Exploring identity

This summer, we’re diving into the BBC’s list of 100 novels that  shaped our world.

One of the categories is identity, and the BBC panel selected these 10 books:

  • Beloved – Toni Morrison
  • Days Without End – Sebastian Barry
  • Fugitive Pieces – Anne Michaels
  • Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi
  • Small Island – Andrea Levy
  • The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
  • The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
  • Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
  • White Teeth – Zadie Smith

If you’re interested in learning more about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Chinua Achebe, there was a two-part special of the South Bank Show, that compares these two major Nigerian writers. You can watch both part 1 and part 2 on Box of Broadcasts.

If you want to dive deeper into the evocative world of Half of a Yellow Sun, the film adaptation is also available on Box of Broadcasts.

Something that sets the BBC’s list apart from many other ‘top books’ lists is the breadth of titles included, and the acknowledgement that being a bestseller doesn’t necessarily mean a book doesn’t have literary merit. This tension between ‘good’ literature and books that make the author lots of money is explored in this journal article by Marie-Pierre Pouly, using Zadie Smith’s White Teeth as a case study.

And, of course, there are many other books that cover the topic of identity. Jacqui Findlay from the library thinks that The Women’s Room by Marilyn French should have been included in this category:

Somewhat outdated now and in the early 1990s when I read it, but it made me think about marriage and what it means for women. I was newly married so probably could have done with reading it a bit earlier!

Jacqui Findlay holdingAs Jacqui shows us, certain books have an added resonance at certain points in our lives.  Although the words of the books do not change, both their readers and their writers can shift and change over time. Speaking on condition that the recording would only be released after her death, Andrea Levy gave an in-depth interview to oral historian Sarah O’Reilly for the British Library’s Authors’ Lives project in 2014. This 2020 radio documentary draws on this recording and shows how Levy’s views of her own history and heritage changed over her lifetime.

Finally, have a look at this print from artist Robert Rauschenberg. In 1994, Rauschenberg presented Tribute 21, a series of 21 poster-size prints. He was looking ahead to the new century in optimism at how art can shape society, the economy and culture. Each of the prints honours an individual that encapsulates their field and demonstrates commitment to building a flourishing and fair society. To embody literature, Rauschenberg chose Toni Morrison, the Nobel-winning author of Beloved.

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