In post-colonial India of the 1970s, Mumbai, in overcrowded and antiquated local trains each day thousands of middle-class commuters, dabbawalas, women, and schoolchildren traveled to their disparate destinations. Some played cards, others prayed to their God/ Goddesses or even to Jesus and Allah, while kids like me looked at the torn and reposted posters of Bollywood movies like Deewar, Sholay, Muqqadar ka Sikandar, through which, my imagination was captivated by the images of unshaven and angry young man-Amitabh Bachchan and dreamy-eyed Rekha. In the background, there were Bollywood tunes.
I had no idea that the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a “competition for global dominance.” One day, I was looking at an aunty who looked like an angry goddess Kali, but she was engrossed in reading a novel called Tinker Tailor…and something about the Soldier Spy… It was an imposing book in its size- a sort of cliff note type of Mahabharata… I had no idea what it was about. She looked at me and told me that it was a Mahabharata of the West. LOL! Then came my sojourn in the Soviet Union where the Cold War transformed into a reality of Soviet bomb shelter drills, Russian kindness, and other less relevant matters like long lines for sugar and toilet paper.
Today, as I woke up in a rain-soaked California, like a Rip Van Winkle to the news of the passing of the British creator of that novel, John le Carré, whose books have been part of UC Berkeley Library’s popular fiction holdings since the 1970s. In today’s Byzantine American politics, I find my solace in his imaginary creation.
The author of “West’s Mahabharata” is dead, but he lives on in our memories of the Cold War!
Oral History, Literature, and the June OHC Book Club Selection
When the shelter-in-place order was issued in mid-March by California Governor Gavin Newsom, many thoughts ran through my head. One of the milder ones — the kind that comes from the part of me that tries to find a silver lining in bad situations — was that I might have more time to read. I’ve always been an avid reader, mostly of fiction and narrative non-fiction, and often find myself counting down the hours until I can return to my book.
But in those early days of the global COVID-19 pandemic, I couldn’t concentrate on many things other than the news. My working hours bled into my free time as I tried my best to knock projects off my to-do list and remain productive as the world crumbled around us.
And then one day I found myself staring at my bookshelf, the myriad of colorful spines calling to me. A soft pink cover caught my eye. I pulled Severance, a post-apocalyptic book by Ling Ma, off the shelf and cracked it open. The novel follows Candace Chen as a flu pandemic hits modern-day New York City. As a native New Yorker, It hit close to home, and was strangely cathartic. (It didn’t hurt that the book is beautifully written and Ma’s prose was absorbing.) It allowed me to escape in a way that was right for the limits of my focus at the time.
Next I read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, another post-apocalyptic novel about a global flu pandemic. This one split the timeline between when the pandemic hit Toronto, Canada, and twenty years in the future. In it, the author uses oral history as a device to connect the timelines. Every time I encounter the term “oral history” in literature – be it fiction or non-fiction – my heart quickens, never knowing if it’s being misused.
As I read the fictional oral history interview transcript interspersed throughout the second half of Station Eleven, I was delighted, and deeply impressed, that Mandel seemed to understand that oral history is a type of long-form, recorded interview. This deepened my appreciation for both the writer and the book, discovering that there are people out there who don’t blur the lines between a clearly-defined methodology (about which I’ve mused on this very blog), taking the time to do their due diligence before employing a term they’ve heard about in passing.
Ever since I read World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Apocalypse by Max Brooks, I’ve loved when authors use fictional oral history interviews to tell a story. I find the interviewer and narrator exchange, the chorus of voices, and the details from the past an engaging way to draw the reader in. Many times, I feel like I’m in the room with them.
My colleague, Amanda Tewes agrees. “I like that the familiarity of oral history draws me into a story (almost as if it was real) and allows the author to toy with memory in a way that is difficult when juggling many characters,” she says.
This brings us to our next OHC Oral History Book Club selection, picked by Tewes, which embraces the trend of oral history as a literary device in fiction. We’ll be reading Daisy Jones & the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid, which the New York Times calls “a gripping novel about the whirlwind rise of an iconic 1970s rock group and their beautiful lead singer, revealing the mystery behind their infamous breakup.”
The story unfolds through a series of fictional oral histories. The format is the kind we often find on the pages of Entertainment Weekly or Vanity Fair, inspired by the hallmark oral history book Edie about Edie Sedgewick. The book is a best-seller, a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick, and is the basis for a new mini-series from Witherspoon’s production company.
We’re inviting you to join us for the June installment of our book club. On June 15, we’ll be holding a virtual meeting. We’ll be discussing the book, the use of oral history in literature and pop culture, and more.
RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to join us for our book club via Zoom on Monday, June 15 at 11am PST/2pm EST.
Until then, happy reading and stay safe!
Happy New Year! With a new year comes the inescapable (and usually unfulfillable) list of New Year’s resolutions. At a loss for realistic ideas? Join us in our resolution to read more — including and especially for leisure. If you’ve resolved to spend some more time hitting the books (for pleasure), check out our recommendations for a great start to your reading year: