Classic Remarks: Diverse Classics

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted by Krysta and Brianna at Pages Unbound. Each week, they pose a question about classic works of literature in order for readers to engage in a continuing conversation about elements of classic literature, the literary ‘canon’, and the timelessness of story. If you’re interested in participating, you can find the schedule here.

On the Classic Remarks schedule, this week’s topic is ‘Recommend a Diverse Classic’, to which I say, “Just one?” Classic books don’t just come from western Europe, and they’re not just written by dead straight white men. So here are a handful of classics from people who are not straight white men.

Bashō (1644-1694) was a haiku master who lived and worked during the Edo period. While most think of haiku as a kind of impressionistic poetry dedicated to nature, Bashō did that and more with this style of short form poetry. The Narrow Road to the Interior is a collection of haiku and travel writing Bashō wrote during a journey through the northern provinces of Japan. It goes from being beautiful and profound to providing a hilarious look at everyday life.

Farid Ud-din Attar (1142?-1221) was a Persian poet, hagiographer, and Sufi theoretician. The Conference of the Birds is one of the most significant works of Persian literature. It is an allegory of Sufism, a system of seeking truth through God. In the poem, the birds of the world come together to search for the ideal king, the Simurgh bird. They all go out in search of the Simurgh bird, but when the journey proves arduous many of the birds express doubts or leave outright. The most faithful bird, the hoopoe, rallies the remaining birds to stay true to their purpose through a series of questions and parables.

The Ramayana (circa 4th c. BCE) is one of the great epics of India, and tells the story of Rama and Sita, and the trials and travails they encounter before enduring a great war, and Rama’s eventual ascension to the throne of Ayodhya. N.K. Narayan’s translation is a shortened version of the epic, providing an introduction to this lengthy poem, which is still central to Hindu culture.

Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) was a Nigerian author, poet, professor, and critic. Things Fall Apart was his first novel, and is considered to be his masterpiece. It is the story of Okonkwo, an Igbo man who is devoted to the ideals of strength and masculinity, which leads him into regret and trouble until he and his family are exiled for seven years. When they finally return to their home, they find that white Christian missionaries have moved in, and that the village’s traditional ways are being influenced by them. Okonkwo wants to fight against these changes, but clashes with his people, who are content to allow the missionaries to affect their way of life.

Oscar Wilde was an unabashedly gay man in Victorian England. To us, that’s no big deal. To the Victorians, it was unacceptable. After his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas came to light, Wilde was arrested and convicted for gross indecency and was sentenced to two years harsh labor in Reading Jail (1895-1897). After his release, Wilde immediately moved to France. Wilde published his last work ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ in 1898, as an indictment of the conditions he faced in prison.

Virginia Woolf was a major critic of the gender roles assigned to her by her late-Victorian and Edwardian upbringing. To her, the fact that girls were not as well educated as boys was a crime against women and against culture, and she wrote about it in A Room of One’s Own. Though she was content in her marriage to Leonard Woolf, she carried on affairs with several women, including the author and poet, Vita Sackville-West, for whom Woolf wrote Orlando in 1928. Orlando is the fantastical biography of a young, beautiful Elizabethan man who continues living for the next few hundred years. Halfway through the story, Orlando wakes to find that he has become a woman, and must live under the ridiculous rules and roles that women faced through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The novel ends in 1928 when Orlando, now a wife and mother, stands on the cusp of a new era when she might have a chance to forge her own destiny.

This is definitely not an exhaustive list of classics from around the world and/or not written by straight white men, but it was the first handful of books I thought of when approaching this topic. Give them a chance! Reading diversely can be a challenge, but it’s ultimately rewarding.

20 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: Diverse Classics

  1. Nice selection here. Basho is a name I’ve run across many times recently in my reading and listening. I’m thinking I should take that as a cue and seek out some of his work.

  2. You’re welcome! I hope you enjoy them! I will say that if you tackle The Conference of the Birds, it took me a long time to get through it, and I missed a lot, thanks to my lack of knowledge of Persian and Sufi culture. You might look for a version that has footnotes.

