Resistance, when led by the youth, is fiery and inspirational. Oppression by governments wearing the face of a state, stodgy and unmovable, can appear unbearable, but the power of student protests has a pristine quality, an energy and an urgency that remains undefeated – especially over time, and in the long run, a fact that novelists, and writers of fiction have brought alive in their works.
Here is a quick look at some of the definitive works of fiction about youth-led resistance, demonstrating the power of dissent to live on in myriad ways, and especially how protest enables the creation of art that gives hope to later generations. Remembering, these works suggest, is also an essential part of resistance.
In Madeleine Thien’s 2016 Man Booker shortlisted Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the title drawn from a line of the Chinese version of the left-wing anthem, The Internationale. Marie goes in search of a friend, Ai-ming, only with the help of the Book of Records the latter has left behind. The girls’ fathers had been friends in China under Mao, drawn together by their love of music. Yet in the time of the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s, music was considered subversive, and all intellectuals were sent away to be rehabilitated and re-educated.
The music their fathers loved has caused death, misery and the loss of love itself. But for all attempts to erase art and history, Marie discovers, during a search that takes her from Canada to China, love and old stories told through three generations of her family and Ai-ming’s, juxtaposed against important events in China’s history. Despite official versions, old stories are recounted, remembered, relived in many ways. Such stories, even those that are part of old family lore, are vital and live on, as does music.
The South Korean novelist Han Kang’s second novel to be translated into English by Deborah Smith, Human Acts, begins with the uprisings that take place at Gwangju, in southern South Korea in the summer of 1980, soon after the dictator Chun Doo-hwan’s assumption of power. The resistance, led by students, teachers and workers and other citizens, was brutally crushed.
For a while the authorities managed to erase it from history, but in 1997, May 18 was declared a day of commemoration, and the cemetery where most of the victims had been unceremoniously left (described graphically in the novel) was declared a national monument. In her novel of connected stories, Han Kang introduces various characters who try to “resist” in various ways, by recollecting the events, despite their pain and fear of repression, years after the violence. In the process, they also struggle to recover their humanity and capacity for empathy, for, as Kang suggests in this complex novel, these are easily lost in the face of brutality.
One of the year’s most hailed debuts in 2016, Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist is set amidst the Anti-WTO protests in Seattle over five days of November 1999. Told from several perspectives, including those of 19-year-old Victor – who is biracial, directionless in life, and looking to sell weed among the protestors; his estranged father, the chief of police Bishop, seeking to quell the protestors; two medics wishing to offer succour and aid; and the Sri Lankan delegate to the WTO conference, Charles Wickramsinghe, Yapa’s is a crowded novel, filled with questions about what kind of a world we must ideally live in, and whether such a world promises equality and fairness to all. One gets a sense of the breathless rush and exhilaration that can come from being part of a movement, and of the moments of hope and optimism, all of which buoy up this novel.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland tells the story of three people who come together against the backdrop of the Naxalite rebellions and student movements in West Bengal in the late ’60s-early ’70s. After his brother, Udayan, is shot dead by the police for his links with Naxalites, Subhash marries Gauri, the former’s wife.
Lahiri limns the complexities that linger between all relationships, changing hue and colour over time. Udayan’s absent presence shapes the relationship between Subhash and Gauri, and Bela, who is born a few months after Udayan’s death. Besides all the big questions about the many unfathomable things that ultimately decide how we live our lives, Lahiri also takes on memory: how we remember others and why some memories long buried return to the surface years later and must be told then, even to strangers.
Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s Waiting for Rain, translated into English by Nilanjan Bhattacharya from the original Bengali, Brishtir Opekyay, is set in Kolkata of the ’70s. It is a city squirming in summer heat. The lives of its young protagonists are thrown into disarray and somnolent confusion against the backdrop of the Naxalite movement and a brutal state police, bent on crushing dissent, who find the innocent and those on the sidelines easy targets.
The sheen of independence has worn off and Kolkata’s middle-class is looking economic chaos in the face. Somsundar is a down and out boxer seeking employment; his brother has “disappeared”. Manju, born into wealth, has a good marriage to look forward to. And Adri is already well-established in his chosen career. All of them must live in a city with declining promise and ask themselves questions about the future.
Space Invaders: A Novel, by Nona Fernandez, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer is set in the Chile of the ’80s, long after the terrors of the Pinochet regime have passed. Years after the disappearance of Estrella Gonzalez Jepsen, whose father was a government officer and later accused of involvement in crimes during Pinochet’s regime, her classmates still remember her in various ways.
What they recollect is their powerlessness and fear during the years of dictatorship, but their memories of Estrella are vivid, magical and kaleidoscopic in range. They also share with one another the memories of their school years with Estrella, the boys she had crushes on, the letters she wrote, and how she sounded. In this way, they make their own version of a past very different from officially sanctioned histories.