The best fiction books that make the political feel intensely personal

Samrat Upadhyay Author Of Mad Country
By Samrat Upadhyay

Who am I?

I grew up in Nepal, where politics was part and parcel of everyday life. During my childhood and teenage years, we lived under a monarchy, where the king was supreme. Yet there was always a simmering tension between what was a mildly authoritarian rule and what the people’s aspirations were. As I grew into adulthood, Nepal saw a massive uprising that ushered in a multiparty system, then later, after a bloody Maoist civil war, the overthrow of the crown. Yet, even amidst all these political upheavals, people do live quotidian lives, and the space between these two seemingly disparate things has always felt like a literary goldmine to me. 


I wrote...

Mad Country

By Samrat Upadhyay,

Book cover of Mad Country

What is my book about?

Mad Country vibrates at the edges of intersecting cultures. Journalists in Kathmandu are targeted by the government. A Nepali man studying in America drops out of school and finds himself a part of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. A White American woman moves to Nepal and changes her name. A Nepali man falls in love with a mysterious foreign Black woman. A rich kid is caught up in his own fantasies of poverty and bank robbery. In the title story, a powerful woman becomes a political prisoner, and in stark and unflinching prose we see both her world and her mind radically remade. A collection of formal inventiveness, heartbreak, and hope, it reaffirms Upadhyay’s position as one of our most important chroniclers of globalization and exile. 

The books I picked & why

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The Remains of the Day

By Kazuo Ishiguro,

Book cover of The Remains of the Day

Why this book?

Stevens, the butler in The Remains of the Day, is a character whose flaws make him more endearing as you continue with the novel. Fiercely loyal, Stevens is in denial that his employer, Lord Darlington, was a Nazi sympathizer, and, as starved for affection as Stevens is, he fails to acknowledge the love that his co-worker Miss Kenton extends towards him. Ishiguro, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2017, masterfully keeps the focus tightly on Stevens, allowing us to become intimate with his musings and his rationalizations, even as the narrative gradually illuminates what’s happening in the wider political world where Hitler is coming to power. 


Such a Long Journey

By Rohinton Mistry,

Book cover of Such a Long Journey

Why this book?

As an author from Nepal, I have learned the most from Rohinton Mistry than any other South Asian writer about how to “translate” the landscape and language of my country for an international audience. Such a Long Journey was the first novel that taught me how to integrate the social and political seamlessly into the psychological makeup of my protagonist—in an English that is uniquely local. In the novel, Gustad Noble, a devoted family man, gets snared into the deception and corruption of the government under Indira Gandhi. It’s a riveting read, and Mistry is superb with vivid descriptions. That the book was banned in certain conservative circles in India makes it even more of a gem. 


Jump and Other Stories

By Nadine Gordimer,

Book cover of Jump and Other Stories

Why this book?

While I was a graduate student of writing, I devoured every novel and story by Nadine Gordimer, whose body of work is astounding in how it combines artistic sensibility with a moral vision. Most important, Gordimer, with her unflinching and unrelenting gaze at the horror of apartheid in South Africa, taught me the value of passion in writing. Gordimer is known mostly for her novels, but her short stories are equally sharp and biting in their critique, and she uses the form’s precision to devastating effect. What is striking in Jump and Other Stories is the diversity of her characters and situations, thereby illuminating every corner of the racial injustices in her country.  


The Handmaid's Tale

By Margaret Atwood,

Book cover of The Handmaid's Tale

Why this book?

Hulu’s production of The Handmaid’s Tale has made the television show quite popular, but to know the power of this story, I strongly recommend reading the novel. The beauty of this work is in how personal Atwood makes this dystopian tale about the control of women’s bodies that, in 2022, is alarmingly close to our own realities. Like the white blinders that restrict the protagonist Offred’s vision, Atwood’s aperture is also small, thereby tying our vision closely to that of the main character’s. This, in turn, lends an incredible amount of dynamic tension to the novel, and we truly feel the oppressive lives these subjugated women lead in their nightmarish society. 


The Bridegroom: Stories

By Ha Jin,

Book cover of The Bridegroom: Stories

Why this book?

Ha Jin is a writer close to my heart. I find his spare prose and his trenchant images extremely effective in portraying the oppression of the Chinese regime. In The Bridegroom, Ha Jin uses twelve stories to show a China in transition from a society that’s just emerged from the cultural revolution to a more modern land where Western-style chicken restaurants, with their capitalist modes of operation, disrupt the accepted order of things. The Bridegroom has everything a good story collection is supposed to have: memorable characters, interesting situations, good doses of humor, and resonant images. It’s a book I have learned much from and one repeatedly taught in my classes. 


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