7 Striking Books That Prove ‘Great Literature’ is More Than the Classics

October 23 2020

Through grade school, my English classes were dominated by books written by dead white men. As I read through syllabi that heavily featured the plays of William Shakespeare as well as “classics” such as Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, these were the type of works I came to associate with “great literature.”  

It wasn’t until my junior year of college when my assumptions about what made a book a “classic” were challenged. In a course I took titled Crafting Global Narratives, I learned that so much of what is considered “great literature” has been deemed as such due to the power that white men have historically exercised.  

This year has shown promise that challenges to the idea of “great literature” are occurring. On the 2020 Booker Prize longlist, nine out of thirteen authors are women, and eight out of the thirteen titles nominated are debuts. The seven books on this list further challenge long-held conventional wisdom about “great literature,” breaking from Eurocentrist ideals through global stories and discussing topics such as immigration, family, social justice, and identity.  

The Map of Salt and Stars
by Zeyn Joukhadar

THE MAP OF SALT AND STARS is altogether realistic and fantastical, telling a coming-of-age story of a Syrian refugee utilizing elements of magical realism and alternating timelines. In the summer of 2011, Nour loses her father to cancer, and her family moves to Syria to be closer to her relatives. To cope with both loss and her changing reality, Nour tells herself her favorite story she and her dad shared: the story of Rawiya, a girl living in the twelfth century who disguised herself as a boy to become a mapmaker’s apprentice. When the war in Syria escalates and a shell hits Nour’s home, her family is forced to flee across the Middle East and North Africa to safety, utilizing the same route that Rawiya took on her travels.  

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The Map of Salt and Stars
Zeyn Joukhadar

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Borderlands/La Frontera
by Gloria Anzaldúa

Written in 1987, BORDERLANDS/LA FRONTERA continues to be a seminal piece of Chicana literature and Anzaldúa’s most famous work. The crux of this book is Anzaldúa’s concept of the “borderland,” used to refer to the blurred border between the United States and Mexico and the mixing of cultures, as well as the invisible borders between genders, sexualities, and races.   The essays and poems that compose BORDERLANDS/LA FRONTERA are semi-autobiographical in nature, drawing on Anzaldúa’s experiences as a Chicana lesbian. Additionally, several passages are written in Spanish, disrupting the dominance of the English language in global literature. 

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Borderlands/La Frontera
Gloria Anzaldúa

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Homegoing
by Yaa Gyasi

Gyasi’s first novel is a superbly researched multigenerational novel told from multiple perspectives. HOMEGOING starts in eighteenth-century Ghana, where two half-sisters are born in different villages. One sister marries an Englishman and lives out her life in comfort at Cape Coast Castle. The other is captured in a raid and imprisoned in the very same castle and sold into slavery. HOMEGOING then follows the parallel lives of their descendants, taking us to the Gold Coast, the plantations of Mississippi, and Jazz Age Harlem, and discusses themes such as colorism and belonging. A standout character for me was Yaw, a history teacher at a boys’ high school in Ghana, who teaches the boys that those who have power are the ones who get to write the story. 

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Homegoing
Yaa Gyasi

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Exit West
by Mohsin Hamid

In EXIT WEST, Hamid takes a unique approach to a global narrative with the introduction of magical doors that transport individuals to anywhere in the world. Exit West starts in an unnamed city on the edge of war, where protagonists Nadia and Saeed meet and fall in love. When the conflict escalates and Saeed’s mother is killed by stray gunfire, Nadia and Saeed begin hearing rumors about doors that whisk people far away, for a price. Desperate to escape, Nadia and Saeed pay a man for access to a door and are whisked away to a refugee camp on Mykonos. Through Nadia and Saeed’s movement from Mykonos to London to California, and the strain it puts on their relationship, EXIT WEST comments on the current refugee crisis at both the global and the individual level. 

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Exit West
Mohsin Hamid

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These Ghosts Are Family
by Maisy Card

“Let’s say that you are a sixty-nine-year-old Jamaican man called Stanford, or Stan for short, who once faked your own death.” So begins THESE GHOSTS ARE FAMILY, Card’s debut novel. The book starts out with Stanford Solomon, a man who faked his own death and stole the identity of his best friend. As Stanford reaches the end of his life, he is attended to by his home health aide, his firstborn daughter, Irene Paisley, whom he is meeting for the first time. From there, THESE GHOSTS ARE FAMILY takes us from colonial Jamaica to present-day Harlem, examining themes such as history, slavery, and migration through the actions of Stanford and the individuals that constitute the Paisley family. 

