As long as there have been artists and writers, there have been artists and writers who inspire political dissent — including the authors of these works of fiction that will inspire you to resist now. In times of repressive governments, continuing to tell true, fact-based stories is one of the most important things we as citizens, activists, and creative folks can do. But in our urgency to speak truth to power, let’s not forget how important it is to continue making space for fiction as well. (And I’m not talking about “alternative facts” here… I’m talking about actual literary fiction.) Novels, after all, can often tell true stories just as well — if not better — than their nonfiction counterparts.
The novels on this list will take you into the center of protest movements, both historically-inspired and imagined, reminding you of the power that just one individual voice can have in making a major difference in the world. From the Civil Rights Movement in 1950s and '60s America, to the Tiananmen Square student uprisings in 1980s China, to the Occupy Wall Street protests of just a few years ago, to the fictional rebellions of dystopian futures, the events chronicled in these novels will definitely inspire your own activism this week. Check ‘em out.
1‘Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist’ by Sunil Yapa
Published last year, Sunil Yapa’s novel Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist is set during one of the most tumultuous acts of civil disobedience in recent American history — the 1999 WTO protest in Seattle, which drew an estimated 40,000 protesters and resulted in 157 arrests. A must-read for activists, protesters, and other world-changers, the novel centers around Victor, a homeless 19-year-old struggling to understand the injustices and inequalities of the world, and his place in both the chaos and the revolution.
2‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ by J.M. Coetzee
A novel that hauntingly describes the fear-mongering all repressive political regimes utilize — that constantly feared but rarely realized battle between “Us” and “Them” — J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians introduces readers to an unnamed Magistrate working for a failing Empire, who slowly begins to regain the humanity he lost while in the throes of power. Describing a too-close-for-comfort political empire that’s survival is dependent on having an enemy to hate, Waiting for the Barbarians will leave you questioning: who are the real barbarians, us or them?
3‘Another Country’ by James Baldwin
James Baldwin takes readers to 1950s Greenwich Village, Harlem, and France, where racial, political, and sexual tensions have reached a fever pitch, and for one man — failed jazz drummer and sexually ambiguous Rufus Scott — even his art couldn't save him from the hatred, violence, and isolation imposed by the culture he was surrounded by. Another Country is the devastating story of the myriad ways people try to survive (or fail to) within a culture of anger and misunderstanding.
4‘March’ by John Lewis
March is the graphic trilogy written by congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis, and tells the story of Lewis’s upbringing in rural Alabama, his transforming meeting with Martin Luther King Jr., and his subsequent life dedicated to nonviolent protest, civil rights, activism, and justice. Detailing some of the most pivotal moments in the Civil Rights Movement, as experienced by someone who witnessed them firsthand, March will remind you how important it is to keep fighting (and marching) to make your voice heard.
5‘The Flamethrowers’ by Rachel Kushner
If there were ever a novel to remind readers of the intimate relationship between art and protest (and of the extreme lengths some protest artists will go to express their message) Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers is it. Taking readers to New York City and Italy, circa 1975, The Flamethrowers tells a complex story of art and politics, protest and terror, sincerity and inauthenticity — demonstrating that the fight for justice isn't always as clear-cut as we'd like it to be.
6‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ by Madeleine Thien
Madeleine Thien's multi-generational novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, is set in China in the years before, during, and after the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989, and tells the story of two generations of one family — those who lived through Mao's Cultural Revolution in the mid-twentieth century, and their children, who later became the student protesters. Woven into their stories of political struggle and dissent is a story about the redeeming power of art, and music's capacity to offer a space for marginalized citizens to share their voices.
7‘The Book of Joan’ by Lidia Yuknavitch
Set in a near-future dystopia where the Earth is nearly uninhabitable and human beings have evolved into sexless, hairless creatures living on an above-earth platform known as CIEL, Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan, offers readers a retelling of the story of 15th century teen martyr Joan of Arc. In Yuknavitch’s novel CIEL has become a corporate police-state ruled by a man named Jean de Men — and a group of rebels inspired by the child-warrior Joan set out to overthrow de Men and dismantle his regime. Written in the tradition of all great science fiction, The Book of Joan reminds readers of the profound power even one lone voice can have in inspiring a revolution, influencing freedom and justice for generations to come.
8‘The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea’ by Bandi
The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea is the first known collection of short stories smuggled out of North Korea, written by a North Korean writer still living under the regime. Authored by the pseudonymous Bandi (which translates to “firefly” in English) The Accusation is made up of seven stories set in North Korea during the period of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il’s leadership, and depicts what life is really like for those living under the dictatorship — suffering from starvation and debilitating paranoia, completely cut off from the rest of the world, and forced into a lemming-like existence where dissent can equal imprisonment or death.
9‘Splinterlands’ by John Feffer
John Feffer’s Splinterlands greets readers in the year 2050, when, in the wake of a dismantled European Union, a declining of all major global powers, a United Nations that is anything but united, and a depleted U.S. military, life is ruled by the forces of climate change and Nationalism (terrifyingly not so far off, eh?) Thirty years earlier Splinterlands’ protagonist, writer Julian West, predicted such devastation in his own publication, (also titled “Splinterlands”) — and now his predictions have come true. But can West’s ability to explain how the world unraveled help put it back together again? This novel is dystopia at it's most terrifying.
10‘Dissident Gardens’ by Jonathan Lethem
This non-linear novel takes readers into the lives of three generations of political “radicals” — Rose Zimmer, a former member of the Communist Party whose beliefs are still as unwavering as they were pre-World War II; Rose’s daughter Miriam, who was influenced by 1960s American peace-and-love politics; and Miriam’s son Sergius, who is a Quaker-influenced protester in the Occupy movement. Dissident Gardens meanders through the politics and protest of these three generations, telling stories both personal and political, and offering insight into the failings of each respective generation to change the world in the ways they’d hoped.
11‘The Decision’ by Britta Böhler
Britta Böhler’s The Decision imagines three pivotal days in the real life of German author Thomas Mann who, while living in Switzerland in 1936, published an open letter denouncing the Nazi regime in a Swiss newspaper, and becomes terrified of arrest should he return to his home in Munich. Over three days Mann was forced to make a critical decision: choose exile in Switzerland for his political beliefs (at the risk of abandoning his readers and the outlet he has to express their own dissent), or return home to Germany (and risk persecution and possibly execution by the Nazis.) Compounding on Mann’s fears is everything he left behind in Germany — for example, his intimate, personal diaries that he fears the Nazis will publicize when they discover them. This novel takes readers into one writer’s torturous struggle to decide what is best for himself, his family, his readers, and his country, when every right decision also feels like a wrong one.