Non Fiction November

Countries in Crisis As Seen In Fiction & Non Fiction

Week 2 of Non Fiction November brings us one of the most stimulating and thought provoking topics of the whole event.

Pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves)

I got the idea for my topic from television news reports over the past week. It was full of stories about conflicts and protests. Police and protestors squaring up to each other on the streets of Hong Kong. Catalonian separatists taking to the streets in Barcelona. Thousands of Extinction Rebellion supporters camping out in central London.

People around the world are challenging the status quo, resisting authority and campaigning for change in increasing numbers.

So I thought I’d take a look at books that can enlighten us about some of the most significant social movements from the last century. Ones that represented a paradigm shift for the country concerned.

Racial Equality in South Africa

I’ve chosen three books which deal with different periods of time in South Africa’s troubled history of relationships between the various ethnic groups within its population.

Cry, The Beloved Country  was written in 1948 just a few months before the South African government introduced the apartheid system, effectively a form of racial segregation. It was a policy that remained in place until 1994.

Through the different voices in the novel Alan Paton dramatises the differing attitudes within the country that would lead, he believed, to hatred and disharmony.

He wasn’t wrong, as Nelson Mandela’s acclaimed autobiography Long Walk to Freedom shows. Mandela reflects on his role in the campaign against the apartheid regime, which became increasingly violent with brutal crackdowns by the government. But Mandela also talks about the importance of reconciliation between the country’s racial groups  and how he sought to embrace that principle when elected as the country’s first black head of state.

Did he succeed? The picture of post apartheid South Africa depicted by one of the country’s leading authors, J. M Coetzee, is rather bleak. His Booker prize winning novel Disgrace is set at the time of Mandela’s government and shows a country in transition where the shifts in power between the different racial groups have created new tensions.

Communism In China

For 10 years until 1976. the lives of people in China were governed by the dictats of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The objective was to preserve Chinese Communism by purging remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society. But it caused huge damage to the country’s economy and led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people (some estimates put the death toll as high as 2 million.)

Wild Swans by Jung Chang is a must- read work for anyone interested in modern day history of China. Through the experiences of 3 generations of women in her family, Chang reveals a tragic tale of nightmarish cruelty but also shows the extraordinary bravery of the country’s citizens.

I’m pairing this with a memoir. Mao’s Last Dancer recounts how Li Cunxin was plucked from a poor village to become a ballet dancer, part of an experiment by Mao’s wife to put China on the world stage. Having endured a brutal training regime in which every aspect of his life was controlled, he was allowed to go to the USA as an exchange student. And there he discovered everything he had been told about the West was a lie.

Madeleine Thein’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing is my fictional choice for two reasons. Firstly because like Mao’s Last Dancer it deals with the effects of an oppressive regime on creative and artistic talent (in this case, musicians). But more significantly because it gives us a sense of the instability that continued in China long after the Cultural Revolution came to an end. Thein builds the tension powerfully, showing how it culminates in the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989 when troops and tanks fired at demonstrators.

Nationalism In India

I’m slightly cheating here because The Jewel in the Crown is actually the first book in the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott and to get the full benefit, you do need to read all them. Scott’s novels take place in the concluding years of the British Raj in India; a time when tensions are running high between the colonial ‘masters’ and the people they are meant to govern.

The quartet begins in 1942 and ends in 1947 as India gains its independence, marking the end of decades of violent and peaceful protest. 1942 is significant because it’s the year when the man who had lead the nationalist movement –  Mahatma Gandhi – launched the the Quit India movement demanding an end to British Rule of India.

So it’s only fitting that my non fiction choice is a book which focuses on the man synonymous with Indian independence. The Words of Gandhi is a selection of the man’s letters, speeches, and published writings giving his thoughts on daily life, cooperation, nonviolence, faith, and peace. It’s a great book to dip into and a source of motivation and inspiration.

Peace sadly did not come to India as my fiction choice shows. Neil Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others, is set against a background of the Naxalite movement in the West Bengal region of the country. It was a Communist Party of India armed struggle against large landowners to forcibly take away their lands and re-distribute it amongst the landless. One of Mukherjee’s main characters gets swept along with the spirit of the movement.

