China and India, the two most populous countries in the world, share a border, have growing economies in common, and each has a centuries-old literary tradition of its own. Similarly, both countries have robust publishing industries, but despite a tremendous number of books published and sold annually, relatively few of those titles make it to the American market. In 2012, in what Paper Republic, a resource about Chinese literature in translation, called “a good year,” about 20 titles were translated, and the majority of those were not published in the United States. Indian fiction, especially that written in English, fares slightly better.
Several relatively new literary prizes are highlighting Asian writers, particularly the Man Asian Literary Prize (www.manasianliteraryprize.org), awarded by the sponsors of the Man Booker Prize, and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature (www.dscprize.com), so there is hope that more international attention will be paid.
Before the announcement of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature, British oddsmakers Ladbrokes heavily favored Haruki Murakami, the Japanese author of 1Q84, to take home that year’s prize. A little further down the Ladbrokes list was another author, Mo Yan, who was reportedly a first-time nominee (nominees are kept secret), but, also, like many Nobel laureates, he is relatively unknown outside his native China despite a storied career at home. Literary merit is subjective and perhaps never more so than when prizes are awarded. When the Nobel committee announced Mo Yan as its winner, the daggers that came out in response were especially sharp. Detractors, including fellow countryman Yan Lianke, opined that Mo is a lackey for the Communist Party and that if he were a true artist his work would be more critical of the status quo.
Rumored Nobel contender Salman Rushdie went so far as to accuse Mo of being a patsy for the government because he did not speak out against China’s treatment of jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. To be sure, Mo’s remarks following the Nobel announcement, in which he reportedly defended censorship—equating it with airport security—won him no new fans in the free expression debate, but, ironically, the same communist government that Mo defends also has a history of banning his novels. Mo’s defenders decry the politicization of literature, claiming that the simple fact that he’s an artist does not oblige him to be an activist.
Similarities & differences
Mo’s feud with Rushdie, a Brit of Indian descent, illustrates one striking cultural schism between today’s Chinese and Indian literature. In their contemporary fiction, along with their legendary bureaucracies (“bureaucracy lit” is currently a popular genre in China), those booming economies, a newfound materialism, and the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots all figure prominently. Despite these similarities, “banned in India” is rarely, if ever, a selling point for fiction, while the same cannot be said about contemporary Chinese writing.
Nationality & naming conventions
The titles included here are all U.S. editions and include those by authors who live in China or India along with a few titles by Overseas Chinese (an official Chinese governmental designation for citizens and people of Chinese descent who do not live in China) and Non-Resident Indians and Persons of Indian Origins (both official designations, the first for Indian citizens abroad, the second for people of Indian descent regardless of residency). In Chinese naming tradition, family names precede given names, in the reverse of U.S. procedure. In the example of Mo Yan, “Mo” is the equivalent of what American readers would consider a “last name.” This tradition has been known to confuse U.S. librarians and readers alike, particularly when conducting author searches in catalogs.
The list below is not meant to be exhaustive but rather to include books published over the last several years that should appeal not only to readers who are interested in Chinese and Indian culture but, in several instances, to readers who are attracted to universal stories about relationships and experiences. Titles marked with a star () are particularly recommended.
Adiga, Aravind. Last Man in Tower. Knopf. 2011. 400p. ISBN 9780307594099. $26.95.
In the midst of a financial boom, a lone resident of a cosmopolitan Mumbai building holds out when his neighbors sell to a developer seeking to build an expensive high-rise. (LJ 9/1/11)
Badami, Anita Rau. Tamarind Woman. Ballantine. 2004. 304p. ISBN 9780345464941. pap. $13.95.
Badami explores the complex relationship between a daughter, now resident in Canada, and a mother, traveling aimlessly by train following the death of her husband.
Bhattacharya, Rahul. The Sly Company of People Who Care. Picador. 2012. 288p. ISBN 9781250007407. pap. $15.
A cricket journalist emigrates from India to Guyana in this exploration of that country’s unique multicultural mélange. (LJ 6/1/11)
Chandra, Vikram. Sacred Games. Perennial: HarperCollins. 2007. 992p. ISBN 9780061130359. pap. $16.95.
A hardened criminal and a jaded cop play a game of cat-and-mouse in this sprawling novel about organized crime and the meaning of life in modern Mumbai. (LJ 9/15/06)
Chaudhuri, Amit. The Immortals. Vintage. 2010. 352p. ISBN 9780307454652. pap. $16.95.
India’s new wealth and traditional values meet as an upper-class teen takes classical music lessons from a teacher whose clients are mainly interested in the popular. (LJ Xpress Reviews, 8/21/09)
Cherian, Anne. The Invitation. Norton. 2012. 304p. ISBN 9780393081602. $25.95.
