work with the community in a small town and how the government retaliated by burning his library of thousands of books, a library he has never been able to rebuild. What he gave us was not a talk or a lecture – he was speaking to all of us who were there as if one to one. It was a very moving experience for all of us there.

The Dialogues complete a decade this year. How would you say they have evolved over the last ten years?
I would say that there has been a kind of lateral growth, a fullness that has been achieved with these meetings. Not a linear evolution. The fullness is in the wide register of voices we’ve had, in poetry and prose, and from many different parts of the world. What connects them is that they enlarge – through the innovativeness of their work – the spaces of prose and poetry. The wide register is rigorous and not merely there for the sake of diversity.

That said, I have been thinking of new ways to have these meetings. There may be other ways that I haven’t discovered yet. Ten years is a good watershed and I intend to give some time to thinking about that in the next year.

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11 Books to Read if You Want to Understand Caste in India

In Lithub, S. Shankar, author of ‘Ghost in the Tamarind’ lists 11 representative books that “serve as an introduction to caste”, that explore the intricacies and the indignities of caste in India.

Caste is not unique to India, and no country should be reduced to a single social category, no matter how intrinsic a part of its reality. Nevertheless, to understand India you have to understand caste, whose intricacies are unarguably difficult. It is not just one of the most prominent social features of India; it is at the heart of many of the past and present fissures of the country.

I grew up in India living the reality of caste every day. Even so I had to learn, and unlearn, many things about caste while completing my two most recent books: the novel Ghost in the Tamarind, which narrates an inter-caste romance between a Brahmin man and a Dalit woman against the backdrop of powerful anti-caste movements in southern India; and a co-edited collection of academic essays on caste and life narratives.

What exactly is caste? You might have heard somewhere (perhaps in a high school or college classroom) that there are four ancient and unchanging castes in India ranging from Brahmins at the top, through Kshatriyas and Vaishyas in the middle, to Shudras at the bottom, with a fifth group of so-called Untouchables—the preferred term now is Dalits—even further below. These, though, are only partial truths, for history is replete with examples of the changeability of caste, and in practice there are thousands of castes. One truth about caste, however, is undeniable: in all its manifestations through history it has been the name for a monstrous and irredeemable system of social hierarchy and oppression based on horrific notions of ritual pollution and exclusion.

The various social groups collected most recently under the name Dalit have felt the power of this irredeemable system with the greatest force. The Indian constitution, adopted in 1950, acknowledged in an enlightened moment that the historically disadvantaged Dalits needed special support to advance socially and economically, and then set out to provide it. Since then, India has had a Dalit President and a powerful woman Dalit Chief Minister of a state. Nevertheless, the oppression of Dalits, ranging from daily humiliation (such as the maintenance of separate glasses for Dalits in some village tea shops) through sexual violence to outright massacre (alas, so many that the name of Khairlanji, where in 2006 four members of the Bhotmange family were brutally murdered, must suffice as stand in) continues till today. Reality is never neat or singular.

This is one reason “the Boom in Dalit literature”—as some have called it—of the last few decades is so important. The Boom represents the entrance of new and vital voices onto India’s literary stage—that is into forms of artistic production from which they had formerly been excluded (of course, Dalits, often musicians and performers, have had their own powerful expressive forms going back centuries). Many trace the origins of the Boom back to Dalit writing in Marathi, which began to gather force in the Seventies. From there, the Boom spread to other languages, and now there are significant bodies of work in Tamil, Hindi, Kannada, Telugu and other languages.

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The Reading Life with Parul Sehgal, Book Critic at the New York Times

On Privacy, Profile Writing, and Avoiding the First Person
Interview: Durga Chew-Bose

In Sehgal’s “First Words” columns for the Times Magazine, on topics like privilege and its devalued import, or cultural appropriation, or the rhetoric surrounding the use of ‘survivor’ in place of ‘victim,’ or in 2015, the frequency of ‘flawless,’ Sehgal recasts today’s usage (or erosion) of faddish language, recontexualizing occurrence in favor of meaning, ideological precedent, and perspectives that are rarely centered. There’s nothing showy about her criticism. Sehgal finds the thread and invites her reader to see not just as she sees, but to marvel at how she’s arranged her discoveries just so.