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These Ghosts Are Family
Maisy Card

Longlisted for the 2020 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize

A “rich, ambitious debut novel” (The New York Times Book Review) that reveals the ways in which a Jamaican family forms and fractures over generations, in the tradition of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

*An Entertainment Weekly, Millions, and LitHub Most Anticipated Book of 2020 Pick and Buzz Magazine’s Top New Book of the New Decade*

Stanford Solomon’s shocking, thirty-year-old secret is about to change the lives of everyone around him. Stanford has done something no one could ever imagine. He is a man who faked his own death and stole the identity of his best friend. Stanford Solomon is actually Abel Paisley.

And now, nearing the end of his life, Stanford is about to meet his firstborn daughter, Irene Paisley, a home health aide who has unwittingly shown up for her first day of work to tend to the father she thought was dead.

These Ghosts Are Family revolves around the consequences of Abel’s decision and tells the story of the Paisley family from colonial Jamaica to present-day Harlem. There is Vera, whose widowhood forced her into the role of a single mother. There are two daughters and a granddaughter who have never known they are related. And there are others, like the houseboy who loved Vera, whpose lives might have taken different courses if not for Abel Paisley’s actions.

This “rich and layered story” (Kirkus Reviews) explores the ways each character wrestles with their ghosts and struggles to forge independent identities outside of the family and their trauma. The result is a “beguiling…vividly drawn, and compelling” (BookPage, starred review) portrait of a family and individuals caught in the sweep of history, slavery, migration, and the more personal dramas of infidelity, lost love, and regret.

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Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth
by Warsan Shire

A Kenyan-born Somali poet, writer, artist, and activist currently based in London, Shire documents narratives of journey and trauma in this work. Her poetic range is on full display in TEACHING MY MOTHER HOW TO GIVE BIRTH, her debut pamphlet. While reading, what struck me most  was how Shire wove together the ideas of place and body. In “Conversations About Home,” she notes how the body reacts to immigration (“My body is burning with the shame of not belonging, my body is longing”), and in “Grandfather’s Hands,” Shire flips this idea, as she discusses the relationship between two lovers in geographic terms (“Your grandparents often found themselves in dark rooms, mapping out each other's bodies, claiming whole countries with their mouths”). 

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Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth
Warsan Shire

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MENTIONED IN:

7 Striking Books That Prove ‘Great Literature’ is More Than the Classics

By Sharon Van Meter | October 23, 2020

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Animal's People
by Indra Sinha

ANIMAL’S PEOPLE, inspired by the 1984 Bhopal disaster, provides a multifaceted glance at corruption and transnationalism and the potential pitfalls of social justice efforts. The story is a translation of a series of recorded tapes from the teenaged Animal, named so because of his twisted spine that forces him to walk on all fours. His deformity is a result of a local factory’s gas leak, which spewed poison gas over his home city of Khaufpur. Through Animal’s candid, unapologetic storytelling, the reader is provided a glimpse into his life and the lives of Khaufpur’s residents, including Ma Franci, the elderly nun who raised him, and Nisha, the girlfriend of the local resistance leader. When Elli Barber, a young American doctor, opens up a free clinic for Khaufpur’s residents, she struggles to assuage their suspicions about her motives and must rely on Animal to convince them that she is not there to harm them. 

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Animal's People
Indra Sinha

In this Booker-shortlisted novel, Indra Sinha’s profane, furious, and scathingly funny narrator delivers an unflinching look at what it means to be human.

I used to be human once. So I’m told. I don’t remember it myself, but people who knew me when I was small say I walked on two feet, just like a human being...

Ever since he can remember, Animal has gone on all fours, his back twisted beyond repair by the catastrophic events of “that night” when a burning fog of poison smoke from the local factory blazed out over the town of Khaufpur, and the Apocalypse visited his slums. Now just turned seventeen and well schooled in street work, he lives by his wits, spending his days jamisponding (spying) on town officials and looking after the elderly nun who raised him, Ma Franci. His nights are spent fantasizing about Nisha, the girlfriend of the local resistance leader, and wondering what it must be like to get laid.

When Elli Barber, a young American doctor, arrives in Khaufpur to open a free clinic for the still suffering townsfolk—only to find herself struggling to convince them that she isn’t there to do the dirty work of the Kampani—Animal gets caught up in a web of intrigues, scams, and plots with the unabashed aim of turning events to his own advantage.

Profane, piercingly honest, and scathingly funny, Animal’s People illuminates a dark world shot through with flashes of joy and lunacy. A stunning tale of an unforgettable character, it is an unflinching look at what it means to be human: the wounds that never heal and a spirit that will not be quenched.

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