Want to Learn About Politics? Power? The World? Read a Few Great Novels

Last Monday, Nov. 3, on the eve of the presidential elections, a panel of three writers gathered at Johns Hopkins's SAIS (School of Advanced International Studies) to discuss, of all things, the urgent importance of literature. They were Azar Nafisi, author of the memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran; Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, author of a novel about Africa The Dark Path to the River; and yours truly, author of a memoir American Chica and a novel set in the Peruvian jungle, Cellophane. The title of the program was "Power, Politics, and the Prism of Literature." We were there to discuss nothing less than why, in the tumult of the present day -- with two wars, a world economic debacle, and a planetary environmental crisis in the making -- we need to hole up and read fiction.

The audience who gathered to hear us was largely made up of professors of international studies and their students at SAIS, although the event was open to the public.

Azar Nafisi, author and professor at Johns Hopkins University. (Kevin Clark/The Washington Post)

In her presentation, Azar Nafisi was her usual ebullient self, a champion of the world's great novels, exhorting us to read Austen, Shakespeare, and Nabokov now, for there is no better insight into the human will to power. Joanne Leedom-Ackerman spoke persuasively about being a journalist for the Christian Science Monitor, covering Africa, and finding that the only way she could really get at the complexities of the region was through fiction. I relayed something of my bicultural experience as a child of a Peruvian father and a North American mother. I confessed that I didn't know, when I sat down to write a novel about love (Cellophane), that it would end up being a "novela del dictador" (a dictator novel), a category that just about sums up the whole of Latin American fiction over the last 100 years.

In the Q&A, a professor raised his hand and asked: But why should we, who are here to teach world affairs, pay any attention to the three of you, really? Why should I put fiction on my curriculum? And wouldn't my students just scoff?

And yet there is an endless number of novels that might open the eyes of a future leader in global relations. Take Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, for instance, published exactly 50 years ago in 1958. The novel explained from the inside the tyrannical and self-perpetuating legacy of colonialism, whose racist notions our world is still struggling to overcome. The West's Conradian vision of Africa as a dark, incomprehensible vortex was cracked wide open. What better textbook for a student grappling with Third World affairs?

Chinua Achebe, Nigerian-born novelist and poet. (Craig Ruttle/AP)

But there's another reason. People in other countries study Faulkner and Twain and Toni Morrison to better understand America. Why shouldn't we study Ha Jin, Shusaku Endo, and Roberto Bolano to better understand them?

Not long ago, I finally read Witold Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke, a satire about Poland's rigid notions of class. It was written in 1937, just as Europe was sliding into war--just as Poland was falling under the thrall of communism and the concept of class promised to lose all meaning entirely. What a peephole into destiny that novel was!

What fiction do you think a young globalist should read to better understand this world?

-- Marie Arana

5 p.m. Monday. Just got this news: Nam Le, who wrote an eye-opening book of short stories about Vietnam (The Boat), has just won the prestigious 2008 Dylan Thomas Prize. You can read our review of it here:

By Marie Arana |  November 10, 2008; 5:46 AM ET Marie Arana
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Good fiction can sometimes help to get an insight into the collective memories of an area that just reading a history doesn't quite achieve.

Before serving in the former Yugoslavia in the 90s I was recommended Ivo Andric's Bridge on the Drina.

Posted by: engelmann | November 10, 2008 12:53 PM

Advise and Consent, by Allen Drury, influenced a whole generation of Americans. Fiction can enrich our grasp of public affairs. Academics ignore such fiction at their peril.

Posted by: rwheeler1 | November 14, 2008 4:19 PM

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