A Reading List on Coming of Age During Wartime
Ingrid Rojas Contreras, author of ‘Fruit of the Drunken Tree,’ recommends books about growing up in times of unrest
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
What is it like to enjoy a childhood while the world is exploding around you? It is the central literary question of my first novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, and it is also something I’ve pored over as I’ve reflected on my own coming of age. What I’ve realized is that you can come to love anything if you are a child. My childhood was playful and happy, though I grew up in Bogotá during a time when many things exploded in my vicinity. I plucked flowers from trees and pretended they were lipsticks, yes, like many girls the world over might have done, but the violence around us also seeped into our games.
I remember being a girl of nine, bored and sleepy in the backseat of my father’s car. We were waiting to be let in into a mall’s parking lot, but two security guards were checking each car for bombs. I thought it would be funny when our turn came to hide in the trunk. As my father lowered his window to talk to the security guard, I pulled the back seat down and crawled into the trunk. I waited, holding my breath, and when the officer opened the trunk I jumped out at him and yelled, Bú! For a second, the guard blanched and his hand latched onto his holster, but as I cackled and pointed, he slapped his knee and laughed, long and hard. My parents and sister thought this was hilarious too.
Humor is one of the things that change in times of unrest. While for children the political atmosphere becomes part of their make-believe, for adults, the notes that can surprise and elicit laughter can shift to a kind of vulgar extreme.
Here are seven coming-of-age books that tackle this question, and do it beautifully. They each offer up an entirely different aspect of child wonder, playful and darkened by the forces encircling and closing in.
If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim
“Everyone in our village whispered what they wanted to believe: the war would end and we would return to our real homes soon.” This gorgeous novel opens in a refugee camp in Korea where sixteen-year old Haemí escapes the unfolding anguish and misery of her family’s straw-roofed shelter, and sneaks to meet her childhood friend Kyunghwan. Late at night, they ride bicycles to nearby towns and scout out bars. They pretend to have different lives, to be older, to be lovers — all lies which they use to scam their way into the bars so they can be merry, even if fleetingly. For her and for Kyunghwan life goes on. But soon the reality of the war will catch up to them. If You Leave Me is told from the point of view of multiple narrators, and it is a story of love found, love absconded, and all the things we do in the name of survival.
Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement
In the village of Guerrero in Mexico girls who are beautiful disappear. So young Ladydi is disguised as a boy when she is born. “Thank God a boy was born!” Ladydi’s mother says. “Yes, thank God and the Virgin Mary,” everyone answers. “On our mountain only boys were born, and some of them turned into girls around the age of eleven. Then these boys had to turn into ugly girls who sometimes had to hide in holes in the ground.” The mothers rub coal over all the girls’ faces and have them hide in holes, because when the men from a nearby cartel do regular sweeps and see a beautiful girl, she is kidnapped and never seen again. Written in that strange timbre where humor meets tragedy, Prayers for the Stolen is immaculately playful and horrific.
Purple Hibiscus by Chimananda Ngozie Adichie
Fifteen-year-old Kambili lives in secluded safety in her wealthy family home in a compound in Enugu, Nigeria. There are high walls with coiled electrified wires, but beyond, a military coup is reshaping the political landscape. Kambili contends with her father, who in spite of being a profoundly religious and well-respected man, has disturbing and violent urges. Glimpses of political unrest — screaming protestors, a growing military presence, car searches with drivers held at gunpoint — sweep by Kambili’s window as she travels to and fro from her home to school, and struggles to become the woman she needs herself to be. I find Adichie’s first novel to be as stunning as all her subsequent work.
Papi by Rita Indiana, translated by Achy Obejas
In the Dominican Republic, an unnamed eight-year-old girl waits for her father to return from the United States. She hopes he will return with gleaming gifts — new cars, or polo shirts, or brand new Nikes. There are many families ripped apart by the violence of the drug trade, but this novel explores how a rupture is felt and understood by the young daughter of a drug dealer. “Papi is like Jason, the guy from Friday the 13th. Or like Freddy Krueger. But more like Jason than Freddy Krueger. He shows up when you least expect him. Sometimes when I hear that scary music, I get really happy cuz I know he might be coming this way.” As Indiana’s young character tries to puzzle out what it is exactly that her father does for a living, and danger looms ever closer, the prose becomes feverish and experimental, matching the suppressed anxiety of the narrator.
Kamchatcka by Marcelo Figueras, translated by Frank Wynne
In the 1970s, as those with left-leaning beliefs are rounded up and disappeared during the time that came to be known as the Dirty War, a family flees to an abandoned country house just outside of Buenos Aires. Harry is ten years old and is constantly shadowed by his brother, known to us throughout as “the midget.” In his new home, Harry berates his younger brother and commandeers missions to rescue suicidal toads who will drown in the pool. Details about the civil unrest slowly trickle in — close friends of his parents are disappearing or appearing dead, everyone is going into hiding, and Harry’s parents are fired due to their political convictions. Kamchatka is an indelibly written novel where memory, reflection, and play all have a place in understanding how to grapple with loss.
The Book of Emma Reyes by Emma Reyes, translated by Daniel Alarcón
On a visit to Colombia, The Book of Emma Reyes was pressed into Daniel Alarcón’s hands with the command that he read it. Alarcón was so taken with this book he made plans to translate it. It is no small wonder. The Book of Emma Reyes is a surprising and deeply moving tale of a childhood spent in extreme poverty in Colombia. A woman with a tangle of black hair who they didn’t know was their mother locks Emma and her sister for long hours in a dark room. When they are let out, the sisters play with the other neighborhood kids in a pile of trash. They make a clay sculpture of a man they call General Rebello. The writing is crisp and Reyes’ candor is sublime. This is a non-fiction story of a young girl at first imprisoned in a cell, and then escaping into the world.
Girl at War by Sara Novic
Girl at War is a book full of intricate small interactions that carry the kind of tension possible only in a place at war. In Zagreb, Little Anna is sent to a store to buy cigarettes for her father, but there the shopkeeper asks her: Serbian or Croatian cigarettes? Not understanding how, but knowing it is a dangerous trick, Anna answers: “The one with the golden wrapper.” Anna does not get the cigarettes, but it is her first inkling that something big is about to happen. The paramilitaries loom in the horizon and on the television a man discourses on ethnic cleansing. Girl at War is wrenching and unforgettable.