A group of UCLA friends, some of whose lives have not gone as planned, reunite when one of their sons graduates from MIT. (LJ 4/1/12)
Davidar, David. Ithaca. McClelland & Stewart. 2011. 288p. ISBN 9780771025921. $32.95.
Davidar, himself a publishing executive and the subject of a much ballyhooed sex scandal in Canada before returning to India, gives a warts-and-all insider’s view of the publishing world.
Desai, Kiran. The Inheritance of Loss. Atlantic Monthly. 2005. 336p. ISBN 9780871139290. $24.
Hoping to be left alone, a retired judge in rural India becomes guardian to his overprivileged orphaned granddaughter, while the son of his cook struggles to make a life as an illegal immigrant in New York. (LJ 11/1/05)
Ghosh, Amitav. River of Smoke. Picador. 2012. 528p. ISBN 9781250013750. pap. $16.
The second of a proposed trilogy of historical novels about the Opium Wars (preceded by Sea of Poppies, 2009) explores the trade of Indian opium in Canton. (LJ Xpress Reviews, 9/23/11)
Joseph, Manu. The Illicit Happiness of Other People. Norton. 2013. 352p. ISBN 9780393338621. pap. $15.95.
Still baffled by the apparent suicide of his 17-year-old son three years earlier, a henpecked father tries to make sense of his son’s quest for meaning in multicultural Madras.
Khair, Tabish. The Thing About Thugs. Houghton Harcourt. 2012. 256p. ISBN 9780547731605. $24.
A serial killer preys on Victorian London’s poor and immigrant communities—cutting off victims’ heads—in this historical novel about phrenology and thievery. (LJ 5/15/12)
Mistry, Rohinton. Family Matters. Vintage. 2003. 448p. ISBN 9780375703423. pap. $16.95.
An elderly man becomes disabled and must move into his daughter’s crowded Bombay house in this multigenerational family story. (LJ 5/1/02)
Nair, Anita. The Lilac House. St. Martin’s. 2012. 352p. ISBN 9780312606770. pap. $14.99.
The crossing of paths of two people dealing with loss—an abandoned housewife who becomes responsible for a large family and a rambling house and a professor whose daughter has recently died.
Prakash, Uday. The Walls of Delhi. Univ. of Western Australia. 2012. 236p. tr. from Hindi by Jason Grunebaum. ISBN 9781742583921. $29.95.
A trio of sometimes surreal stories about Delhi’s underclass, including an untouchable whose identity is stolen by a wealthy thief and a baby whose head grows as it becomes more intelligent.
Roy, Anuradha. The Folded Earth. Free Pr: S. & S. 2012. 288p. ISBN 9781451633337. pap. $15.
A young widow moves to a remote Himalayan village, wishing to escape the trappings of modernity.
Singh, Khushwant. Sunset Club. Penguin. 2010. 232p. ISBN 9780670085194. $34.75.
A trio of elderly men gather each evening for gossip and conversation.
Suri, Manil. The City of Devi. Norton. 2013. 400p. ISBN 9780393088755. $26.95.
A threat of imminent nuclear attack from Pakistan has the citizens of Mumbai in a panic in this manic novel, the third in a trilogy (The Death of Vishnu, 2001; The Age of Shiva, 2009). (LJ 2/1/13)
Thayil, Jeet. Narcopolis. Penguin. 2012. 304p. ISBN 9780143123033. pap. $16.
This multiaward winner chronicles drug use in Mumbai, from hippies grooving on opium in the 1970s to the modern scourge of harder drugs like heroin.
Umrigar, Thrity. The World We Found. Perennial: HarperCollins. 2012. 336p. ISBN 9780061938351. pap. $14.99.
Forty years after they were university students together in Bombay, three friends reunite to reminisce about their glory days when they learn that one is dying of cancer. (LJ 10/15/11)
Ai Mi. Under the Hawthorn Tree. House of Anansi. 2011. 352p. tr. from Chinese by Anna Holmwood. ISBN 9780887842917. pap. $19.95.
Something of a literary sensation when it was released in China, this story of tragic love among naïve students set against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution was published under a pseudonym, and the author remains unknown.
Bi Feiyu. Three Sisters. Houghton Harcourt. 2010. 288p. tr. from Chinese by Howard Goldblatt & Sylvia Li-chun Lin. ISBN 9780151013647. $24.
Three sisters, all daughters of a debauched small-town Communist Party official, struggle to find meaningful lives in a society that demeans women. (LJ 3/15/10)
Da Chen. My Last Empress. Crown. 2012. 288p. ISBN 9780307381309. $25.
