It’s a well-known fact that reading makes us more empathetic. How could it not? When we read, especially fiction, we can easily put ourselves in the shoes of the protagonists. We recreate the scenes from books in our imaginations, inhabiting the world of the characters on the page. That’s one of the reasons why books are almost always better than movies – the imagined worlds we create in our mind can rarely be captured in quite the same way on screen.
For this reason, I believe that reading stories set during war and conflict can help us build more empathy towards all people. Rarely are things as black and white as the leading narratives of the news cycle and social media trends have us believe.
When we read about the cost of war and the human suffering of people regardless of race, religion, gender, or nationality, it can help us soften our stance and open our minds to question why some sections of society oppress those they look at as “the other”, and also to try and understand why the oppressed often become aggressors. And it makes us – or at least me – wish that we would all just be a little kinder towards one another.
With that rather long preamble out of the way, here are 5 books set against the backdrop of war that I read and enjoyed this year.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri deals with the flight of refugees from Aleppo, Syria, to Europe during the Syrian Civil War. It’s a heart-wrenching story that humanizes the headlines and photographs of the refugee crisis and immigration debate by throwing a light on the desperate circumstances that force people to flee their homes despite the dangers along the way. Nuri is a beekeeper; his wife Afra is an artist. They have a wonderful home, a vibrant life, friends and family and memories in Aleppo. Until the civil war breaks out, and they are forced to leave everything they love, everything that is familiar, and make the perilous journey from Syria to England. Lefteri brings their story alive, drawing from her own experience over two summers volunteering at a refugee center in Athens. It’s not an easy story by any means, but it brings the Syrian crisis to life powerfully. I cannot recommend it highly enough. (Buy on Amazon)
Peace Has Come by Parismita Singh is a collection of short stories about ordinary people trying to live normal lives while sandwiched between the state and insurgents. Set in the villages of upper Assam, a region scarred by decades of violence, the meaning of ‘normal’ morphs into a tenuous feeling of irrational hope while walking on the knife-edge of fear. To read these stories is to rewire our ideas of war, resolution, and the lives that are lived in between. They bring to life places and cultures that are sadly not well known even by the majority of us in India. And despite the somber subject matter, the book, somehow, is not depressing. Another gem of a book that I recommend highly.
I didn’t know anything about “comfort women” or the brutal 35-year occupation of Korea by Japan until I read Daughters of the Dragon by William Andrews.
The story begins with the Japanese occupation of Korea and China during World War II, when more than two hundred thousand Korean women were forced to serve the soldiers as “comfort women.” I stumbled across this book on Kindle Unlimited, and I’m so glad that I did. It deals with a part of history that I honestly didn’t know much about. World War II literature is often dominated by stories of the holocaust, Pearl Harbor, or the allies. What happened in Korea seems to have gone largely unnoticed — or maybe I didn’t notice it.
This is the story of Jae-hee, a young Korean girl who was forced to become a sex slave for the Japanese troops. It is the story of Korea, a land torn apart by war. And it is the story of a precious tortoiseshell comb with a two-headed ivory dragon that has survived against all odds through generations of her family’s women. Highly, highly recommended. (Buy on Amazon)
This is the first book in the Dragon Queen trilogy, though each of these books stands alone.
In the second book, The Dragon Queen, Andrews traces the dramatic rise of Korea’s last queen and the legacy she leaves behind. The novel follows the story of Ja-young, a young orphan who is chosen to become the child bride of Gojong, Korea’s boy king. Highly intelligent but shy, Ja-young faces a choice: she can be a stone queen—silent and submissive—or she can be a dragon queen and oppose enemies and empires that try to rule Korea during the age of imperialism.
Her choice leads her to forge a legend that will endure far beyond her lifetime.
Interspersed with Queen Min’s journey is some social commentary on modern-day Korea. It’s interesting, but quite thin, used mainly to prop up the Queen’s story. However, it highlights something I didn’t quite realize — seemingly popular ground support for a unified Korea. Not something that’s apparent to most of us! (Buy on Amazon)
The Spirit of the Dragon by William Andrews is the final book in the trilogy. Like Daughters of the Dragon, this novel is set during the time of the Japanese invasion of Korea.
It tells the story of Suk-bo, a young Korean girl who is forced to marry a Japanese boy Hishasi, the son of the local Director-General, as part of an order by the Japanese Emperor, who decreed that Korean girls over the age of 16 should marry Japanese boys to assimilate them into Japanese life. Despite their differences, they fall in love. But when nations are at war, love can be a dangerous thing.
This is another beautifully told story that sheds further light on a different aspect of World War II and on Japan’s occupation of Korea. Although this is the third in the series, it can be read as a stand-alone novel too. (Buy on Amazon)
And a bonus — a book that fits in to this theme a bit obliquely.
Tawaifnama by Saba Dewan is a fascinating read on the Tawaif culture in India, told through the family stories and history of one UP-based Tawaif family. Tracing tawaif culture from the 1800s, the book touches on the war against their way of life following the Sepoy mutiny in India in the 1880s, and offers an interesting insight into the life and times of tawaif families – and by extension Indian society – through the ages. I’ve written more about the book here, if you’re interested. (Buy on Amazon)
Which of these books would you like to read next? Also, why not drop a recommendation of one of your favorite books set during a war or conflict?