Poverty is not heroic. It is cruel, unfair and undignified. Poverty is so often about numbers: 1.3 billion live in extreme poverty, and three billion live on less than $2.50 a day. Nearly 800 million suffer from hunger. It is so easy to get lost in the numbers and forget that all seven billion people in this world are human – complex, beautiful and wonderful. Literature tries to catalog and understand some of that complexity. Here are five books about poverty and the people who are victims of it.
Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat
Claire is born on the day her mother dies; “her birthday was also a day of death.” For years, her father implores wealthy Madame Gaelle, a fabric shop owner, to adopt his daughter. He needs to search for work and can’t provide for Claire. When Madame Gaelle finally agrees, Claire runs away.
She connects the residents of Ville Rose, Haiti. They – her father, ‘milk-mother,’ relatives and friends – search for her. As their loves and tragedies are unwound, the struggles of Haiti and its people are clearly, sympathetically revealed.
The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah
It is 1965, and the fledgling Ghanian government is a snakes nest of wealthy and ambitious elites. Corruption has swept the country. Our protagonist, an unnamed and humble railway station worker, is very much an ‘everyman.’ An honest man, he refuses bribes, choosing his integrity over money he desperately needs.
It is honesty that resigns him to poverty. He witnesses the rise of “the black masters,” as power hungry and ruthless as the colonists. He sees “the teacher” losing hope for a better Ghana. He must navigate life in post-colonial Ghana and its inherent chaos.
Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya
Nectar in a Sieve is the story of an Indian woman’s life from her marriage at 12 until her death. Though she is well educated, her poverty-stricken father marries her to a ‘good-hearted’ man much her senior.
She has six children, five of which are sons. While it is seen as an accomplishment she is commended for, she is not able to feed her children. Survival becomes the only goal for Rukmani. Her daughter marries early. Her sons look for any work they can find. Still, their fates are decided by unreliable weather, unpredictable harvests and the changing industry of the 20th century.
Brick Lane by Monica Ali
At age 18, Nanzeen is a garment worker – she lives and works in Bangladesh, sewing buttons and zippers. Sent to London, she is married to immigrant and complete stranger Chanu.
She does not speak English, and her husband sees no reason to teach her. Her children, he reasons, will teach her eventually. Though he is not unkind, her inability to speak English severely limits her independence. Uncomfortable outside the confines of her home, she never leaves it.
The centerpiece of the story is her passionate affair with a young man, Karim. The relationships between Nanzeen, her lover and her husband are tantamount. What happens when a woman is empowered to think beyond her traditional position? How does it affect the culture from which she comes? How will her daughters live, when their mother wants freedom and education for them?
City of God by Paulo Lins
During the 1960s, the Brazilian government moved many of its favelas outside city centers. One such slum was named City of God. In his semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, Paulo Lins describes life there.
The progression of violence from hold ups to drugs dealing, drug dealing to cartels and cartels to armed gangs is manifest in the lives of petty criminals and gangsters. They are trapped in a cycle of poverty and violence, living in what The Guardian calls “a picture postcard of hell.”
– Olivia Kostreva