Five books about the American War in Vietnam

May is Asian and Pacific Islander heritage month! So for this month I’m going to share reading recommendations from across Asia and the Pacific Islands.

I love this part of the world and I’m excited to be sharing books from here. I think books are a great way to gain insight into peoples’ lives and their culture. You may not be able to travel or live everywhere you’re interested in, but you can definitely read books from anywhere in the world.


One world altering event, I’ve been enjoying learning more about is the American War in Vietnam (as called by those in Vietnam).

The more that I read from different perspectives the more nuance I gain in understanding complex events. I think most world altering events deserve as much nuance as possible. There are always good and bad decisions, but the individuals involved in carrying out those decisions are rarely purely good or bad.

Personally, I’ve been interested in learning about the Vietnamese perspective of the war. I grew up in the Western world and so the little I understood about the war was shaped by the societies’ perspective of the war. I know most North Americans are used to hearing about the “Vietnam War”, but even just what we call it shows different perspectives.

Importance of different perspectives

Books written by Vietnamese authors are a great way to gain some insight into the diverse opinions and experiences of the Vietnamese. Just like any event, no two perspectives or experiences are going to be the same.

I think it’s important to read from multiple perspectives, such as from survivors of the war, refugees of the war (and their descendants), and the generations that grew up in the aftermath of the war. The more perspectives you read about, the more pieces of the puzzle you gain, and slowly a larger picture or understanding will form.

For context, it’s important to understand that the Vietnamese government still has influence over the publishing industry in Vietnam, meaning all media has to be reviewed/approved by the government. This influence has been exerted over all media in Vietnam since the war ended (1975), with many writers either being arrested or having to leave the country.

Due to the government censorship, some books (like The Mountains Sing) are actually written in English to avoid being altered or affected by the government. Interestingly English might allow them a bit more freedom of expression, because it helps them get published outside of Vietnam (aka outside of the government’s influence).

I’ve included a range of books to help showcase a range of perspectives.

Photo by Thijs Degenkamp on Unsplash

Five books about the American War in Vietnam

Here’s a list of five books that explore the American War in Vietnam.

  1. The Sorrow of War / Thân Phận Của Tình Yêu (The Fate of Love) (1987)
  2. Novel Without a Name (1991)
  3. The Sympathizer (2015)
  4. The Mountains Sing (2020)
  5. Wandering Souls (2023)

Keep reading to find out more about each one. I’ve listed them in order of when they were published.

The Sorrow of War / Thân Phận Của Tình Yêu (The Fate of Love) (1987)

by Bảo Ninh, translated from the Vietnamese by Phan Thanh Hảo and edited by Frank Palmos

  • Year Published: 1987
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, historical, literary, dark, reflective, sad, slow-paced
  • Won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

Bao Ninh, a former North Vietnamese soldier, provides a strikingly honest look at how the Vietnam War forever changed his life, his country, and the people who live there. Originally published against government wishes in Vietnam because of its non-heroic, non-ideological tone, The Sorrow of War has won worldwide acclaim and become an international bestseller.

Links:

Novel Without a Name (1991)

by Dương Thu Hương, translated from the Vietnamese by Phan Huy Duong & Nina McPherson

  • Year Published: 1991
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, historical, dark, slow-paced
  • Hương was labeled a “dissident writer” by the Vietnamese Communist party for her criticism of the party and its members.

Twenty-eight-year-old Quan has been fighting for the Communist cause in North Vietnam for a decade. Filled with idealism and hope when he first left his village, he now spends his days and nights dodging stray bullets and bombs, foraging scraps of food to feed himself and his men. Quan seeks comfort in childhood memories as he tries to sort out his conflicting feelings of patriotism and disillusionment. Then, given the chance to return to his home, Quan undertakes a physical and mental journey that brings him face to face with figures from his past—his angry father, his childhood sweetheart, his boyhood friends now maimed or dead—and ultimately to the shattering reality that his innocence has been irretrievably lost in the wake of the war. In a voice both lyrical and stark, Duong Thu Huong, one of Vietnam’s most beloved writers, powerfully conveys the conflict that spiritually destroyed her generation.

