Monday, March 22, 2010

Discovering Culturally Diverse Classics

classics month

Today, the lovely Rebecca from Lost In Books (one of my favorite bloggers) is with us discussing a speciality of hers:  Classics from different cultures!  Welcome Becca!


Think of a classic novel. 

What is the first one that pops into your head? 

I am willing to bet that for most of us it is not one that is full of diversity in setting or characters.  It seems the majority of us think of classic American literature as books like The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby and Of Mice and Men.  Or we think of English literature such as A Tale of Two Cities and Pride & Prejudice.  But how many of us go automatically to a novel full of rich cultural diversity?  How many of us even read classic novels that feature diverse cultures?  How many of us even know they exist in abundance?

I have put together a short list of classic novels that feature world cultures.  This is of course not a complete list (that would take way too long!) and you are welcome to leave more suggestions along with your comment!
a passage to india cover
A Passage to India by E.M. Forster tells the story of Dr. Aziz who takes his British friend’s visiting relatives to the Marabar Caves.  Adela accuses Aziz of attempting to rape her when they are alone in the caves.  The accusation, the trial, and the aftermath bring out all the prejudices and racial tensions between the Indians and the British colonists who rule India at the time. 
Visit the Congo with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  The tale of Mr. Kurtz, successful in his greedy quest for ivory in the African Congo, shows what happens to the natives- hunger, death, and slavery.
In Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, Paton related the moving story of a Zulu minister who searches for his children in Johannesburg, only to learn that South African society has destroyed their lives.
Dostoevsky is one that many people want to have read, but one that not many people actually have read.  I will focus on one of his books, Crime & Punishment, which focuses on a poor man in St. Petersburg who designs a plan to kill a hated pawnbroker for the money, thereby solving his own financial problems and ridding the world of an evil person, which he justifies by relating himself to Napoleon.  Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is another Russian classic novel worth trying out.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys tells the story of a white Creole heiress, from the time of her youth in the Caribbean to her unhappy marriage and relocation to England.  Caught in an oppressive society in which she belongs to neither the white Europeans nor the black Jamaicans, this novel deals largely with racial inequality and the harshness of displacement and assimiliation.
wide saragossa sea cover
If you want to visit Spain through the classics, try the romantic Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.  If you want to learn about a rich Bengali noble who lives happily until a revolutionary appears, read The Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore.  Visit 19th century France after Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  Or you can visit French aristocracy shortly before the French Revolution via Dangerous Liasions by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, where two rivals use sex as a weapon to embarrass and degrade others. 
house made of dawn
Have you considered Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, which tells the story of an old Cuban fisherman who is down on his luck, but fights an incredible battle with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream?  The story is about courage, determination, and personal strength.  There is also a little known Pulitzer Prize winning novel called House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday which relates a Native American’s experiences after fighting overseas in WWI and struggling to find his place with his people again once he returns.  The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper is also a classic novel about Native Americans, who this time are fighting for, among other things, their way of life as the forests they call home give way to “civilization.”

And, if you are really into reading a great classic full of cultural diversity, there is always The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki Shikibu.  This is widely considered to be the world’s first novel, which was written in the early eleventh century.  At 1216 pages, it is definitely a clunker!  But there are shorter stories inside the bigger tale that help to bring it to a more readable level.  I have read some of it, but have not read all of it.  And if I can do it with ADHD, you can do it too, haha!

Of course this is just a sampling of the great classic novels out there that present a great cultural diversity.  I did not even touch on many cultures.  However, like I said, please leave a comment with other books you would like for people to know about and, also, any plans you have on reading some classics that feature cultural diversity.  Here are some websites that you can visit to discover more culturally diverse classics to read:
Penguin Group ClassicsLots under World Literature, including The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China, the only complete edition of the fiction of Lu Xun, the father of modern Chinese Literature
Oxford University Press: World LiteratureFrom 19th century Cuba’s Cecilia Valdes or El Angel Hill, to the more familiar novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Classic Literature with Esther Lombardi on – The expert in Classic literature, there is also plenty included on World Literature, which you can find by looking under the Browse Topics list in the left column of the site.  Lombardi has included articles and links to literature from Afghanistan and Bangladesh, to Serbia and The Netherlands.

Thank you to Tasha for allowing me the opportunity to guest post on her awesome blog!

Thank you, Rebecca!  And don't forget, another great place to find books from many different cultures is Lost In Books.  Check out Becca's feature, Take Me Away, where she shares books that can transport you.


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