I suspect I’ve left out many books that would make good reading partners on this topic. Anyone have some recommendations for me?


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

25 thoughts on “Countries in Crisis As Seen In Fiction & Non Fiction

  • Judy Krueger

    Excellent! I read Cry The Beloved Country many years ago and it was an eye-opener and an important book at the time. Have always meant to read Wild Swans. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is one of my all-time favorite books and more people should read it. Perhaps thanks to you they will!

    • Its surprising to me that Do Not Say We Have Nothing isn’t better known. It was a Booker prize contender and I think then went on to win a Canadian prize.

  • Sheree @ Keeping Up With The Penguins

    These are such interesting groupings – some familiar to me, some not. Thank you so much for putting it together! A few for my TBR here, it looks like 😉

    • I was trying to find a combination which had some lesser known books so I’m delighted to know that worked….

  • I’d like to propose a pairing based on the history of my home state, Western Australia: Kim Scott’s novels That Deadman Dance and Benang, and the book “It’s still in my heart, this is my country”, the report of the single Noongar land claim (all of which I have reviewed), which as fact and fiction look deeply into the terrible effects of white settlement on the Indigenous population of the south-west of WA.

    • That would have been an interesting pairing to read more about. I never thought about it but I could have done one themed around Wales. Oh well there is always next year.

    • I’ve read a few reviews of her latest book and it does sound good. Tempted to buy it but then remember I felt the same about the last one on the Empress and I still haven’t read it.

    • Thanks for the kind comment. It’s an issue I’m really interested in.

  • Fascinating guide to an important topic. This could be a university course! And we certainly do all need to learn about creating and following through on societal change. Stories (both fictional and nonfictional) can help, as they embody a process of transformation.

    • Now that would be a course I’d love to take. The reading would be a pleasure

  • Well structured post. As a writer from an isolated country, I believe there so many voices that need to be heard in the mainstream.

    • Thanks for the endorsement. I wanted very much to focus on books set outside my own country and if possible by local authors.

  • Great post. Matching fiction and non fiction cab be very enlightening. This is also a very important topic. In regards to post independence India, I really liked Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. It involved some magical realism but at the same time covered a lot of history.

    • I did debate whether to include the Rushdie but I love Paul Scott so much I couldn’t possibly leave him out and then I thought the Mukherjee was a slightly unusual angle

  • I enjoyed your creative and relevant ideas for this week’s prompt!

    • Lovely to hear from you Carol and to know you enjoyed reading the post. the way things are developing in Hong Kong is really worrying. I was there in February and people were expressing concern about what will happen when the agreement between China and UK runs out in 2047 – the date is a long way off but already people see signs of the future and they don’t like it

      • Serious concerns. You have provided a thought provoking reading list. I read two fiction books about post-Apartheid South Africa this year…. Hum if You Don’t Know the Words and If You Want to Make God Laugh by Bianca Marais. I hadn’t read a nonfiction to pair with them.

        • Just looked these up on Goodreads and they do sound interesting so of course I had to add to my wishlist. Thanks for the recommendations Carol

        • You’re welcome! 🙌😍

  • I like the way you’ve structured this post. I always struggle with this pairing, but I think I’ve accidentally already done it within my review of The Diary of a Prison Guard. I’ll get on and do a proper post about it in due course.

    • Thanks Lisa. When I started writing the post I had only South Africa in mind, but then remembered books i’d read from China and india. So it somehow came together better than I expected

  • Dora Bennett

    I am an avid reader and recently published my first novel. Marketing was difficult and getting reviews was an uphill task. My friend suggested to get reviews and market my book. The reviews were good, but it took longer than expected. But, Reviews=Sales. So, Looking for beta readers also.

    • I don’t know that reviewers site but I see that they pay people to do reviews. Plenty of authors manage to get reviews without paying for a service. There are facebook groups that writers use to get ideas on how to market their books. Might be a good idea to try one of those Dora and get some ideas?


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