The editor of Wasafiri magazine guides us through the books that take her on a globe-spanning, literary adventure
‘There are few stories of childhood friendship so moving’: A scene from The Kite Runner, which was adapted from Khaled Hosseini’s novel
Susheila Nasta is the editor and founder of Wasafiri magazine, which marks its 25th anniversary this month. Wasafiri, the Kiswahili word for ‘travellers’, focuses on writing as a form of cultural travelling, extending the boundaries of established literary culture.
“Reading is a passport to travel elsewhere. When we enter a story we are often transported beyond known horizons, lifted into a new world, where we begin to think, see and feel the world differently. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys was one of the first books to take me on such a voyage, throwing me into the haunted landscape of Emancipation Jamaica and the hidden Creole history of Bertha, the so-called ‘madwoman’ in Jane Eyre. ‘There is always the other side, always’, Rhys tells us, long anticipating John Berger’s vision that ‘Never again can a story be told as though it were the only one’. Many international writers have taken me ‘travelling’ over the years, moving words across worlds and reshaping the spaces which connect us all. Here are some of my favourites.”
1.The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon
A racy chronicle of postwar West Indian immigration to London in the 1950s. The tragic-comic creation of a black city of words that was both magnet and nightmare for its new colonial citizens is a must. As the El Dorado myth is reversed, Selvon’s picaresque rogues map London through calypsonian eyes, not only changing the way the city is seen, but Englishness itself.
2.The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Pecola Breedlove is an 11-year-old black girl growing up in Ohio in the 1940s who longs to have the blue eyes she thinks will transform her tragically torn life. Narrated from a variety of perspectives – black and white – Morrison’s first book is a poetic evocation of how Pecola attempts to rise above the frames of the myopic culture of whiteness that define her. An intimate African-American classic which looks forward to Morrison’s award-winning novel, Beloved.
3. Baumgartner’s Bombay by Anita Desai,
In Hugo Baumgartner, we meet Desai’s unusual version of the wandering Jew. Delicately interweaving a series of interconnected histories of diaspora and modern dislocation, this haunting story takes us from Baumgartner’s tortured childhood in pre-war Berlin to Calcutta and Bombay. A farangi, or foreigner, everywhere – whether in Nazi Germany or India – Baumgartner belongs nowhere and is perilously caught between the crossfire of conflicting nationalisms.
4. Austerlitz by WG Sebald
As one of the Kindertransport children, five-year-old Jacques Austerlitz arrives in Britain in 1939 to live with foster parents in Wales. All conscious memory of his previous life is obliterated. As a story about loss and redemption, trauma, repression and memory, this poignant narrative leads us through a maze of uncanny dialogues. An inconsolable Holocaust history, this is a major chronicle of our times.
5. Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah
Set in East Africa a decade before the first world war, this novel is a feast of luminous storytelling. In part a lyrical bildungsroman, the mythical and vernacular tales which form the main character, 12-year-old Yusuf, are woven from a number of divergent sources linking the Bible and Koran, Arab slavery and European imperialism. Nothing is simple here, as we experience how histories are made and stories travel.
6. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
Covering four generations and teeming with unforgettable characters, this epic brings to vibrant life the unforgettable saga of the Trueba family. They are based in an unnamed Latin American country bound by an oppressive regime. It is a hybrid mix of fiction, politics and journalism, populated by strong female figures who are transported beyond its confining patriarchal history. It takes one to a place where fantasy lives and desire can reside.
7. Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
It may be a surprise that two centuries ago London was at the heart of the opium trade, exploiting coolies to ship drugs to China and cross the forbidden black waters. This previously untold story startlingly exposes the histories of all who were drawn into the corrupt politics of this lucrative business. From the Ganges poppy farmers, to the East India company merchants who controlled them and forced the embarkation of a slave ship taking indentured labourers from Calcutta to Mauritius.
8. Mr Potter by Jamaica Kincaid
Sometimes small books can make a big impact. Mr Potter, Kincaid’s semi-fictional portrait of her unknown father, is a powerful and hypnotic prose poem which plunges us into the world of an illiterate Antiguan taxi driver whose mundane existence is defined by absence and loss. The means of invention is the key to this book as the narrator struggles for answers to her own illegitimacy and diasporic US location: It is “… because I learned how to read and … write, only so is Mr Potter’s life known … his anonymity … stripped away, his silence broken”.
9. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
There are many stories about fathers and sons, about childhood friendships and betrayals, but few set in Afghanistan during the time of the Soviet invasion, and few so moving. Focused on the parallel lives of two young boys, who are raised from birth in the same Kabul household yet divided by money, ethnicity and class, Amir and Hassan are intimately twinned by their shared pastimes. Tragedy comes when Amir’s affluent family flee to California. Yet Amir is to return to Hassan, opening up new stories and offering the possibility of redemption.
10. The Emperor’s Babe by Bernardine Evaristo
Set in 211 AD, this verse novel quickly carries us into the world of Roman Londinium. Entering this bustling multicultural city, which thrives on sex and drama queens, we are swiftly led to child bride Zuleika, daughter of Sudanese immigrants. She is keen to break out of her marriage to an absent rich Roman and, once spotted by Emperor Septimus Severus as she flaunts herself in the city, she quickly becomes his new babe. Fast-moving, witty, humorous and above all inventive, we are taken on a journey through the streets of a London which has long had a diverse history.