10 Galvanizing Books About Political Protest

What to read on the way to the Women’s March

This weekend is the 2018 Women’s March, the one-year anniversary of what may have been the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. This year, once again, there are scores of marches, gatherings, and rallies planned worldwide. As America looks forward to the 2018 elections, and evaluates forecasts (and solemn promises) about 2020, many of us are looking for in-depth reading that goes beyond hashtags about #resistance.

In celebration of the possibility of positive social change, as well as the solidarity provided by reading about the intimately personal experience of trying to decide whether to rebel, here’s a list of thoughtful and imaginative reflections on political protest.

While putting together this list (which is obviously not comprehensive), I kept thinking of Brazilian activist, protestor, and educator Paulo Freire’s slogan: “Make the road by walking.” Each of these books creates a new road. Each raises questions about political protest and each has given readers and writers alike a path upon which to march.

American Woman by Susan Choi

Choi’s Pulitzer-nominated novel is an examination — or perhaps an exhumation — of a player in the Patty Hearst kidnapping, Wendy Yoshimura, upon whom Choi bases her focal character, Jenn Shimada. The novel casts a critical and trenchant perspective on the radical ideologies at work. In doing so, Choi places intimate relationships, particularly the friendship between Jenny and Pauline, at the center of an exploration of how political protest is lived and experienced on a moment-by-moment level.

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa

Yapa’s acclaimed, multi-cultural take on the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle is required reading for an idealistic, panoramic view of civil disobedience with the goal of greater inclusion and economic participation. The novel offers a tribute to those brave enough to step forward and take the physical risk of protesting.

A Small Revolution by Jimin Han

The talented, propulsive writer Jimin Han’s debut tells of a hostage situation set in the political turmoil of 1980s South Korea (including the Gwangju Uprising, an armed resistance response of the populace to government troops’ unprecedented attack and killing of peacefully protesting Chonnam University students). “There are many paths to revolution,” observes the elegant, though increasingly fraught, voice of Han’s narrator, Yoona.

Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

As anyone who has seen David Lean’s stunning 1965 adaptation knows, this novel boasts a ridiculously intricate, multi-generational plot. The book details, with emotional precision and care, the social context of the Russian Revolution, including the decadence and oppressive practices of the upper classes. The book follows families set adrift by the political protest of the October Revolution as well as the fates of the deeply-flawed individuals “making” the revolution (like the decadent, drug-addled Bolshevik who kidnaps the title character).

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

In her gorgeous and melancholy second novel, Jhumpa Lahiri achieves strikingly original characterizations of political protestors long after the protest — in particular, the radical-turned-academic philosopher Gauri, and the absent Udayan who only in death is revealed to be other than a strictly “peaceful protestor.” Never turning away from the bitterness and traumatic aspects of such political engagement, Lahiri follows the tragic arcs of her characters all the way out, like the wild New England coastline that forms the backdrop for the new lives they try to lead.

A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Written by Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o while he was still a university student, this novel juxtaposes the pain and disappointment of personal betrayals (brothers, spouses) with the larger community-wide dynamics involved in identifying “heroes” and “villains” of a revolution after the fact. The book draws on the history of the Mau Mau rebellion, a violent uprising that unsuccessfully attempted to throw off British colonial rule — but in the process exposed deep divisions within the Kikuyu community and exposed participants to harsh punishments by the British. The novel’s magisterial, intricate prose is still as fresh now as it was when it launched Ngugi’s international career; he’s since been shortlisted for the Booker and repeatedly considered for the Nobel.

Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig

Argentinian writer Manuel Puig’s award-winning novel has been adapted into a play, musical, and 1985 film (for which William Hurt won an Academy Award). The book focuses on the relationship between two cellmates in an Argentine prison: Molina, a transgender woman, and political prisoner and torture survivor Valentin. It’s an unflinching look at how the most intimate and spontaneous-seeming interactions are rendered corrupt when made part of the machinery by which a repressive state (in this case, the 1964–1985 military dictatorship in Brazil) attempts to crush any form of resistance.

July’s People by Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer’s (at the time) futuristic depiction of the fate of South African whites after the projected fall of apartheid is an honest examination of the profound discomfort that lurks beneath “camaraderie” between liberal whites and people of color protesting for long-delayed justice. The novel was banned in post-apartheid South Africa because of its ostensible failure to sufficiently and clearly condemn the racism that made social upheaval justified.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Morrison’s Sethe kills her own child rather than let her be returned to slavery, an act that reverberates throughout the novel. If slavery is understood as a political system, an infanticide like the one committed by Sethe (or Margaret Garner, Sethe’s real-world counterpart) can be considered a dbitter form of political protest. Morrison’s novel explores both the experiences leading up to making such a terrible choice, as well as the attempts to shape a meaningful life in the aftermath.

1984 by George Orwell

Perhaps more than any other novel on this list, George Orwell’s classic illustrates the idea of there being value even in protest that seems to change nothing. This slim novel (which sold out on Amazon immediately after the 2016 presidential election) was prescient on the subject of government surveillance, thought control by means of regulating “allowed” language, and the horrifying implications of using torture to secure obedience and allegiance. The book can still inspire us to moral courage and perseverance — even in a time of repression, fear, blustering, threatening and lying in the executive branch. Especially in such a time.

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