Literature is powerful! There are simply some novels, memoirs, poetry, and non-fiction literary works that impact our intellects, our emotions, and our values so much that we are significantly changed. As I consider the works that challenge my complacency, that inspire me to be a better person, and that speak to humanity in all of its greatness, its evil, and its resiliency, the following authors immediately flood my mind:
- Chinua Achebe: My favorite work is Things Fall Apart, a work of cultural clash, and the inevitable devaluation of a culture when the dominant colonial one has its way. This work speaks to the supreme egotism of Judeo-Christian belief that Western culture is simply so superior it must be imposed on others at all costs.
- Andre Aciman, an uprooted Egyptian Jew, in his iconic work, Harvard Square, takes a look at the American immigrant experience and the common ground that brings a Jew and a Muslim together in their pursuit of an “American” life.
- C. Boyle: A novelist and short story writer who encapsulates the selfishness of the “Baby Boomer” generation, its impact on materialism and the toll it takes on our environment. World’s End is a “must read.”
- Kang Chol-Hwan: Aquariums of Pyongyang is the first and most detailed account that the Western world has of life in North Korea, particularly in its labor camps. A chilling account of man’s inhumanity to his fellow earth dwellers!
- Kathryn Harrison: In her autobiographical work, The Kiss, perhaps we gain a better understanding of the dismal dysfunction of family that leads to the evils of incest, rage, and guilt.
- Duang Thu Huong: A Vietnamese Communist, Huong is, nevertheless profoundly critical of the current government, in all of its corruption and bureaucracy. Against this backdrop, her novel, No Man’s Land, addresses the universal themes of fate and duty vs. desire. Another work, Paradise of the Blind, actually earned her a 9-month stint in a Vietnamese jail! In all of her works, she consistently speaks to the hypocrisy of a government that mouths communism and yet embraces capitalism for the benefit a few at the “top.”
- Benjamin Alire Saenz: “Coming out” at age 54 transformed this man’s life, and his works will transform ours. This American writer of novels, poetry and children’s book has become a voice of the LGBT community, as well as of those who have suffered the consequences of alcoholism and sexual abuse. Everything Begins is a definitive work that is timeless!
- Floyd Skloot: Triumph over adversity is the key component that makes this author’s autobiographical works “live” for all of us. Revertigo, a trilogy of sorts, forces us all to look at the goal of achieving “balance” in our lives, and the metaphor of his very real bout with vertigo is both clever and inspiring.
- Elie Wiesel: Among works related to Holocaust survival, Night is definitive. It is not only a compelling narrative – it addresses loss of innocence and faith as a real phenomenon that anyone in the midst of adversity experiences. I could not put this one down!
- Salmon Rushdie: The Satanic Verses has earned Rushdie a spot on a “hit” list of conservative Muslims, for his portrayal of Mohammed. But more than that, it is a story of alienation and multicultural failures that make our world a dangerous place in which to live!
- Tim O’Brien: The Things They Carried is the ultimate human story – its glory, its tragedy, its love and hate, its greatness and its downfalls. This series of short stories set during the Vietnam is universal in its themes.
- Anne Carson: This Canadian poet encapsulates, in unforgettable verse, the full span of human desire – both material and spiritual, and touches chords within all of us about our values and belief systems.
- Alan Paton: Cry, the Beloved Country is truly timeless, for it speaks to White privilege in all of its manifestations, even as it exists today in a myriad of subtleties. Written from the viewpoint of one of these White privileged, it has even greater impact!
- Wallace Stegner: Crossing to Safety chronicles all of our lives – from the idealism of youth, through the “reality check” of middle adulthood and, ultimately, to the peace and acceptance of old age. What a beautiful portrayal of human passages!
- Elias Chacour: This autobiographical work (Blood Borthers) chronicles the life of the author, a Palestinian Christian, from a happy child on the family fig orchard, through the expulsion of the family by the Zionists after World War II, life in refugee camps, his sojourn through monastic training, and ultimate return to Palestine to establish schools in which Christians, Muslims, and Jews could enroll and achieve reconciliation. This is a story of courage, forgiveness, and a hope for the future.
Like all lists of things, this one is quite personal. As you read these authors, however, my belief is that you will be inspired, motivated, and permanently changed!