As writers our principle form of activism is our voice. To be more specific, the voice of our pen. However, another form of activism – though far more subtle and long-term in its effects – is in the books we choose to read. With every book you buy, you share, and you tell people about, you are saying that more of those books should be read, and marketers and companies will start to follow that over time.
But beyond that, think about how it looks for you to read a book by a Muslim or Middle Eastern author on a subway or train, how the sight of a name from that part of the world can impact those around you, normalizing it. The effects may not seem obvious right away, but if more and more people began to read books from other places around the world, to share stories that reached out and asked people to be empathetic, then the ideas and stereotypes about those people would start to change for the better.
As it is, only 3% of the books in the publishing industry are translated books. In a country like America, which is made up of immigrants, I find this strange, which is why I am urging my fellow storytellers to pick up a book in translation and specifically this week to pick up a book written by someone from one of the seven countries temporarily banned from seeking refuge in our country. Below I’ve listed my top picks for you, all of which are translated to English and can be ordered on Amazon or eBay.
The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi
Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is a writer known for his accurate depiction of the rural life in Iran, making his novel, The Colonel, which he was too afraid to publish in his home country, a great way for people to gain a better understanding of life in Iran while enjoying his lyrical style. Written during the 1980’s, The Colonel tells of a man – the colonel – who is woken by two police officers asking him to collect the body of his tortured daughter. After years of waiting for his book to be published in Iran, Dowlatabadi was not allowed to publish his work in his own country. As a result, many Iranians must find this book illegally or read it in English, something we should feel very fortunate about.
The Madman of Freedom Square by Hassan Blasim
Both a writer and director, Hassan Blasim is a current Iraqi refugee in Finland as a result of a film he made in 2004, which got him into serious trouble. In his collection of short stories, The Madman of Freedom Square, readers are given a new look at the relationship between Iraq and the West. Blurring the lines between a harsh reality and something far more surreal, The Madman of Freedom Square will awaken readers to an experience unlike their own, yet also the tireless human spirit, something to always keep in mind during difficult times.
Sabriya: Damascus Bitter Sweet by Ulfat Idilbi
Raised in Syria during the French occupation, Ulfat Idilbi became one of the leading Syrian novelists, known best for her novel listed above. A great opportunity for readers to get a feminine perspective, Sabriya: Damascus Bitter Sweet tells the tale of a young girl raised in Damascus. Told by a young girl who so desperately wants to participate in the furthering her country’s progress yet constrained by her sex, this novel is necessary for fellow readers to hear the voices not only people from Syria, but also of the women who were not able to speak up because of their sex. In that way, Idilbi should be all the more admired for giving more women the voice they deserve.
Homeless Rats by Ahmed Fagih
A playwright, essayist and novelist, Ahmed Fagih first was considered a literary success with his collection of short story collection, There is No Water in the Sea. After that, he traveled all over, founding the Union of Libyan Writers before he got a PhD from the University of Edinburgh. While his most popular novel, the monstrous twelve volume tome, Maps of the Soul, only has three volumes published in English, his slimmer novel, Homeless Rats, tells a gritty tale of a troupe that settles on desert land where no human has wandered. There the animals rule and the humans must fight to survive whilst also dealing with personal conflicts that hinder their abilities to prosper as two families. An exploration of both nature and humanity, Homeless Rats offers a symbolic look at the world for readers new to the Libyan literary scene.
The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed
Set only a few days before her previous novel, Black Mamba Boy, Nadifa Mohamed’s novel The Orchard of Lost Souls follows three different Somalian women and how their lives become interconnected just before the revolution. With its in-depth look at the war in Somalia coupled with its daring anti-war sentiments, The Orchard of Lost Souls will help readers understand what is at stake when a civil war takes place. Written in English, the Somalian-British writer tells a beautiful tale of sisterhood and companionship during times of trouble and woe. When read with her other novel, Black Mamba Boy, readers are blessed with the possibility of learning about both men and women’s perspectives, something that is not common given the infrequent translations of literature from the Middle East.
Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela
Though she was born in Egypt, Sudanese author Leila Aboulela later moved to Sudan when she was six weeks old, living there until 1987. Much like Nadifa Mohamed, Aboulela writes her novels in English, giving American readers access to her voice without wondering what might be lost in translation. It is a true gift, and one that should be cherished in her novel Lyrics Alley, which takes place in Sudan in the 1950’s. The novel follows the Abuzeid dynasty, who has everything they could possibly need lined up for them. But when their son and heir suffers a serious accident, everything that the dynasty could count on is now up in the air. In many ways, the novel is unlike anything one might expect to come from Sudan and for that reason it is all the more interesting and worth giving a read.
They Die Strangers by Mohammad Abdul-Wali
Until Mohammad Abdul-Wali’s novel They Die Strangers was released in the late eighties, only around two hundred books had been published in Yemen, meaning even less were translated to English. They Die Strangers is an exception and one of the few pieces of Yemeni literature we have to read, meaning we certainly should be reading it so as to make the push for Yemeni translation all the more harder. The book is both a novella and a collection of short stories and focuses on people like the author living in Yemen, especially those caught between the civil war. It was compiled and translated after his death by the translators, something we should be deeply thankful for, as many of the themes in his writing reflect the same troubles many immigrants in America deal with.
So with all these books to choose from, I urge you to be a mindful storyteller this week and try out something completely new. These books will give you something no book in America can, even if they were written in English first, because they allow you to view a culture from a native perspective instead of our foreign view, which is what makes books so wonderful.
However, if for some reason this post bothers you, if my plea for human empathy by means of storytelling – one of the oldest forms of human communication – bothers you, if you gut reaction to this post asking you to just read more books from people unlike yourself made you roll your eyes or want to unsubscribe from my emails, I must ask you to ask yourself why you feel that way. All I am doing is calling you to read more stories from people unlike yourself, to become more aware of other viewpoints. I am not asking you anything else.
My blog is not a political place by any means. It is a place for me to explore how to tell the best stories possible and I just don’t think it’s something you can achieve by blocking out perspectives and experiences you might not understand. I feel the same way about blocking out screenwriting if you are a prose writer or about plays if you are a video game writer.
I know that in reading more translated literature and books from people unlike myself, my craft of storytelling has improved immensely. But better than that, I’ve learned that people in countries far away from us have the same dreams, the same worries and the same loves that we do. All it takes is giving their words a chance to be heard.
If you want to do more for the seven countries temporarily banned from seeking refuge in America, consider a monthly donation to ACLU, especially since as storytellers we are likely introverted, reserved folk who may not feel protesting is being authentic to ourselves. Or, subscribe to the Box Walla to continue reading books from other countries and cultures!