Links:

The Sympathizer (2015)

by Viet Thanh Nguyen / Nguyễn Thanh Việt

  • Year Published: 2015
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, historical, literary, thriller, challenging, dark, tense, slow-paced
  • Won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong.

The Sympathizer is the story of this captain: a man brought up by an absent French father and a poor Vietnamese mother, a man who went to university in America, but returned to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause. A gripping spy novel, an astute exploration of extreme politics, and a moving love story, The Sympathizer explores a life between two worlds and examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.

Links:

The Mountains Sing (2020)

by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai (written in English)

  • Year Published: 2015
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, historical, literary, thriller, challenging, dark, tense, slow-paced
  • Won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

With the epic sweep of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and the lyrical beauty of Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multigenerational tale of the Trần family, set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War. Trần Diệu Lan, who was born in 1920, was forced to flee her family farm with her six children during the Land Reform as the Communist government rose in the North. Years later in Hà Nội, her young granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the Hồ Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that tore apart not just her beloved country, but also her family.

Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Việt Nam, The Mountains Sing brings to life the human costs of this conflict from the point of view of the Vietnamese people themselves, while showing us the true power of kindness and hope.

Links:

Wandering Souls (2023)

by Cecile Pin

  • Year Published: 2023
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, historical, literary, emotional, reflective, sad, medium-paced
  • Finalist for the 2023 Waterstones Debut Fiction Prize

A luminous, boldly imagined debut novel about three Vietnamese siblings who seek refuge in the UK, expanding into a sweeping meditation on love, ancestry, and the power of storytelling.

There are the goodbyes and then the fishing out of the bodies—everything in between is speculation.

After the last American troops leave Vietnam, siblings Anh, Thanh, and Minh begin a perilous journey to Hong Kong with the promise that their parents and younger siblings will soon follow. But when tragedy strikes, the three children are left orphaned, and sixteen-year-old Anh becomes the caretaker for her two younger brothers overnight.

Links:

Final thoughts

I hope you found something of interest in this list of books.

I’m always looking for more suggestions of books to read. I’d love to know which books you love or that you would recommend. Let me know in a comment below!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of it?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

Five classic books from Thailand (เมืองไทย)

May is Asian and Pacific Islander heritage month! So this month I’m going to share reading recommendations from across Asia and the Pacific Islands.

I love this part of the world and I’m excited to be sharing books from here. I think books are a great way to gain insight into peoples’ lives and their culture. You may not be able to travel or live everywhere you’re interested in, but you can definitely read from anywhere in the world.


I currently live in Thailand and I’m always learning new things about the country and the people.

I’ve been trying to learn the Thai language and it’s incredibly difficult. But the more I learn, the more I understand that there’s so much culture embedded in the language and it’s a reflection of the nation’s history.

For instance, a lot of the Thai language has been influenced by Indian languages, both Sanskrit and Pali. Sanskrit is more associated with Hinduism and social hierarchies, whereas Pali is associated with Buddhism and the language used by commoners.

So, Thai words used in connection with the monarchy tend to come from Sanskrit, whereas words used for going to the Buddhist temple are more likely to come from Pali. These two languages tend to have distinct spelling patterns or use certain Thai letters, so the difference is still visible to this day.

Photo by Mos on Unsplash

I know the Thai language often poses a barrier to translating works to English, as it can be difficult to translate all the nuances embedded in the language.

But I think a the greater barrier is that most publishing houses don’t see Thailand as a priority, actually I think most of Southeast Asia is not seen as a priority.

One of the best ways to improve that is to show an interest in Southeast Asian/Thai literature. The more people buy and seek out books from this area, the more the corporations will see it as an opportunity for monetary growth.

So in order to promote Thai literature, and also to share a bit more about Thailand, I’ve put together a list of some classic Thai literature.

