8 Novels That Chronicle National Traumas

Books that explore time periods and places, each troubled and turbulent in its own way

The trauma of nations is often best understood through fiction, which, unlike history, rarely focuses on victors. My novel The Storm explores characters across both time and space, decades and continents, discovering the surprising and profound ways that they are connected, centering on a devastating real life event: The 1970 Bhola Cyclone. With a death toll in the hundreds of thousands, the 1970 cyclone precipitated the 1971 War of Liberation for Bangladesh, and forever altered the history of the country and South Asia as a whole.

From the Sri Lankan civil war to the Tiananmen Square massacre, these eight books (some of my favorites) explore time periods and places, each troubled and turbulent in its own way.

Indian Independence and The Partition: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Through manic virtuosic prose, we follow Saleem Sinai, who is born at midnight on the exact hour of India’s independence, an auspicious time that bestows on him mysterious and supernatural powers. Saleem’s childhood and youth will mirror his young’s nation’s own charter of joy and sorrow, triumph and loss, as he comes to discover that there are many, many other “Midnight’s Children” such as him including some who are far from friendly. To read Midnight’s Children is to jump off a cliff, a headlong plunge into the kaleidoscopic social, political, and cultural canyon that was the first three decades of India’s existence as an independent state.

State of Emergency in India: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Both Midnight’s Children and A Fine Balance take dim views of Indira Gandhi, the country’s only female prime minister and the daughter of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi) presided over The Emergency, a 21 month period in which she accelerated her autocratic tendencies to new levels by concentrating state power within the prime minister’s office and jailing members of the press and dissidents. Set during The Emergency, A Fine Balance traces the lives of three men and a woman as their paths converge in an unnamed Indian city. Marked by devastating sorrow and told in prose exhilarating in its beauty, the novel hovers delicately over this group of souls as they seek shelter in each other from tragedies both personal and historical in scope.

Tiananmen Square Massacre: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

At the heart of this story is the relationship between Marie (Li-Ling) and Ai Ming, who arrives at the former’s door after escaping the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Buried within the notebooks that Ai Ming carries, Marie discovers her own secret history, through a story handwritten by her own father many years before after his mysterious disappearance. Do Not Say We Have Nothing flits from China during the Cultural Revolution to the Tiananmen Square protests to Western Canada like a restless bird, swaying to its own mysterious music.

Banana Massacre: A Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Set in the town of Macondo, Columbia, this timeless work by Marquez traces generations of the Buendía family as they traverse hurdles set upon their paths by a combination of fate, history, and each other. Suffused with a dreamy otherworldliness where anything is possible, and the most magical occurrence are celebrated as everyday (but not mundane) events, this novel casts a spell on the reader from its very first sentence.

Naxalite–Maoist Insurgency: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Subhash and Udayan are brothers growing up in Tollygunge, Kolkata in the 60’s and 70’s. Studious and serious, Subhash sets his sights on a doctoral program at the University of Rhode Island, while his idealistic brother enlists with the Naxalites, a Maoist group seeking to overturn what they perceive as India’s corrupt social order by whatever means necessary. The paths of the brothers will diverge, only to converge following a tragic event which will bring Subhash to the precipice of a momentous decision, one that will transform the fates of him and his family forever. Written in her typically understated but luminous prose and imbued with stunning insight, Lahiri traces the arcs of sorrow that reverberate across generations.

Bangladesh Liberation War: A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

A Golden Age picks up where my book ends. In 1971, Rehana Haque is living in East Pakistan, a country that would shortly become Bangladesh after a bloody war of independence. A woman of two cultures and two worlds, the love of her children will force her to choose a side on the eve of war between East and West. Tahmima Anam’s debut novel is the first of a trilogy that amply demonstrates the author’s considerable storytelling prowess and expansive imagination.

Soviet-Afghan War: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Amir, a Pashtun boy, is the son of a wealthy merchant living in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1974. He has a warm but condescending friendship with Hassan, an ethnic Hazara and the son of his father’s servant. The gulf between the two boys widens to an uncrossable chasm after an immensely selfish act of betrayal on the part of Amir, a sin that he will have to confront and atone for many years later. The Kite Runner is the beloved debut novel of a master storyteller, an essential read for anyone wishing to better understand the many cleavages that define Afghanistan today.

Sri Lankan Civil War: Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

Anil Tissera has led a nomadic life since her birth in Sri Lanka and finally returns to her homeland after years in England and America. Trained as a forensic anthropologist, she partners with archeologist Sarath to investigate the murder of an unknown man whose skeleton they find in a protected archeological dig site. Intrigue and danger follow them as the two delve deeper into the mystery, bringing them to a reckoning where Anil must confront her own past. Set against the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s civil war, Anil’s Ghost is a showcase for the astonishing range and insight possessed by this modern master.

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