Windows Into Non-Western Cultures

What chutzpah–I can hear you say–to think that Larson would come up with a list of the best books for 2009. You know I haven’t read as many as some other critics, but my response is that when newspapers and magazines make their choices for the year, several people contribute to that decision and, collectively, they’ve read more than one individual has. Consequently, such lists vary greatly. Worse, if you check my “best” titles for 2009, you’ll quickly determine that some of the major publications in the country didn’t even review the books I’ve chosen, thus precluding the possibility of their ending up on another “best” list.

The sorry state of book-reviewing in the country today is that major publications continue to hold strong ethnocentric biases toward the titles they consider covering. When they do review work by a writer from Africa, the Middle East, or another presumed exotic locale, the person assigned to write the review often has zilch awareness of the culture that produced the writer or the literature of that culture. Not always, of course, but this happens frequently enough that almost fifty years after I began writing about non-Western cultures, the biases are still there. In some ways they’ve gotten worse. Thus, I admit to my own bias in an attempt to call readers’ attentions to books by writers from areas that are frequently (but not always) overlooked by the mainstream media.

Here are my choices for the best titles of 2009: Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide; Hanan al-Shaykh, The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story; James Maskalyk, Six Months in Sudan: A Young Doctor in a War-Torn Village; Orhan Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence; and Sulaiman Addonia, The Consequences of Love. In short, three works of non-fiction, two novels; three written in English, one in Turkish, and another in Arabic; two of the five by Americans. I’ve written about all of these books in CounterPunch, except for the last one which will be given a full-length review next week.

As I wrote in my original commentary on Half the Sky, “This is the most significant book that I have ever reviewed.” Months later, I do not believe that that was an exaggeration. As Kristof and WuDunn argue, if women can be empowered in developing countries, they will become productive workers who will help bring forth the economic liberation of their cultures. Instead of staying at home and bearing endless children, or locked in purdah inside their households, if–in short–girls become valued as highly as boys in developing countries, then, when they grow up they will be able to contribute equally to the transformation of their societies. These are big “ifs,” but Kristof and WuDunn make them look possible and, even better, provide the roadmaps for achieving this equality. The question remains what it has always been: will men be willing to accept these transformations?

Hanan al-Shaykh’s mother in The Locust and the Bird might be the poster girl for Kristof and WuDunn’s thesis. Living as a divorced woman in Lebanon in the 1940s, Kamila’s (the author’s mother’s) situation was complicated enough, but being an illiterate Muslim woman assured the stigma she bore after she left her first husband (much older than she) and ran off with the man she loved. That move meant, among other things, that Kamila had to give up her two daughters, including Hanan, who felt abandoned. The situation became more complicated when her second husband died in an automobile accident, and Kamila was left to raise the five children of that union. The tragic situation, however, forced her to take control of her own destiny. At the end of this brilliant book, the fusion between writer and her mother becomes so blurred that al-Shaykh states, “My mother wrote this book.” Sadly, The Locust and the Bird was ignored by almost every major publication in the United States.

James Maskalyk’s Six Months in Sudan didn’t do much better. Americans are bored with the situation in Darfur, not much interested in reading about people at the bottom of the world’s pecking order. The balloon boy, Tareq and Michaele Salahi, Paris Hilton are much more worthy of their attention. Too bad, because Maskalyk also shows us the road we might take to regain our humanity. After he found himself trapped between two warring factions in Sudan, it wasn’t long before he realized how intimidated women were about seeking the help of trained medical doctors. Too often they waited until their situations were utterly hopeless (such as a woman in childbirth who arrived at the clinic where Maskalyk was working with a baby who had been hanging out of her womb for six days). Maskalyk thought he was writing a book about the wretchedly ignorant people he encountered during the months he worked for Doctors without Borders in Sudan, but in the end he was writing about himself and what restored his vision for practicing medicine.

Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence is proof that winning the Nobel Prize for Literature (as Pamuk did in 2007) need not result in the decline of a writer’s work. Fusing his own obsession with the city of his birth and his residence much of each year, i.e., Istanbul, with his main character’s obsession with a lost love, Pamuk has given new meaning to romantic love, the major theme of Western fiction down through the centuries. Istanbul almost levitates in this novel; the city is that vividly described (visit it soon if you’ve never been there). Moreover, I suspect that psychoanalysts are going to have a field day with the unnamed narrator’s obsession to reconstruct everything from the world of his youthful passion. Even better, read the book and then use the ticket printed inside to visit Pamuk’s own museum, expected to open in Istanbul next year. And the museum’s name—the same as the title of his dazzling novel.

Difficult love is also central to Sulaiman Addonia’s The Consequences of Love, set in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, though the writer is an Eritrean who has spent much of his life in England. His story is the harshest indictment of Islam’s fundamentalists and their maligned regard for male/female relationships I have encountered: women are evil, constantly trying to tempt men. So what are men to do—especially if they are sexually frustrated? Turn to homosexuality apparently, which in this novel is so ubiquitous that one wonders how a young man and a young woman can ever discover passion for one another. Out of such a bleak context, Addonia has skirted the tragic inevitability of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (clearly an inspiration for his novel) but also emerged as a major African writer worthy of our admiration (and certainly more attention than the novel has received in this country).

So there you have a list of my best five, all of them windows into non-Western cultures, their strengths and their limitations. Sadly, not one of these books achieved the commercial success it deserved. Half the Sky made it on The New York Times non-fiction best-seller list for a few weeks, though it deserved to sit at the top of the list for months. The Museum of Innocence is the perfect example of a world-class writer of little interest to American readers whose heads are stuffed full of junk fiction. The others, well, let’s hope that their books sold enough copies in order that their publishers don’t drop them by the time they complete their next works. As always, these “invisible” books tell us as much about ourselves as the writers and the cultures that produced them.

CHARLES R. LARSON, is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.