Powerful Books From Defiant Dissidents

Powerful Books From Defiant Dissidents

By Carl Pettit

There are newspaper stories and magazine articles about their flight. There is speculation about what will happen to them. Now, take a closer look at some of the 'boat people.' About 2,500 of the Vietnamese refugees are crowded together aboard the freighter 'Tung An' here in Manila Bay.
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These reformers, rebels and revolutionaries — well-acquainted with conflict — have produced some of the best books on sociopolitical change.  

By Carl Pettit

A good story — whether fictitious or plucked from life — needs conflict. And who better to write about conflict than the reformers, dissidents, rebels and revolutionaries working tirelessly across the globe to effect sociopolitical change.  

Throughout history, someone has always been oppressing someone else. With 195 countries in existence, depending on whom you ask, and all of the corresponding issues that come with humans living together in large groups, social reformers have plenty to write about, and to fight for. And while we don’t have the space to list all of the world’s dissident writers worth checking out, here are a select few who have harnessed the power of the written word. 

Duong Thu Huong (1947– ) 

The books of Vietnamese writer and political dissident Duong Thu Huong have been banned numerous times by the Vietnamese state. Huong, who has spent plenty of time in prison, once claimed membership in the Communist Party, although not any longer. “In a number of daring postwar novels,” says Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Pulitzer Prize–winning Vietnamese-American novelist, Huong “drew attention to controversial issues that the Vietnamese government wanted to bury.” Huong’s novel Paradise of the Blind (1988) deals with injustices stemming from the 1950s land reform in North Vietnam. She also tackled “the hypocrisies of the Communist Party during and after the Vietnam War, or the American War, in Novel Without a Name [1991],” Nguyen says; in Memories of a Pure Spring (1996), her focus was the treatment of people who attempted to flee the country via boat. Nguyen calls her one of the most important dissident writers that Vietnam has ever produced. 


Liu Xiaobo (1955–2017) 

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo opted for (or was forced into) the dissident deluxe package. The author of Criticism of the Choice: Dialogues With Li Zehou (1988), which challenged the philosophy of Confucianism in regard to the Chinese state, was no stranger to hardship. Liu was “born with a fierce independence of mind,” says Perry Link, professor emeritus of East Asian studies at Princeton University. The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, in which government soldiers gunned down hundreds of pro-democracy protesters, shocked Liu to such a degree that “he turned to writing trenchant essays on Chinese politics and society under communist rule,” Link says. Incarcerated four times, Liu, whose works, including Going Naked Toward God (2017), were often at the top of China’s banned book list, died in prison in July 2017. 

Elena Poniatowska (1932– ) 

French-born Mexican journalist and novelist Elena Poniatowska has been writing about the disenfranchised for decades — even though her family was among the elite. “As a journalist, she’s had access to the most prominent figures of Mexican culture and politics,” says Liana Stepanyan, an associate professor of Spanish at the University of Southern California, noting that Poniatowska has taken critical stances toward Mexico’s political and cultural authorities. One of Poniatowska’s boldest novels is La Noche de Tlatelolco (Massacre in Mexico, 1971), which chronicles the 1968 repression of student protesters in Mexico City. “This was the first account to challenge the official version of events, and it implicated the army in the massacre,” Stepanyan says. With works tackling women’s issues, like Hasta  No Verte Jesús Mío (Here’s to You, Jesus, 1969), as well as books delving into taboo political subjects, like Fuerte es el Silencio (Silence Is Strong, 1980), which looks at the families of disappeared political prisoners, it seems Poniatowska, a trailblazer for Mexican female writers, has yet to find a subject she’s afraid to touch.

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One of Poniatowska’s boldest novels is La Noche de Tlatelolco (Massacre in Mexico, 1971), which chronicles the 1968 repression of student protesters in Mexico City. A young demonstrator screams in pain as a policeman keeps a firm grip on his finger while escorting the youth from Central Plaza during an anti-government rally in 1968,

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Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1938– ) 

“Ngugi is without doubt one of the most important African writers of the second half of the 20th century,” says Simon Gikandi, a Kenyan-born professor of English at Princeton. Thiong’o started his literary career writing novels and plays in English, like 1967’s A Grain of Wheat, a novel that features characters coming to grips with the Uhuru independence movement, and The Black Hermit (1963), a play that examines tensions between tribal and city life. “His turn to writing in Gikuyu [a Bantu language spoken in Kenya] restored African languages to their rightful place in global culture,” Gikandi says, “while his call for the abolition of the English department at the University of Nairobi initiated what we now call postcolonial criticism.” Thiong’o, who was imprisoned for a few years in the late 1970s for challenging Kenya’s political system (he wrote about the experience in 1981’s Detained), has been championing literature written in indigenous African languages for more than 50 years.