Sehgal is so precise and alive to, it seems, the pursuits and even strange tendencies authors of varied spheres might share—that lettered chromosomal-ness—that even the most popular-reviewed ‘it’ book, reads like an exclusive. An interception. Of Arundhati Roy’s two-decade-later return to fiction, with her novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Sehgal wrote this past summer in The Atlantic: “You will encounter no victims in this book; the smallest characters are endowed with some spit […] From the fine-grained affection that stirs [Roy’s] imagination springs an ethical imperative—after all, how can one appreciate the world without desiring to defend it? And it must be defended not merely from war or political calamity, but from that natural, more insidious phenomenon: forgetting.” Her interrogation of Roy’s novel is a perfect instance of Sehgal positioning literary criticism beyond a work’s achievements or shortcomings, and locating its value not only within a literary tradition, but beyond. How art and criticism provide dynamic ways for understanding instead of limiting how to be a person in this world. And more urgently, how to pay attention.

ON GROWING UP

I was born outside of D.C. We moved a lot—every three years. I lived in Delhi, Manila, Budapest when I was little. I think I thought we were on the run, because it was always so abrupt. I remember my mother found me in the library of my school in Manila when I was nine, and she was like, “Okay, we need to go home early and pack.” And I was like, “Where now?” And she said India. It was a life of jump cuts.

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Interview with Suchart Sawasdsri

Veteran editor Suchart Sawasdsri made a name for himself as a literary talent spotter on whose desk the manuscripts of many of Thailand’s acclaimed contemporary writers have landed. Over his nearly fifty-year career as editor of various literary magazines as well as a journal of social and political commentary, he has come to be regarded as an encyclopedia of Thai literature. Most notably, from 1978 to 2010 (with a couple of hiatuses, dividing the magazine’s run into three eras), he edited the legendary short-story quarterly Chorkaraket (Screwpine Garland). For a budding writer to make it into the magazine, and in particular to win its prize, was considered the ultimate stamp of approval. Suchart has been part of the Thai literati since the sixties, the period that led up to two key events in modern Thai history known as the October 14, 1973 Event and October 6, 1976 Event (the first marking the student-led uprising that took down the military dictatorship and the second signifying the massacre of protestors after which the country returned to military rule), which still loom large over the imagination of Thai writers who are now the old guard. In those days, the artist as political activist was the paradigm for Thai writers, and that legacy still has some hold on Thai writing today. While Suchart himself has always leaned left, as an editor he always sought to give writers carte blanche. He has long been a proponent of “art for the sake of art” in a field where “art for the sake of life” has dominated. Now in his seventies, Suchart has been honored as a national artist of Thailand and remains active in the art and literary world (he is a writer in his own right, and also paints and makes experimental short films, some of which can be viewed here). In response to Thailand’s most recent military coup in 2014, Suchart revived Chorkaraket for a special issue.

We spent hours chatting about the development of Thai prose, its evolution through the years, and the close relationship between literature and politics in Thailand. Ever the demanding editor, Suchart is no shrinking violet when it comes to critiquing the literature to which he has dedicated his life.

The following is an edited and translated version of our conversation.

Mui Poopoksakul (MP): You had mentioned the one-hundredth anniversary of the Thai novel. Can you talk about the first one?

Suchart Sawasdsri (SS): In times past, Thai literature was poetry. It was fiction but written in verse. Prose narrative, with explanation and dialogue, started at the end of the reign of King Rama III, going into the reign of King Rama IV. Looking at primary documents, what I think we can call the first short stories came out in Darunowat magazine in 1874, about a hundred and forty years ago. That was when we saw writing in a form that partly showed influence from abroad, from the West. Later, what is said to be the first Thai novel was a novel that mimics—doesn’t quite mimic, but bears a resemblance to—a work called Kwam Payabat, which was Mae Won’s translation of Marie Corelli’s Vendetta. That was translated in 1900, so that’s about a hundred and twenty years old. The first Thai novel was something like a parody of that, but it had a Thai sense. It was called Kwam Mai Payabat (No Vendetta) by the author who wrote under the pen name Nai Samran, better known as Kru Liam or Liam Wintupramanakul. That was 1915 according to the documents, so that’s about a hundred years ago. It’s so young. But if you go back to the first short stories, “Nai Jit Nai Jai Sontana Gun” (“The Conversation between Jit and Jai”) and “Chai Ha Pla Tung See” (“Four Men Fishing”), they actually had characteristics of critical realism. For example, “Nai Jit Nai Jai Sontana Gun” talked about Jit and Jai critiquing monks, critiquing people in the royal court, corruption. “Chai Ha Pla Tung See” wasn’t quite fantasy but I’d call it magic realism. It’s about four men with different personalities and different special abilities—one has ears that stick out, one has a pointy bottom, one has a lot of mucus in the nose, and one has three hands—and they go out fishing. It’s a local parable of our own. Prose in Thailand had a good beginning—it had elements of social critique. It had elements of magic.

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