World Book History #2: Dubliners

Where do you even start with Brexit these days? It’s safe to say that most of the country has spent the last three years in a state of almost complete confusion. Whatever your views, it has been incredibly divisive both in Britain and on the European continent.

James Joyce’s Dubliners was first published in 1914, when Europe was on the cusp of the first world war. Joyce would also be alive for the beginning of the second world war over twenty years later. He spent much of his life living in and travelling around Europe and used his worldliness as a crucial component in all of his writings.

Dubliners mostly revolves around life in Joyce’s city of birth and is written from a despairing point of view. But given that Joyce put so much stock in European identity and unity, there are lots of parallels to be drawn between Europe in 1914 and modern Britain.

Three stories in particular exemplify this, and reflect the disassociation and disappointment many people are feeling.

After the Race

This story, although ultimately sad, is delivered through the lens of a proud European identity, centring around four friends from different states and with different backgrounds. 

The four men represent the organic friendships that many people both in modern Britain and Europe have formed thanks to freedom of movement. Joyce clearly references wanderlust and community inclusion, as well as the alliances the European Union symbolises. 

Brexit has given voice to many people who feel certain ways about national British identity. But for many younger people in particular, the same desire to travel and indulge in foreign culture is very present in After the Race. In both 1914 and 2019, Europe represents change and exploration in the most positive way.

A Little Cloud

These days, London is considered to be one of the greatest cities in the world. When Joyce wrote A Little Cloud it was not nearly as buzzing, but it still signified freedom, art and a place where one could spread their wings and live a fulfilling life.

As a city that voted Remain in the EU referendum, it’s easy to see that the same joys and excitements that inspired Joyce still exist today. London is proudly multicultural and has a huge amount of growth and development as a result. Whereas most of England’s South-East voted to leave, London represents the continued love of multiculturalism that Joyce had.

A statue of James Joyce in Dublin. Credit: Mike_fleming

Ivy Day in the Committee Room

Joyce was famously a proud Irish nationalist and given that Brexit has reopened old wounds resonating from the Troubles, the inspirations behind Ivy Day in the Committee Room have somewhat come full circle.

But Ivy Day also describes the perceived imbalance between the ‘metropolitan elite’ and the rest of society that informed much of the Brexit vote. There are particular references to patriotism – a word that has become just as muddied and uncertain as everything else since Brexit – that could be analogous to politicians on either side of the 2016 referendum, depending on your opinion. The independence referred to in Ivy Day exists under completely different circumstances to Brexit, but it’s profound in that the same debates about national identity were being had a hundred years ago as they are now.

James Joyce’s Dubliners is proof that history has a way of haunting the present. You can find out the other ways it does so by picking up a copy today.

World Book History #1: The Girls of Riyadh

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital city. Credit: ujahabdul

Rajaa Alsanea’s The Girls of Riyadh is one of the most famous modern Arabic novels. First published in Lebanon in 2005 and immediately banned in her home country of Saudi Arabia, it’s certainly had its fair share of controversy.

Following the lives of four young women struggling with notions of romance and life in privileged but suppressive Riyadh society, it immediately inhabits a world unfamiliar to us here in the West. Observations of Islam and Arabic writing via the Qu’ran are at a dangerous fever pitch in 2019, so the book is certainly as relevant now as it was then, if not more so.  

Within the last few years we’ve seen a proposed travel band on Muslims in the USA. We’ve seen the increased prevalence of the far-right anti-Islam group the EDL here in the UK (though thankfully they now seem to be more forced onto the fringes).

We’ve seen would-be British Prime Minister Boris Johnson say that women in full burqas resemble ‘letterboxes’. Though Saudi Arabia lags behind other states still in terms of equality, all of those assertions have been made without any insight into everyday life for these women.

