Essential dissident lit

The top ten books to read when you feel like fighting the power

The Dissident
The Dissident

Across the world, things are unsteady. Ukraine, Venezuela, Thailand – people are angry, governments are reacting with violent force, the media is frantically trying to offer more information than on-the-ground tweeters. Things often feel futile: is history doomed to repeat itself until humanity implodes? Shouldn’t shit be sorted out by now? Here’s our list of what to read when you feel like fighting the power or just need to remember that people really aren’t taking anything lying down. 

DISSIDENT GARDENS BY JONATHAN LETHEM

Last year’s much-discussed blockbuster uses family to trace permutations of radicalism in 1970s New York. Blood is thicker than water, but possibly  not as thick as absolute communism. Lethem’s use of archetypes balances out the tension that builds when mothers and daughters only sort of see eye-to-eye on deeply held idealistic visions for the future.

Dissident Gardens
Dissident Gardens

THE DISSIDENT BY NELL FREUDENBERGER

There are no better underground art scenes than underground art scenes in countries with repressive governments, and Freudenberger’s novel assumes that perspective as it deals with the jailbait political performance art of Beijing of the 1990s. She describes the particularly performance art brand of misunderstood activism from the perspective of outsiders who both fetishize the glamour dissidence and try to understand it. 

The Dissident
The Dissident

THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK BY DORIS LESSING

The notorious no-shit-taking Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing wrote a lot of books, but it’s her sprawling, messy, most famous feminist novel that delves into the complicated emotions of the radical who starts who question her once-staunch beliefs. Weaving relationship narratives into confused reflections on communism, the party Lessing also once believed in and subsequently abandoned, the novel is a portrait of the individual as part of a collective. 

The Golden Notebook
The Golden Notebook

WAR BY CANDLELIGHT: STORIES BY DANIEL ALARCÓN

Much of Alarcón’s work is about politics, but it’s his first book, a short story collection, that creates a rumbling sense of unrest that resembles the discomfort of today as it spans continents and languages. Marital turmoil is set alongside prison riots, and Alarcón acts a knowledgeable guide to both.

War by Candlelight: Stories
War By Candlelight: Stories

STUDENTS FOR A DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY: A GRAPHIC HISTORY BY HARVEY PEKAR AND GARY DAUM

When many criticize the American political climate as having lost its willingness to fight for anything other than the right to let their children consume as much soda as they choose, they’re referring to the loss of fervor like this. This graphic novel illustrates (literally) an era when youths felt empowered to voice their concerns to the government in dramatic, won’t-be-ignored fashion, and it’s strange that 50ish years can seem so long ago.

Students For a Democratic Society: A Graphic History
Students For a Democratic Society: A Graphic History

CAIRO: MY CITY, OUR REVOLUTION BY AHDAF SOUEIF

One of the best accounts of the explosion of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 comes in the form of a journalistic memoir that paints a picture of the emotional experience of revolution in Tahrir Square in tones of stand-up comics and F16s, human chains and makeshift hospitals. The book is told with an eager, excited intensity that mirrors what being there must have been like. 

Cairo: My City, Our Revolution
Cairo: My City, Our Revolution

CITY OF LOVE AND ASHES BY YUSUF IDRIS

More Egypt, this time with two young radicals falling in love over their shared fight for freedom from British (corrupt) occupation in 1952. The struggle to prioritize passion—love for girlfriend vs. love for country—is a strong backdrop for Idris’ tight storytelling and clear portrait of this part of Egyptian history.

City of Love and Ashes
City of Love and Ashes

99 NIGHTS WITH THE 99 PERCENT: DISPATCHES FROM THE FIRST THREE MONTHS OF THE OCCUPY REVOLUTION BY CHRIS FARAONE

Chris Faraone is an exacting journalist and guide through the rapid rise and sputtering out of the well-known activism as he highlights particular voices and characters that form a larger perspective on the issues and preoccupations of the movement. A collection of pieces published in the Boston Phoenix, 99 Nights is required reading for anyone interested in the early days of Occupy – or trying to figure out what’s next.

99 Nights With the 99 Percent
99 Nights With the 99 Percent: Dispatches From the First Three Months of the Occupy Revolution

BODY COUNTS: A MEMOIR OF POLITICS, SEX, AIDS AND SURVIVAL BY SEAN STRUB

How does collective action fit into individual narrative? It’s a question many of these books ask, and Strub’s memoir of coming out, coming of age and coming to radical activism seeks to reconcile a personal relationship to one of the most definitive political movements of the twentieth century that many at the time desperately wanted to ignore.

 

Body Counts
Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, Aids and Survival

THE LOST HONOUR OF KATHARINA BLUM BY HEINRICH BÖLL

Based on the media’s sensational portrayal of the radical leftist group the Red Army Faction terrorizing Germany in the 1970s, Böll’s novel attacks a thinly veiled version of a real Berlin newspaper that invades an innocent housekeeper’s life after she falls in love with a man wanted for bank robbery. Told in the empowering first-person plural, the novel examines the tenuous justifications institutions use to exert their power, and its end is not happy. 

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum
The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum

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