Feature

Viet Thanh Nguyen recommends 6 books that interrogate commitment

The Pulitzer Prize winner recommends works by Sylvia Plath, Eka Kurniawan, and more

Viet Thanh Nguyen's new novel, The Committed, is a sequel to The Sympathizer in which the central figure of that 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner becomes a drug dealer in 1980s Paris. Below, Nguyen recommends other books that interrogate commitment.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963).

I read Plath's novel as a student in an all-boys Jesuit high school and was suitably disturbed by its story of an ambitious young woman who suffers a mental-health crisis and is committed to a psychiatric hospital.

Red Comet by Heather Clark (2020).

The Bell Jar returned to my thought after I read Heather Clark's new biography of Plath, a compelling reminder of how committed Plath was to her writing. At 1,118 pages, the biography is itself an example of commitment, both on the part of the author who wrote it and for the reader who picks it up. I enjoyed its very detailed examinations of everything from Plath's great poetry to her love life. I hope no one ever writes such a book about me.

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon (1961).

The Committed refers to numerous literary and political works of commitment, most of all to The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon's classic account of the Algerian revolt against the French and passionate call for violent revolution by subjugated peoples. The Martinique-born political philosopher himself became a committed revolutionary and died young, leaving a remarkable body of work.

Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan (2002).

Eka Kurniawan's brutal, funny, wildly imaginative novel is about many things, and among them are the crimes committed in Indonesia during colonialism and afterward.

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald (2001).

I'm drawn to writers who relentlessly dig up the past that most other people would rather leave untouched. W.G. Sebald, a German writer, made it his life's work to deal with the Holocaust and its aftermath. I particularly love this magisterial and melancholic novel about an orphan who learns he is Jewish and embarks on a quest to find out what happened to his parents.

I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita (2010).

This is Karen Tei Yamashita's masterpiece, an epic and expansive novel about San Francisco's revolutionary Asian-American movement of the 1960s and '70s, from which I, as an Asian-American writer, am descended.

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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