US President Donald Trump, whose Muslim travel ban made headlines around the world. Credit: Gage Skidmore

In the World Economic Forum report for Global Gender Gap parity in 2018, Saudi Arabia was ranked 141 out of 149, which is higher than previous years. Progressive attitudes towards women in Saudi Arabia have been incredibly recent.

Some of the changes, as further outlined by this article, have only occurred in the last five years:

  • The first university that women could attend, the Riyadh College for Education, wasn’t opened until 1970
  • It wasn’t until 2015 that women could legally vote and get elected to government
  • Until 2018, there was a driving ban for women.

The Girls of Riyadh doesn’t shy away from or deny some of the seemingly bizarre restrictions that dominate Saudi law. But the main philosophical sticking point of the novel is living within one’s means within the world around you. It’s something that all humans have to contend with, and especially women. It’s easy to think of the UK and US as egalitarian utopias, but the rise of fourth wave feminism has had to fight on many a hill.

Women in the West want to be successful, independent and stable, just like women in Saudi Arabia. By bridging that gap, Alsanea reduces the idea that the way Arabic women think, behave and exist is alien. The issues the four female protagonists deal with are issues experienced by most women; the societal parameters in which they operate are merely different.

There has been some controversy around the book’s misrepresentation following its translation from Arabic to English. But Alsanea herself has always been happy with the end result. In an interview with Penguin Random House in 2008, she said: ‘there aren’t many books Arabic books translated into other languages and that’s why people know so little about us’.

True enough, the translation has been a certified smash. It’s a bestseller across Europe and the US. But as more dangerous rhetoric becomes enabled, nuance is glossed over. Even if you think you’re well-informed but still find Islamic society mysterious, The Girls of Riyadh would at least provide you with an insider’s perspective.

The Girls of Riyadh is available from all good book shops and Amazon. Open your mind and bridge the cultural gap today.

Welcome to World Book History!

Do you remember studying English Literature at school? Lots of my friends hated it, and it could be an awful slog at times.

Library bookshelves full of slow-burning Victorian classics and slightly odd analysis of Sigmund Freud can only have so much appeal. There’s also the troublesome idea of reading something because you HAVE to; the endless lists of ‘books you must read’. 

This TED Talk by the writer Ann Morgan examines the importance of reading and seeking out literature from other cultures.

Granted, Shakespeare and the roll call of romantics are essential to British literature. But with little or no time given to works beyond the Western literary cannon, it can be easy to miss that material’s value. Here at World Book History, I’ll be attempting to change that.

In the age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, entire cultures often find themselves back-handed away with carelessness and, at worst, prejudice. But all of those cultures have thousands of years of history, politics and experience – a lot of which is often strikingly relevant to today.

Here in the West, perceptions of those cultures are often incredibly concrete, and any attempt to shine a new or different light on them is buried in anger. More likely than not, that anger is based on falsities.

World Book History will try and smash those perceptions. Once a week, I’ll take a book from all corners of the globe – either new or old, fiction and non-fiction – and examine its presentation of that region’s history and societal culture. In doing so, I hope not just to bring lost or forgotten literature from around the world to the fore. I want to shed new light on more famous works that expose the inner workings of the cultures both in the past and in the 21st century.

We’ll be asking questions such as:

• How real is Rajaa Alsanea’s depiction of living as a woman in Saudi Arabia?

• Is James Joyce’s Dubliners relevant to Brexit Britain?

• Is the vision of Russia that we see here in the West as total as it seems?

The world famous Chilean author Isabel Allende. Just how influential has she been? Credit: Shawn

As time goes on, I hope to cover more obscure works and bring hardly-known worlds and periods of history to life. If I can spread awareness of these books and the lives and stories behind them, hopefully it’ll go some way to increasing the interest in non-canonical literature.

Be sure to follow us on Twitter to keep up-to-date with all the articles and musings that are published here. We’ll also be posting polls and surveys, and maybe even competitions with some nifty literature-based prizes.

Here’s to a long future of refreshing and enlightening reading.