The Essential Resistance Reading List

Illustration by Liz Feder
The possibilities we can imagine for ourselves are determined by the possibilities shown to us.

I n the film The Lives of Others, which traces the intense surveillance of German citizens by the secret police, there is a scene where an East German artist plays a fictional “Sonata for a Good Man” to his wife while a Stasi police captain clandestinely listens in.

After finishing the piece, the artist wonders aloud, “could art have the power to make people good?” The implication is that listening to the sonata might not have only made the artist a better person, but in turn, the eavesdropping German spy. After watching The Lives of Others, I found myself entranced by this question — “could art make people good?” — but couldn’t help but wonder if art might have other powers as well. Could art make people kinder, stronger, braver, maybe even more resilient to trials and tribulations?

We are poised in a political moment where dissent—especially through language—is being actively threatened and thus has become exponentially more imperative to craft. But these waves of creative resistance are—hauntingly—cyclical; we return again and again to art to stem the tide of silence and oppression. Each generation conjures its spells against the darkness; their incantations vary, but the desired results remain largely the same.

We return again and again to art to stem the tide of silence and oppression.

The earliest of human stories have been about survival through language. Think about it: One Thousand and One Nights, The Decameron, The Epic of Gilgamesh, even the Old Testament.

Each of these stories tells a tale about a person looking to survive —traversing trauma, tragedy, or death — and finding survival in words. Scheherazade spins a tale that carries from one night to the next to forestall her own execution; a group of Italians tell stories every night as the hide in isolation from the Black Plague; Gilgamesh returns to his village after his grand adventures to record his journey on a series of stone tablets; even God creates the earth through language before giving this gift of stories to mankind so that it might preserve knowledge and memory in text.

The root of literature has always been about survival — about encouraging individuals to preserve their lives in words and inspire others through language.

Could art make people kinder, stronger, braver, maybe even more resilient to trials and tribulations?

The power of art is not just in its ability to inspire bravery, but in its ability to work covertly. My mother, a former-professional Bassoonist, used to explain this artistic cleverness to me through the language of music. One of her most beloved musicians is the Russian composer Shostakovich — whose creativity allowed him to produce artwork that was critical of the Russian government, but could still pass censorship during the oppressive Stalin regime. I distinctly remember my mother describing to me how Shostakovich would play with the rhythm and timing of his pieces to transform traditional Russian themes of national strength and valor into feelings of frenzy, such as in his “Symphony №7.”

Because I am not a musician, I still struggle to hear the subversion of Shostakovich’s music — I can imagine how Stalin might have missed it too — but I can understand how one might use similar techniques to create subversive writing. Any writer knows the power of a good allusion, in subtle mentions or hidden metaphors; it’s not hard to imagine that a skilled writer could load her writing with enough references to stir a revolution.

We don’t have to live in horribly oppressive conditions to realize this power. We only need to feel afraid once in our lives to know the courage a story can offer. I’ve never faced persecution or a repressive regime, but I’ve been scared and worried and found my bravery in language. As a young woman, I often reminded myself to be courageous and take risks by remembering the characters of my favorite children’s books.

We only need to feel afraid once in our lives to know the courage a story can offer.

When I am scared to take on a new challenge, I recall the independent young women who filled the pages of my youth: Rose from Edith Pattou’s East, Cimorene from Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons, Jo from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. In these stories of adventure and courage, I learned to see myself, and imagined that I might someday channel the tenacity and bravery of the characters I idolized.

Of course, the possibilities we can imagine for ourselves are very much determined by the possibilities that are shown to us. How can a child imagine themselves as courageous or adventurous if they are shown no one like them being brave as well? World literature has, for so many, always been about sharing human experience across boundaries. Psychologists and lovers of literature can tell you that stories not only raise awareness; they actually increase empathy.

When we’re aware of lives and worlds other than our own, we are better able to imagine how others’ think, how we might think, and what kind of world we might shape together.

Here are 12 tales to keep your lamp-lights of dissent trimmed and burning.

Illustrations by Liz Feder

One Thousand and One Nights (8th-13th C.)

In so many ways, One Thousand and One Nights is the story of resistance. Though the novel itself is really a collection of folktales from across the Middle East and South Asia, the frame narrative is a story of strategic creativity under oppression. Captured by the Sultan Shahriyar, the young Scheherazade weaves a new story every night, but claims exhaustion just before the ending and promises to finish in the morning should the Sultan keep her alive. After one thousand and one nights of storytelling, Scheherazade concludes her final story and, having won his heart, becomes the sultan’s new wife. (This captive-come-lover paradigm is obviously problematic as hell, but nonetheless, words saved her life.)

