Practical accounts of life and culture under oppression and turmoil?
November 9, 2016 4:10 PM   Subscribe

The 2016 election in some ways feels like an unprecedented event, but as an American I'm trying to keep in mind how much worse the leadership has been in so many other countries now and throughout history. I recognize that thriving cultural communities have emerged out of worse regimes, so I'm looking for any accounts of how, practically and psychologically, they did that (fictional or non). How did the makers and do-ers keep going?

Doesn't have to be capitol-C culture, I'd be as interested in the Russian literati as rural villages trying to preserve local traditions under Maoist China. To clarify, I'm not necessarily looking for accounts of overt political resistance. More accounts of how a way of life or an art form has been preserved through hostile political atmospheres, whether through overt resistance or other means. I'm a painter and a teacher, and most of my friends either make things or work with people, and we're all generally looking at our hands right now thinking, Ok, what now? I want to know the answers other communities found.
posted by nímwunnan to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
I enjoyed the book "Reading Lolita in Tehran" and the movie "Beyond Rangoon." They are both kind of fictionalized accounts of real events, or so I understand. I am not sure how closely it fits your definition.
posted by Michele in California at 4:18 PM on November 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Vaclav Havel wrote about this.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:43 PM on November 9, 2016

Oooh, Havel. Yes. Thank you.
posted by nímwunnan at 4:50 PM on November 9, 2016

Ji Xianlin’s The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution is gripping.
Also, Ten Years of Madness.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:05 PM on November 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

You might find the later essays in Joseph Roth's The Hotel Years instructive.

Also Eamon Duffy's Voices of Morebath, about how a village coped with the dizzying religious reversals of the English Reformation.
posted by praemunire at 5:22 PM on November 9, 2016

Maybe DIY Culture: Party and Protest in Nineties Britain by George McKay? Perhaps too tangential - I wouldn't say 90s Britain was akin to Maoist China! - but it has some interesting examples of how subcultures create & sustain themselves.
posted by yesbut at 5:27 PM on November 9, 2016

Definitely fiction, but Ursula LeGuin wrote The Telling about a culture's struggles to preserve itself from erasure from within.
posted by DSime at 6:06 PM on November 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you haven't read it yet, John McPhee's The Ransom of Russian Art seems up your alley.
posted by dysh at 6:21 PM on November 9, 2016

These are fantastic thank you!
posted by nímwunnan at 8:11 PM on November 9, 2016

A friend of mine gave me a copy of Survival in the Killing Fields (autobiography of Haing Ngor who won an Oscar for the film) after coming back from Cambodia and I lot of the horror and senselessness of it stuck with me. I'd say it's more about physical and psychological survival than preserving a way of life or art form though.
posted by neilb449 at 10:59 PM on November 9, 2016

I feel like Persepolis fits here.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 11:59 PM on November 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

I don't mean to encourage facile Trump=Hitler comparisons (though if the cap fits ..), but I do find some comfort in this passage from Leonard Woolf's memoir of the 1930s:
One of the most horrible things at that time was to listen on the wireless to the speeches of Hitler, the savage and insane ravings of a vindictive underdog who suddenly saw himself to be all-powerful. We were in Rodmell during the late summer of 1939, and I used to listen to those ranting, raving speeches. One afternoon I was planting in an orchard under an apple-tree iris reticulata, those lovely violet flowers which, like the daffodils, 'come before the swallow dares and take the winds of March with beauty'. Suddenly I heard Virginia's voice calling to me from the sitting-room window: 'Hitler is making a speech'. I shouted back: 'I shan't come. I'm planting iris and they will be flowering long after he is dead.' Last March, 21 years after Hitler committed suicide in the bunker, a few of those violet flowers still flowered under the apple-tree in the orchard.
posted by verstegan at 7:28 AM on November 10, 2016 [9 favorites]

Persepolis is an excellent book and the author of it has written other excellent books that you should also check out.

I have had friends in Iran. Persian culture is very rich and old and the oppression of this old culture by religious extremists is fascinating and instructive. Persepolis and related books by the same author are a great place to start learning abiut all that.
posted by Michele in California at 10:24 AM on November 10, 2016

The Singing Revolution is the story of Estonia resisting the Soviet presence through their national singing festival.

Life is Beautiful is a fictional story of a Jewish father who protects his son in a concentration camp.
posted by CathyG at 12:05 PM on November 10, 2016

I'm currently reading Rian Malan's My Traitor's Heart, a very well-written and vivid memoir by a liberal white South African journalist trying to keep his humanity intact during apartheid. What is particularly interesting is that the oppressors are his own people, and he is caught between his loyalty to his own kith and kin and his affinity for black people (hence the title). There are some fascinating incidents, such as when he shows his family's black maid a photograph of some graffiti he has painted - "Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud" - and she is disgusted by it. The complexity of the situation, and the way that people were twisted out of shape by it, is enthralling. In the American context I think it has a lot of insights for those who are NOT immigrants, or people of colour, or women - how can those who are not directly victimised by Trump's politics be good allies to those who are?

On preview, this might be too overtly political for what you're looking for, but I'd recommend it nevertheless.
posted by matthew.alexander at 1:11 PM on November 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

A Chinese Life is the biography of a man who lived through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution and beyond.
posted by ignignokt at 9:15 PM on November 10, 2016

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea - North Korea is Orwell's 1984 made reality: it is the only country in the world not connected to the internet; Gone with the Wind is a dangerous, banned book; during political rallies, spies study your expression to check your sincerity.

They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 - Among the many books written on Germany after the collapse of Hitler's Thousand Year Reich, this book by Milton Mayer is one of the most readable and most enlightening

Disclaimer, haven't read either yet but both were highly recommended.
posted by guy72277 at 12:06 AM on November 11, 2016

I'd probably recommend reading Native American and African-American cultural histories, as well. "Oppression and turmoil" already HAS happened in Freedomland; it just didn't affect white people.
posted by Pseudonymous Cognomen at 6:48 AM on November 11, 2016

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