True to Life
From Vietnam to Pakistan, writers have long turned to fiction to make sense of the news, often yielding uncanny portraits of real-life war, revolution, and cultural change. Here, Foreign Policy offers a sampler of novels that could have been straight out of the newspapers -- and sometimes even made them.
Rudyard Kipling, 1901
In what is often considered his best novel, the Bombay-born Kipling unfolds the “panorama of India,” as a New York Times review said at the time, exposing the forces of Hinduism and imperialism in the British-ruled subcontinent.
The Good Earth
Pearl S. Buck, 1931
For its depiction of a rural family in pre-communist China, this book won a Pulitzer, became a bestseller, and helped make Buck, who grew up in the village of Zhenjiang, the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize in literature. Some argue the novel later helped Americans empathize with their Chinese allies during World War II.
The Quiet American
Graham Greene, 1955
This novel’s protagonist — a British war correspondent in French Indochina, as Greene himself was — clashes with an American official over a Vietnamese woman, in a narrative that presciently characterized the American presence in Vietnam. Greene, an acerbic critic of U.S. policy, was later tracked by the American government for 40 years.
Tim O’Brien, 1990
This series of linked stories about a U.S. platoon in Vietnam draws from the author’s own experiences as an infantryman, revealing a narrative that a Boston Globe review called “so searing and immediate you can almost hear the choppers in the background.”
The Yacoubian Building
Alaa Al Aswany, 2002
Aswany — a dentist and writer who helped give voice to protesters in Tahrir Square last year — won praise for this bestselling novel, a portrait of the cultural and political decay in Cairo that simmered to a boil in the recent revolution.
Scott Simon, 2005
After reporting on the Bosnian war for NPR, Simon debuted as a novelist with Pretty Birds — the tale of a half-Muslim 16-year-old girl in war-torn Sarajevo who trains to be a sniper as her family faces ethnic persecution.
What Is the What
Dave Eggers, 2006
John Updike, 2006
The plot of Updike’s 22nd novel reads like any number of post-9/11 news stories, tracing an American-born Muslim teenager’s alienation from his life in New Jersey and his turn toward religious fundamentalism.
Margaret Slattery is a former assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy.
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