Requiem by Anna Akhmatova (Russia, 1935–1961)

Composed over the course of nearly three decades, Requiem is an elegy made up of 10 short poems describing the Stalinist Terror, or Great Purge, of 1930s Russia. Throughout her lifetime, Anna Akhmatova’s poetry was censored, yet she refused to leave Russia out of a desire to bear witness to the struggles and horrors of the Stalinist regime. As a result, Requiem was not published until 1963, when Akhmatova believed it would finally be safe to speak out against the purges, but the book did not reach the USSR until 1987.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (Spain, 1945)

Carmen Laforet

Written just six years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, Nada follows the journey of young student Andrea as she seeks independence and an education in Francoist Spain. To pass censorship, author Carmen Laforet had to avoid direct criticism of the Franco regime and any references to the Catalan independence movements. However, she did carefully critique the living conditions and sexism of the post-war era through descriptions of Andrea’s ruined family home and of abusive relationships between many of the book’s male and female characters.

Night by Elie Wiesel (Romanian-born Jewish-American, 1960)

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel avoided writing about his experiences as a prisoner at Auschwitz for nearly a decade, not uncommon for survivors of trauma, until his good friend François Mauriac convinced him otherwise. In Night, Weisel recalls his years in concentration camps like Auschwitz and Buchenwald, while touching on his own feelings of resentment toward humanity. Though most publishers turned down Night because they felt it was too disturbing, it soon became part of a large body of Holocaust literature recording memory in hopes that no such genocide would ever happen again.

The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Russia, 1973)

After surviving eight years in forced labor camps (or “Gulags”) as punishment for speaking poorly of Stalin in letters to his friends, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn tore into the labor camps with a vengeance. In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn describes the show trials and brutal conditions of the labor camps with such accurate and well-researched detail that the Russian government was unable to refute the novel. Though The Gulag Archipelago was not published in Russia until after the fall of the Soviet Union, it circulated openly throughout the West and through secret samizdat channels in the USSR.

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo/US, 1977)

Leslie Marmon Silko / Courtesy of Nőkért.hu

A central figure in the Native American Renaissance, Leslie Marmon Silko blends stories and ceremonies together into a narrative of cultural resistance and identity. Upon his return from World War II, Ceremony’s main character Tayo experiences PTSD that is only further compounded by his mixed identity — he is both white and Laguna, but white culture has poisoned his life through the war and the desecration of his homeland. Through Tayo’s journey of healing, Silko models a Native American ceremony to reclaim the power of indigenous identity.

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (Chile/Venezuela, 1982)

Isabel Allende fled Chile in 1973 when the Pinochet government came to power — deposing her father’s cousin Salvador Allende as president and beginning a two-decade long fascist censorship of the arts. In The House of the Spirits, Allende writes from exile in Venezuela about generations of Chileans living through the post-colonial and dictatorship years. Through the fictional Trueba family, Allende tells a quintessentially Latin American story of magical realism and resistance.

Wild Thorns by Sahar Khalifeh (Palestine, 1985)

Many consider Wild Thorns to be the first book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict written from a Palestinian perspective. Set in the 1972 Occupied West Bank, Wild Thorns follows the stories of radicalized Usama and pragmatic Adil as they try to provide for their family and liberate their country. Though Sahar Khalifeh struggled to publish her work (her first novel was seized by Israeli officials), she eventually found space to share her perspective and speak out about the seemingly irreconcilable difficulties faced by contemporary Palestinians.

The Last Summer of Reason by Tahar Djaout (Algeria, 1999)

Tahar Djaout / Wikimedia Commons

Published after Tahar Djaout’s own assassination by the Armed Islamic Group, The Last Summer of Reason traces the rise of fundamentalist religion in the Middle East. Protagonist Boualem Yekker is a bookseller trying to protect the beauty and wisdom preserved in books, but the fictional religious government that has come to power in his home country has other plans. Think 1984, but with religious extremism rather than totalitarianism.

King Baabu by Wole Soyinka (Nigeria, 2001)

Wole Soyinka has been as active in politics as he has been in playwriting; during his youth he protested for Nigerian independence from Great Britain and in later years he spoke out against his country’s many military dictators. If you don’t believe that a playwright could be a true revolutionary, consider this: Soyinka commandeered a radio station to broadcast protests, spent two years in solitary confinement, escaped Nigeria by motorcycle during General Sani Abacha’s rule, and had a death sentence issued against him while he was out of the country. Much of his work responds to the political concerns of his country, and King Baabu is an exemplar of political satire that critiques the history of African dictatorships.

Waiting for Death by Samar Yazbek (Syria, 2011)

During the early years of the Syrian Civil War, poetry was a language of protest. Samar Yazbek, and poets like him, preserved memories of their homeland and images of the violent battles overtaking the country through rhythmic language. In Waiting for Death: I Will Not Bring Flowers to My Grave, Yazbek writes, “How does the human body transform into a lethal killing machine?” and “but suddenly I weep; the images of the tortured children and the murdered young men return,” sparing no details in his lyrical recollection of oppression.

Revolution is My Name by Mona Prince (Egypt, 2014)

Mona Prince was there when it happened: She spent the 18 days of the 2011 Egyptian Arab Spring protests in the center of Tahrir Square waiting for Hosni Mubarak’s government to fall. In Revolution is My Name, Prince recalls the contrasting violence and solidarity of the movement — the hope among protesters and the brutality she suffered from police. Revolution is My Name is not simply a story of resistance, but also of representation, of the influence of young Egyptian women in shaping and recording their country’s history.