The best books that write about injustice in different ways

J. Alison Rosenblitt Author Of The Beauty of Living: E. E. Cummings in the Great War
By J. Alison Rosenblitt

Who am I?

I am a biographer, and my biography of E.E. Cummings centers on his unjust imprisonment in France during the Great War in dangerously brutal conditions—cold, underfed, and subject to the sadism of the prison guards. It is hard to imagine anything more imperative than writing about injustice. But perhaps for that very reason, it is difficult to write without the consciousness of a deep inadequacy to the task. I feel therefore an enormous gratitude towards those writers, five of whom I have chosen here, whose honesty and courage in writing about injustice serves as an inspiration and a beacon. 


I wrote...

The Beauty of Living: E. E. Cummings in the Great War

By J. Alison Rosenblitt,

Book cover of The Beauty of Living: E. E. Cummings in the Great War

What is my book about?

The Beauty of Living is a slice-of-life biography of the poet E.E. Cummings. It tells the story of his childhood and his difficult relationship with his father – a socially progressive Unitarian minister whose moral rectitude contained elements of domestic tyranny. It follows Cummings through his rebellious years at Harvard, in a circle of aspiring writers and their shared world of a re-imagined Classical paganism. And it takes us through Cummings’s experiences as a volunteer ambulance driver during the Great War, including the story of his first real love – a Parisian named Marie Louise Lallemand, a sex worker during the war – and the events surrounding his unjust imprisonment and release from a French detention center.

The books I picked & why

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The Buried Giant

By Kazuo Ishiguro,

Book cover of The Buried Giant

Why this book?

Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant absolutely haunts me. At the heart of Ishiguro’s story lies a terrible act of cruelty and injustice, but his writing is incredibly gentle, sorrowful, and loving. It is a story about the price of memory. I don’t think that it is an argument against bearing witness, but its exploration of what we remember, what it costs us, and what good it does us is quietly and deeply shocking, and so very sad. I am always in awe of the simplicity and dignity of Ishiguro’s style and the originality of his thought.


Milkman

By Anna Burns,

Book cover of Milkman

Why this book?

The prose of Burns’s Milkman is astonishing and written with complete conviction. From the very first sentence, Milkman locks its reader into its world, its voice, its logic, its rhythms, and I find it thrilling to read a style that is so new and so absolutely demanded by its subject matter. In Burns’s understanding of the interplay of gender and sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, there are dangers in seeing clearly or speaking forthrightly: there are questions of "...what females could say and what they could never say" (as her narrator observes). That danger resonates in the feeling that there is something almost alarming about Burns’s own deep perceptiveness – and something tremendously exciting in her unapologetic writing. In some ways a quiet book, it pulls no punches.


Surge

By Jay Bernard,

Book cover of Surge

Why this book?

Jay Bernard’s Surge is a collection of poems about the New Cross fire (1981) and the Grenfell fire (2017), and more broadly about Black British experience and identity. Their poetry is disciplined and musical, and the poems are deeply infused with an evident love for those whose lives were lost in the two fires. The delicacy of attention paid to individual victims brings a profound human beauty to poems about terrible things. I have a lot of respect for what it must have cost to take on that love, together with the grief and anger that it necessarily entails.


No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison

By Behrouz Boochani,

Book cover of No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison

Why this book?

Cummings and his friend William Slater Brown were imprisoned in a detention center for foreign ‘undesirables,’ and to this day we are guilty of locking people up because they are stateless or nationals of another country. Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains, translated by Omid Tofighian, recounts his imprisonment along with fellow refugees on Manus Island. It is a visceral and vivid account, and it speaks in an unrefusable voice. I think it is an act of true human generosity that someone who has suffered so much at our collective hands would still choose to reach out and tell his own story; simply choosing to speak is an act of great hope and belief.


Palace of the Peacock

By Wilson Harris,

Book cover of Palace of the Peacock

Why this book?

Wilson Harris’s Palace of the Peacock is a wildly different way of writing about injustice – mesmerising and disorienting. The language swirls around itself and there is a bewildering feeling of never knowing quite what you are reading. I felt completely taken away from myself reading it, with no idea where I was being taken but utterly absorbed in its world. Originally published in 1960, it has now been republished in a wonderful new edition from Faber Finds, which includes a foreword by Harris reflecting on his own place in early postcolonial literature and a superb afterword by Kenneth Ramchand.


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