Reading Group Center

5 Books Demonstrating the Power of the Pen

National Book Award–winning author Ha Jin’s many novels have focused on the experience of Chinese immigrants and the repressive nature of the Chinese government. From censorship to travel limitations, to political corruption, Ha Jin’s portrayals of Chinese life both at home and abroad have caused his books to be banned in his native country, demonstrating the power of the pen. Writing, whether in the form of journalism or literature, can change the world—if it couldn’t, those in power wouldn’t feel so threatened by it.

To supplement your reading of Ha Jin’s latest work, The Boat Rocker, we offer this list of other titles by acclaimed international authors whose search for truth through writing, like Jin’s, exposes injustice and sometimes causes an uproar.




The Boat Rocker by Ha Jin

“One of the most unsettling books about the moral dimensions of modern journalism.” —The Washington Post

From the award-winning author of Waiting and War Trash: an urgent, timely novel that follows an aspiring author, an outrageous book idea,and a lone journalist’s dogged quest for truth in the Internet age.

New York, 2005. Chinese expatriate Feng Danlin is a fiercely principled reporter at a small news agency that produces a website read by the Chinese diaspora around the world. Danlin’s explosive exposés have made him legendary among readers—and feared by Communist officials. But his newest assignment may be his undoing: investigating his ex-wife, Yan Haili, an unscrupulous novelist who has willingly become a pawn of the Chinese government in order to realize her dreams of literary stardom.

Haili’s scheme infuriates Danlin both morally and personally—he will do whatever it takes to expose her as a fraud. But in outing Haili, he is also provoking her powerful political allies,and he will need to draw on all of his journalistic cunning to emerge from this investigation with his career—and his life—still intact. A brilliant,darkly funny story of corruption, integrity, and the power of the pen, The Boat Rocker is a tour de force of modern fiction.

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BalzacBalzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

Banned in China, Dai Sijie’s novel about censorship and banned books also sheds lights on problems in Communist China.

“Poetic and affecting. . . . The descriptions of life in this strangest of times and places are so riveting that the reader longs for more.” —The New York Times Book Review

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is an enchanting tale that captures the magic of reading and the wonder of romantic awakening. An immediate international bestseller, it tells the story of two hapless city boys exiled to a remote mountain village for re-education during China’s infamous Cultural Revolution. There the two friends meet the daughter of the local tailor and discover a hidden stash of Western classics in Chinese translation. As they flirt with the seamstress and secretly devour these banned works, the two friends find transit from their grim surroundings to worlds they never imagined.

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ChildrenChildren of the Alley by Naguib Mahfouz

Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Children of the Alley was banned in Egypt because of its controversial treatment of Islam and led to calls for his death.

“An ambitious fable that attempts to embrace within its pages not merely the world of the Middle East but that of the world itself.” —The Washington Post Book World

The tumultuous alley of this rich and intricate novel (first published in Arabic in 1959) is inhabited by a delightful Egyptian family, but is also the setting for a second, hidden, and more daring narrative: the spiritual history of humankind. The men and women of a modern Cairo neighborood unwittingly reenact the lives of their holy ancestors: from the feudal lord who disowns one son for diabolical pride and puts another to the test, to the savior of a succeeding generation who frees his people from bondage. This powerful novel confirms again the richness and variety of Mahfouz’s storytelling and his status as “the single most important writer in modern Arabic literature” (Newsweek).

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SnowSnow by Orhan Pamuk

Nobel Prize–winning author, Orhan Pamuk’s books have been publicly burned in Turkey and the author faced trial in 2005 for “insulting Turkishness.”

“In Turkey . . . to write with honest complexity about such matters as head scarves and religious belief takes courage.” —John Updike, The New Yorker

Dread, yearning, identity, intrigue, the lethal chemistry between secular doubt and Islamic fanaticism—these are the elements that Orhan Pamuk anneals in this masterful, disquieting novel. An exiled poet named Ka returns to Turkey and travels to the forlorn city of Kars. His ostensible purpose is to report on a wave of suicides among religious girls forbidden to wear their headscarves. But Ka is also drawn by his memories of the radiant Ipek, now recently divorced. Amid a blanketing snowfall and universal suspicion, Ka finds himself pursued by figures ranging from Ipek’s ex-husband to a charismatic terrorist. A lost gift returns with ecstatic suddenness. A theatrical evening climaxes in a massacre. And finding God may be the prelude to losing everything else. Touching, slyly comic, and humming with cerebral suspense, Snow is of immense relevance to our present moment.

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JourneySuch a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry

Rohinton Mistry’s award-winning book was banned by the University of Mumbai at the request of a far-right nationalist group and amid protests and book burning.

“A rich, humane work, undoubtedly one of the best novels about India in recent years.”
The Spectator (London)

It is Bombay in 1971, the year India went to war over what was to become Bangladesh. A hardworking bank clerk, Gustad Noble is a devoted family man who gradually sees his modest life unraveling. His young daughter falls ill; his promising son defies his father’s ambitions for him. He is the one reasonable voice amidst the ongoing dramas of his neighbors. One day, he receives a letter from an old friend, asking him to help in what at first seems like an heroic mission. But he soon finds himself unwittingly drawn into a dangerous network of deception. Compassionate and rich in details of character and place, this unforgettable novel charts the journey of a moral heart in a turbulent world of change.

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