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The Fiction of Development

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David Lewis, Dennis Rodgers and Michael Woolcock have produced an interesting read in the the Brooks World Poverty Institute working paper series (check here for the pdf version of the paper).

Here’s the punchline:

It is clear that literary works sometimes have a stronger Geertzian “being there” quality than certain academic and policy works, they may cover aspects of development that are often not made explicit in conventional academic accounts, or else they are written in a more engaging and accessible manner…works of literary fiction often reach a much larger and diverse audience than academic texts and may therefore be more influential than academic work in shaping public knowledge and understanding of development issues.

I agree with their conclusion that novels often capture some of the most vivid portraits of poverty. Sometimes this can be over-caricatured, however, when a book, like A Fine Balance, does it right, the result can be a staggering perspective on the lives of the world’s poor.

The others discuss a handful of other novels and provide an excellent reading list as an appendix, but the books that get the most discussion are the following:

  • Cause Celeb (Helen Fielding)
  • Raag Darbari (Shrilal Shukla)
  • A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry)
  • The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
  • Brick Lane (Monica Ali)
  • The Power to Choose (Naila Kabeer)

Among these novels, there is a clear bias toward South Asia (India, Afghanistan and Bangladesh are the subject of 5 of the 6 novels listed above). Is this an English language bias? Do South Asian authors have a stronger tendency toward realism make them better sources of development reading?

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Written by Niall

November 9, 2008 at 7:30 pm

Posted in Books

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Es’kia Mphahlele

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It is often sad how death expands one’s reading list. I, however, look forward to finding a copy of Es’kia Mphahlele’s Down Second Avenue

From the New York Times:

In an essay in The Star, a Johannesburg newspaper, the journalist and editor Barney Mthombothi wrote, “If Nelson Mandela is our political star, Mphahlele was his literary equivalent.”

Other works that have been added to my desired reads are: The Wanderers, Voices in the Whirlwind, and Afrika My Music.

Written by Niall

November 1, 2008 at 1:58 am

From the Bookshelf: July’s People

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I recently finished reading Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People, a book about Apartheid South Africa in 1980. This is the first Gordimer book that I have read. I was enthralled by her prose. The story itself is slow moving but provides a sobering glimpse into racial and cultural relations in Africa. It is as relevant today as when written. 

Here are a few of my favorite quotations from the book.

On the emotional reaction of a white woman moving to a black African village:

But the transport of a novel, the false awareness of being within another time, place and life that was the pleasure of reading, for her, was not possible. She was in another time, place, consciousness; it pressed in upon her and filled her as someone’s breath fills a balloon’s shape. She was already not what she was. No fiction could compete with what she was finding she did not know, could not have imagined or discovered through imagination.

On domicile life in the village:

The hearth-fire that filled the hut with smoke was the centre of being; children, fowls, dogs, kittens came as near to it as the heirarchy of their existence allowed. THe warmth that food brought – blood chafing into life – came from it, where the clinkers of wood, transparent with heat, made porridge bubble vigour.

Written by Niall

October 19, 2008 at 3:25 am