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.
- The Narrow Road to the Interior by Matsuo Bashō
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.
- The Conference of the Birds by Farid Ud-din Attar
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, translated by N.K. Narayan
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.
- Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
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.
- Orlando by Virginia Woolf
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.