  3. This is such a cool post! Thanks for sharing it! I love classic Japanese works, the writing is pretty good from across time periods since the Japanese were very writing inclined. I love their traditional genres such as travel diaries, diaries, poetry collections, and folk lore. I think a lot of it is accessible to modern audiences even.

  4. Great post! Besides Virginia Woolf and Oscar Wilde, I’ve come across some of Basho’s Haiku in the little black classics from Penguin.
    But I would like to read more diverse classics.

  5. Things Fall Apart is one of my favorite books. It’s been years since I read it, so I plan to reread it later this year.
    I’d like to try The Ramayana.

  6. I actually haven’t read Things Fall Apart (I need to….), but when I was coming up with the list, I blanked out on most of the classics I’d read in general… Of course, I remembered everything AFTER the post went live.

  7. This is an awesome list! I thought about making a list myself, but decided against it so I could instead rave about The Color Purple. No regrets.

    All of Bashō’s works at on my TBR. The big thing for me is finding a translation I can trust. I don’t know much about how to do that, but it’s important to me whenever I’m reading poetry in translation. Do you trust the specific translation you linked to in GR above?

    I waffle on whether or not I’ll ever read The Conference of the Birds. I don’t know much, if anything meaningful, about Sufism. I worry the whole point will be lost on me. And when I think about trying to learn enough to make it meaningful… I just get overwhelmed. That’s a bit embarrassing, but it’s true.

  8. The edition of The Narrow Road to the Interior was the only one I could get my hands on, and I’m guessing that it’s fairly true to the original, as it was light and whimsical when it needed to be, and more serious when it turned that way. Bad translations I’ve encountered then to keep the same tone all the way through.

    I get it on Conference of the Birds. There’s so much I don’t know about Sufism, so I know there’s a lot I missed. But it will still an enlightening read. You might try G. Willow Wilson’s book, The Bird King, which is about a Circassian concubine living in the last days of Islamic Spain. It’s a historical fantasy, and involves elements of The Conference of the Birds.

  9. Translations are so challenging with poems. Particularly something like the haiku. Do you translate all the words? Do you translate the the poem to meet the intended 5-7-5 format? Do you instead just focus on what the essence of the poem is saying? There’s a fascinating “review” on Goodreads of Basho’s Complete Haiku where someone shares the original haiku in kanji, then transliterated, then one of the most common translations of the “Old pond Leap – splash – A frog” poem (translated by Lucinet Stryk). But she then goes on to share another 30 translations of the same haiku to demonstrate how difficult it can be to capture this style of poem’s essence. It’s what opened my eyes to the importance of translation.
    (If you’re interested: <a href=""here is the review)

    Thanks for recommending The Bird King. I’ve added it to my TBR! Who knows when I’ll get to it. XD What I do know of Sufism is mostly in terms of how it relates to Kabbalah. Jewish Mysticism is weird for me, and I’m a practicing Jew! Trying to figure out the mystic variation of another major world religion sounds hard. XD

  10. That’s interesting about the haiku! I’ve seen translation issues before with poetry- mostly with Sappho (Greek) and Rilke (German). In one of my college classes, we read fragments from Sappho, translated by Anne Carson, who just translated the fragments we have, while other translators have taken those same fragments and make little rhyming couplets and whatnot from them, which seems weird, given that sometimes all we have are a few words. With Rilke, it’s just a matter of finding the translation that flows best. I know enough German to see how the original varies from the translation. It’s fascinating to see.

    I hope you enjoy the Bird King! I’ve never really studied any mysticism, so it’s pretty much all a mystery to me…

  11. That’s the craziest about poetry. Form is just as important as content when thinking about poetry, so it’s hard for me to imagine that there are translators who don’t understand the form of the original (Sappho coming to mind primarily) who feel they can translate the content into something poetic.

    I feel like there is a dissertation somewhere in here. And I’m certain it’s always been published. XD

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