In this erotic historical novel, an American abroad becomes obsessed with a young girl who reminds him of a lost love in the emperor’s court. (LJ 10/1/12)
Dai Sijie. Once on a Moonless Night. Anchor: Random. 2010. 288p. tr. from French by Adriana Hunter. ISBN 9780307456731. pap. $14.95.
A young French translator becomes obsessed with an ancient silk scroll in this impressionistic novel. (LJ 5/1/09)
Geling Yan. The Flowers of War. Other. 2012. 256p. tr. from Chinese by Nicky Harmon. ISBN 9781590515563. pap. $15.95.
A group of courtesans seek shelter in a mission that is already harboring several schoolgirls in this historical novel set during the Nanjing Massacre, 1937–38.
Ha Jin. Nanjing Requiem. Vintage. 2012. 320p. ISBN 9780307743732. pap. $15.95.
Written in English, this historical novel chronicles American missionary Minnie Vautrin’s efforts to aid and protect victims of the Nanjing Massacre. (LJ 8/11)
Han Shaogong. A Dictionary of Maqiao. Dial. 2005. 416p. tr. from Chinese by Julia Lovell. ISBN 9780385339353. pap. $15.
A novel in dictionary form illustrates the absurdities of Cultural Revolution double-speak through a series of entries about an insignificant small town. (LJ 6/15/03)
Koonchung Chan. The Fat Years. Nan A. Talese: Doubleday. 2012. 336p. ISBN 9780385534345. $26.95.
In this thinly veiled Orwellian criticism, the entire country, save for a few who are determined to suss out the mystery, loses a month of memory and becomes mysteriously contented following a boost to the Chinese economy after a U.S. economic meltdown. (LJ 12/11)
Li Yiyun. The Vagrants. Random. 2010. 368p. ISBN 9780812973341. pap. $15.
In this sometimes brutal novel by MacArthur “genius” Li, the execution of a former Red Guard leader for denouncing communism has profound effects on her family and the residents of her small village. (LJ 10/15/08)
Ma Jian. Beijing Coma. Picador. 2009. 720p. tr. from Chinese by Flora Drew. ISBN 9780312428365. pap. $18.
Shot in the Tiananmen Square uprising, Dai Wei lies paralyzed but conscious in this novel that re-creates the events of the student uprising in painstaking detail. (LJ 5/15/08)
Mo Yan. Sandalwood Death. Univ. of Oklahoma. 2012. 424p. ISBN 9780806143392. pap. $24.95.
An opera singer, who is a leader of the Boxer Rebellion, is put to an excruciating death in this historical novel.
Su Tong. The Boat to Redemption. Overlook, dist. by Penguin. 2011. 368p. tr. from Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. ISBN 9781590206720. $26.95.
The son of a disgraced party official comes of age among a community of barge dwellers in this novel set during the Cultural Revolution. (LJ 8/11)
Tie Ning. The Bathing Women. Scribner. 2012. 368p. tr. from Chinese by Hongling Zhang. ISBN 9781451694840. $26.99.
Four girls grow up under the difficult and repressive circumstances of the Cultural Revolution. (LJ 9/15/12)
Wang, Annie. The People’s Republic of Desire. Harper: HarperCollins. 2006. 464p. ISBN 9780060782771. pap. $14.99.
This decidedly modern story follows the escapades of four professional women in status- and sex-obsessed Beijing. (LJ 4/1/06)
Wang Anyi. The Song of Everlasting Sorrow: A Novel of Shanghai. Columbia Univ. 2008. 456p. tr. from Chinese by Michael Berry & Susan Chan Egan. ISBN 9780231143424. $35.
This epic novel spans four decades in the life of Wang Qiyao, who seeks to escape life in Shanghai’s crowded alleyways by entering the Miss Shanghai pageant.
Yan Lianke. Lenin’s Kisses. Grove. 2012. 592p. tr. from Chinese by Carlos Rojas. ISBN 9780802120373. $27.
An absurdist novel about a charlatan’s attempts to capitalize on the disabilities of a small town’s residents following freak weather that destroys both their crops and their relatively isolated lives. (LJ 10/1/12)
Yu Hua. Brothers. Anchor: Random. 2010. 656p. tr. from Chinese by Carlos Rojas. ISBN 9780307386069. pap. $16.95.
Spanning 40 years of Chinese history, from the Cultural Revolution to the economic boom, this rollicking novel reveals the exploits of two stepbrothers, one bookish, the other brackish. (LJ 2/1/09)
A. Issac “Ike” Pulver is Director, Saratoga Springs Public Library, NY. He is the former chair of the American Library Association/Reference and User Services Association Notable Books Council and a current judge for the Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction