Classic Remarks: Recommend a Diverse Classic

This week Krysta and Briana at Pages Unbound are hosting the discussion: Recommend a diverse classic. I should start off by saying that I haven’t read enough of them. My classic niche is definitely 1800s England and France, which I think we can agree weren’t the most diverse places. And so many of the “diverse” classics assigned to us in school (To Kill a Mockingbird, Heart of Darkness, Siddhartha) were actually written by white folks. In fact, if I’m being honest, both books I want to recommend today were written in the 1980s, so I don’t know that I can even really call them classics. So if you want a good recommendation for classics by diverse authors, I might recommend this list from Bookriot.

In the end, though, I think I’m going to stick with my wheelhouse, 1800s England. It’s pretty common knowledge now that Oscar Wilde was gay, but at the time homosexuality was still illegal and Wilde actually went to prison as a result of a semi-public affair. And while queer themes are usually veiled in Wilde’s work, his exuberant personality makes them such a joy to read and watch.

Oscar Wilde was most famous for being a playwright, and I highly recommend the 2002 movie version of The Importance of Being Ernset starring Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Reese Witherspoon, Judi Dench, and more. Wilde’s comedy is laugh out loud funny, and these actors really bring the larger than life characters to life.

But Wilde wrote a single novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, that is my recommendation today. It’s a haunting tale of young Dorian, a wealthy socialite so beautiful and self-absorbed that he wishes his portrait would age instead of him. When his wish is mysteriously granted, Dorian leads a life with no other purpose than to fulfill his every desire. As you can imagine, this leads to all kinds of tragedy for the people surrounding Dorian, and soon Dorian’s portrait is unrecognizable.

You’ve probably seen Dorian presented as a monster story in modern media adaptations, which I suppose in a way is true. But in the original novel Dorian is much more terrifying: a wealthy young white man whose privilege protects him and allows him to wreak terrible harm on himself and those around him. This story is haunting for all the ways we see reality reflected in it.

The modern reader will also clearly recognize queer themes in the novel, especially surrounding the character of the artist who paints Dorian’s portrait. Considering the time the novel was written in (1890), the directness of the character’s sexuality is brave indeed.

I’ll also take a moment to recommend the 1980s classic novels by people of color I referenced at the beginning, The Color Purple and Bless Me, Ultima. If you haven’t read The Color Purple yet, I can only assume you’re avoiding it for some reason. Truly, it’s a fantastic piece of fiction, and feminist to boot. Ultima is perhaps a less accessible read, but I really appreciated a glimpse into the beginning of the magical realism movement.

What are your favorite diverse classics?

14 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: Recommend a Diverse Classic

  1. Well, India and China both have their own literary traditions, and you could read their classics in translation. The one I am most familiar with is the Ramayana, an Indonesian epic that tells of the adventures of the hero Rama.

    But you asked about favorites. For me …
    -the Iliad and the Odessey. The Iliad is set in Turkey, the Odessey is tour of the ancient Mediterranean, including northern Africa. The Greek characters might technically be white, but both books are set in an extremely ancient time and also written by someone from that time. I think they are pretty different from you and me.
    -the Old Testament. Sweeping epic, huge cast of characters, probably not a white face among them. Hard to tell, since in those days writers weren’t as concerned with race and identified people their family or place of birth, and usually didn’t mention what they looked like. But the Jews are a Semitic people (especially back then, before they had lived in Europe), and the action takes you all around the ancient world, including to the empires of Egypt and Babylon.
    Confessions by St. Augustine of Hippo. He was from northern Africa. A Christian classic.

    Finally … have you read anything by Kipling? I know, I know, “own voices,” but hear me out. Sometimes the best person to give a literary introduction of, say, India to, say, the British reading public is someone who is bicultural, like Kipling, a true Englishman who also lived in India for years and legitimately loved it. I recommend his chilling short story The Man Would Be King. Kind of a cautionary tale for colonialists.

    In this vein, but not by Kipling, I also recommend Nectar in A Sieve (set in India), and Pavilion of Women, set in China.

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    1. Classics in translation is a good suggestion. I don’t imagine Chinese and Japanese classic literature would probably be very comfortable to the Western audience, it’s probably very different. All the more reason to read it! My impression of Africa and the Middle East is that their classics are more philosophical than fiction, which I admit doesn’t appeal much to me. Ramayana sounds akin to Homer, so maybe I would enjoy that!

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      1. Yes, it is very Homer-like. Giants, the whole bit.

        I, too, had trouble thinking of fiction classics from the Middle East and Africa other than history and folk tales. And I believe there are some classic Arabic medical and mathematical texts, but those might be slow going for fiction readers like us.

        I forget whether you’ve mentioned them on your blog before, but from West Africa there is also Things Fall Apart, which is basically a response to Heart of Darkness, and The Poisonwood Bible, which is aware of both of those previous works.

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        1. I read Heart of Darkness, but it’s a pretty colonialist look at Africa. Even in my teens I could tell how racist it was. I guess I should have clarified that I meant Northern Africa, the epicenter of the classic world being Timbuktu.

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          1. There is a lot going on in Heart of Darkness. Of course, it is a colonialist’s perspective. I first read it as an adult, after having spent some years as an expat, and I recognized that it is describing the expat experience when a person enters a country/culture that is SO different from what he is used to (I’m using he because the MC is male), that the learning curve is SO steep, that it’s literally impossible for the outsider to learn enough to function, let alone assimilate, so he spends his entire stay there in a state of not knowing what the hell is going on. Believe me, there is a lot in the expat experience that can make a person say, “Oh, the horror, the horror!”

            Things Fall Apart looks at the same phenomenon from the other side. It shows, from an African’s perspective, how when outsiders enter a culture with lots of power and ambitious plans, but not with a lot of knowledge, it wreaks destruction.

            In my case, in middle school they had us read Things Fall Apart but not Heart of Darkness. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I found out the one was a response to the other. I sort of wish they’d had us read both. Then it would have been more like listening in to the entire conversation, not coming in halfway. But, to be fair, I’m not sure I would have had the maturity to “get” Heart of Darkness at that age, just as I wasn’t ready for 1984.

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          2. I, on the other hand, *only* read Heart of Darkness. Which I agree I probably didn’t fully understand. I have vague memories of being upset that it was racist and poacher-y, but don’t remember it well enough to say why.

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  2. Oscar Wilde has written so many wonderful works, and, sadly, I have not yet gotten to them all. I do love Dorian Gray (even though it’s pretty disturbing) as well as Wilde’s fairy tales. But I have not yet read The Importance of Being Earnest!

    Also, yes, to Bless Me, Ultima!

    Liked by 1 person

          1. I’ve never read Hemingway and I didn’t like Fitzgerald. I had to read one of his books in college and I hated it. Can never remember the title until someone say sit, hah!

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