I love to read and I am forever asking people, especially writers, for recommendations. I did the same with Kirthi Jayakumar when I interviewed her last week. She has been gracious and giving, as always. Here, she tells us the seven books every author must read in their lifetime and what they could learn from them.
It goes without saying that writers each have their own unique styles that set them each apart in the world that consumes their work. Naturally, then, there is much truth that one cannot entirely adopt another’s style. And yet, in a world that ultimately dovetails into one of the “only seven stories that exist,” there is much to be learned from some of the doyens in the field of writing.
Writing is an art, and lessons around writing are largely experiential – on the one hand, one writes and evolves with each piece of writing, and on the other hand, one reads, and evolves with each piece they read. Here are seven books (in no particular order) that a writer simply MUST read to enrich their own evolutionary journey.
1) Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa: Writing about a personal reality that hinges upon a personal-is-political is not easy. Angst, grief, emotions and feelings can mar the narrative. But Mornings in Jenin tells a story, and lets you respond with your emotions. Susan Abulhawa uses language that is stunningly simple, but hits you hard with the weight of the truth it carries.
Things to learn: writing with empathy, writing the truth in black-and-white, and depth in a character while doing so.
2) The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult: Cutting across time, Jodi Picoult weaves a stunning story that renders parallel narratives from the contemporary world, the Holocaust and a fantasy world. None of the voices intersperse to the point of blurring realities, and although the same characters thrive in two of the three narratives, she masters the art of taking the reader through context, to understand how people are a product of their circumstances.
Things to learn: writing across time, preserving relevant ethos, switching from world to world without allowing characters to bleed from one to another.
3) Silent Raga by Ameen Merchant: Set in an orthodox tambrahm household, the story speaks of the multiple hierarchies of patriarchy within the house, and how it manifests as antagonism to other identities outside – all through the challenging journeys of two young women navigating their lives inside an oppressive space. Ameen Merchant’s efforts as a man of a different religion in displaying a stupendous essay of a culture that he has known by watching from outside is a fantastic example of how far research can go.
Things to learn: Research, empathy to a culture and backdrop that is not yours in order to write about it, and the deployment of imagery.
4) The End of India by Khushwant Singh: Dissent is an inherent part of the freedom of expression, but how you choose to dissent, and what tools you deploy to express that dissent can determine the limits to your freedom of expression. Khushwant Singh has much to say about his times, and much of it appears to be relevant for the current times and for the times to come. A stellar example of how to offer a balanced, researched point of view to buttress one’s dissent.
Things to learn: Balance even in dissent, research to support any claims you make.
5) Grief is a Thing with Feathers by Max Porter: Every so often, expression can get challenging and a heavy burden to bear. And so, the use of anthropomorphic devices can do the trick quite effortlessly. Reading Max Porter also showed me how an author can open a path for catharsis for their reader while narrating their own.
Things to learn: Use of devices, how to say so much while really saying so little.
6) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: If there was ever a book with truth bombs, this would be it. Atticus Finch and Scout Finch have remained enduring characters that many of us turn to, for the voice of reason that life isn’t always able to offer up to us. The incredibly difficult task of taking on a lost cause has been portrayed for exactly what it is, without sounding preachy.
Things to learn: Depth of character, tackling the truth without a holier-than-thou attitude.
7) Is Everybody hanging out without Me? by Mindy Kaling: Memoirs can’t typically be judged for the narrative itself, because a person’s lived experiences are their lived experiences and are not up for debate. However, how they are chosen to be shared and articulated can well be appreciated and talked about – which is why Mindy Kaling’s first memoir totally wins my vote. A brown girl in a white boys’ club can make for an intensely painful story – and Mindy doesn’t make light of it for the heck of it – she tells it like it is, without romanticizing herself, while still letting you drop the ball on how she is the star of the story.
Things to learn: Wit, light-heartedness and candour dovetail into one big mash up of great reading, how to tell your hero story without shoving your hero-hood into another’s face.
Kirthi Jayakumar is an activist, artist, entrepreneur and writer from Chennai, India. She founded and runs the Red Elephant Foundation, a civilian peacebuilding initiative that works for gender equality through storytelling, advocacy and digital interventions. She also founded and runs fynePRINT, a feminist e-publishing imprint. She is a member of the Youth Working Group for Gender Equality under the UNIANYD.
Kirthi is an author, and released her debut novel in 2017, titled The Doodler of Dimashq. Her second book, The Dove’s Lament, made it to the final shortlist for the Muse India Young Writers’ Literary Award.
Kirthi coded an app for survivors of gender-based violence called Saahas, which works as a web and mobile app. She taught herself to code and created a web app, a mobile app and a Facebook ChatBot to support survivors of gender-based violence across 196 countries, and to assist bystander intervention.
In 2016, Kirthi was invited to Michelle Obama’s United State of Women Summit at the White House in Washington DC, as a nominated changemaker. In 2017, she was one of the youth activists invited to attend President Obama’s Town Hall at New Delhi.
Kirthi has spoken at TEDx Chennai, addressing Peace Education as a means to end Bullying. She has also spoken at FICCI FLO, as one of the youngest speakers to address the members. Kirthi has also had the distinction of addressing the UNV Partnerships Forum on her work as an epoch-making online volunteer with the United Nations.
Kirthi is the recipient of the US Presidential Services Medal (2012) for her services as a volunteer to Delta Women NGO, from President Barack Obama. She is the two-time recipient of the UN Online Volunteer of the Year Award (2012, 2013). She received the 2016 Orange Flower Award from Women’s Web, the 2016 World Pulse Impact Leader Award and the 2017 Empowerment Leader Award from the Dais Foundation. Her work has been published in The Guardian and the TIME Magazine. She was recognized by EuropeAid on the “200 Women in the World of Development Wall of Fame in 2016.” She received the Digital Women Award for Social Impact in 2017, from SheThePeople, the Person of the Year (Social Entrepreneur) 2017 from The Brew Magazine. Kirthi is a recipient of the Yuva Samman from MOP Vaishnav College, in January 2018.
Besides her professional engagements, Kirthi is a Zen Doodler, and runs a HerStory project called Femcyclopaedia. Her works have been commissioned by corporate establishments, non-profits and art collectors world over. She wrote and acted in Frankly Speaking, a play that takes off from where Anne Frank’s Diary ended, and also wrote and acted in two other plays, named HerStory and Dolls.