The common thread in my recent reading has been bullies tyrants, and authoritarians, and on the flipside: resistance, rebellion and liberation – a through line I saw only in hindsight. Must be something in the air.
When I was in undergrad, hauling the complete Norton Shakespeare all about town, I did not expect in 2018 to read Stephen Greenblatt’s criticisms of a U.S. president with autocratic leanings, but here we are. Greenblatt knows where his strengths lie – he’s the world’s foremost Shakespeare scholar – so in Tyrant (Norton, 224 pages, $28.95) he comes at his subject obliquely. How do seemingly strong institutions suddenly fail? Why do people support a leader they know lies to them? From what psychological lack does a despot’s pathological narcissism bloom? The Bard has much to teach us on these contemporary questions.
Every United Nations member state, except the United States, has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, yet in practice we live in what playwright and cultural planner Darren O’Donnell calls an “adultitarian” state. Adults make the rules, because we say so. But are adults happy? In Haircuts by Children (Coach House, 250 pages, $21.95) O’Donnell draws on the experience of performance company Mammalian Diving Reflex’s work with kids to argue that “a new social contract” based on the UN Convention would benefit us all. We could have a fairer, more playful and imaginative democracy, he says – one that recognizes our vulnerability, regardless of age.
Rabindranath Maharaj’s new novel, Adjacentland (Buckrider, 350 pages, $22), also looks at imagination in the face of authoritarianism, albeit from an entirely different angle. In the opening pages of this dystopian through-the-looking-glass tale, a man awakes with no memory of who he is. Some may find this a frustrating read because parts of the story just don’t make sense, but then – without giving too much away – that becomes the point. Creativity may sometimes be hard to discern from madness, but it is our imagination, along with our memories and stories, that liberates us from an automaton’s existence.
To many, a place called “Smile Mart” – with its uniformity, orders from head office and demand for sycophancy among staff – might seem the embodiment of soulless drudgery. But for Keiko, the 36-year-old protagonist in Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman (Grove, 176 pages, $28.95), it represents an escape from the bullying of family, friends and society to find a better job and a partner, to get married and have a baby. Murata’s weirdly charming novel of rebellion is her English-language debut, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, though she is highly lauded in Japan, including by prize juries.
Another award-winner is Négar Djavadi’s debut, Disoriental, translated by Tina Kover (Europa, 320 pages, $26.95). A multigenerational epic of the Sadr family’s life in Iran and their eventual exile, as told by former punk Kimiâ Sadr as she sits in a Paris fertility clinic, this one is full of surprises. Where initially Disoriental seems focused on Kamiâ’s father and his pro-democracy activism – first against the Shah, then the Ayatollah Khomeini – this is truly Kimiâ’s story of disorientation – national, familial and sexual – and finding herself again.
Like Djavadi’s novel, Leila Marshy’s The Philistine (Linda Leith, 330 pages, $19.95) also explores gay identity within a Muslim community, here in late-1980s Cairo. The daughter of a Palestinian man living in exile since he was a young boy, 25-year-old Nadia Eid travels to Egypt in search of her father, only to find realities she could remain blind to at home in Montreal. In Cairo she also meets Manal, a young Egyptian artist trying to break into the Western art market. Set against the backdrop of Hosni Mubarak’s regime and the First Intifada, Marshy’s is a bittersweet story of barriers and restrictions, which ones can only bend for now, and which ones can break.