This list is obviously not extensive, but serves as an introduction to a few areas of Thai literature that have been translated into English.

Five classic books from Thailand

Here’s a list of five classic books with authors from Thailand.

  1. Ramakien / รามเกียรติ์ (13th century)
  2. Phra Aphai Mani / พระอภัยมณี (1822-1844)
  3. Four Reigns / สี่แผ่นดิน (1953)
  4. A Child of the Northeast / ลูกอีสาน (1976)
  5. The Happiness of Kati / ความสุขของกะทิ (2006)

Keep reading to find out more about each one. I’ve listed them in order of when they were published.

Ramakien / รามเกียรติ์ (13th century)

(Thai: รามเกียรติ์ meaning ‘Glory of Rama’; sometimes also spelled Ramakian)

  • Year Published: 13th century
  • Language: Thai
  • One of Thailand’s epic poems and
  • It is considered Thailand’s version of the Ramayana as it shares most of same the tales, but has been adjusted to the culture of Ayutthaya

Ramakien tells the story of the battle between Tosakanth (king of the demons) and a human, King Rama. Tosakanth kidnaps Queen Sida, wife of King Rama, with the hope that she will fall in love with him. The battle over Queen Sida has Tosakanth and his relatives and friends on one side, against King Rama, his loyal brother Phra Lak and an army of monkey warriors, including Hanuman the demi-god white monkey.

Links:

Phra Aphai Mani / พระอภัยมณี (1822-1844)

by Sunthorn Phu / สุนทรภู่ (who is known as “the Bard of Rattanakosin” / ”กวีเอกแห่งกรุงรัตนโกสินทร์”)

  • Year Published: 1822-1844
  • Storygraph Categories: poetry, adventurous, challenging, reflective, medium-paced
  • As a 48,700-line epic poem, it is considered to be one of Thailand’s national epics, and the world’s second longest epic poem written by a single poet

At the very beginning, Phra Abhai Mani and his younger brother Sri Suvarna set out to acquire knowledge. The kind of knowledge that was thought fit for princes in Thai stories then was the silpasat, which is equivalent to general knowledge or liberal education. The two Princes took up special studies instead. Phra Abhai Mani mastered the art of music, especially flute-playing, while Sri Suvarna was trained in the art of self-defence, in particular cudgel-fighting. Such specialisations were not known or appreciated then and, as a result, the two Princes were turned out of the kingdom by their own father.

Afterwards, the two Princes met three Brahmins who also professed special sciences. One of them could shoot seven arrows at the same time and make them all hit the mark. They exhibited their special excellences of which Phra Abhai Mani’s outshone the rest. At this point, Phra Abhai Mani and Sri Suvarna were separated from each other and had different adventures. But they kept themselves from harm by virtue of their special knowledge. Their lives were also shaped by what they had learnt.

Links:

Four Reigns / สี่แผ่นดิน (1953)

by Kukrit Pramoj / คึกฤทธิ์ ปราโมช, translated from the Thai by Tulachandra

  • Year Published: 1953
  • Storygraph Categories: fiction, historical, challenging, informative, slow-paced
  • One of the most influential Thai novels, widely regarded as a classic and the Encyclopaedia Britannica described it as “probably the best-selling Thai novel of all time”

This English version of the Thai novel Si Phaendin tells the rich and entertaining story of one woman’s life both inside and outside the royal palace in Bangkok. Spanning a period of four reigns, from King Chulalongkorn to the reign of his grandson King Ananda, this popular modern classic gives insight into the social and political issues facing Thailand from the 1890s through the turbulent years of World War II.

Links:

A Child of the Northeast / ลูกอีสาน (1976)

by Kampoon Boonthavee / คำพูน บุญทวี, translated from the Thai by Susan Fulop Kepner

  • Year Published: 1976
  • Storygraph Categories: fiction, classics, emotional, reflective, slow-paced
  • Won the SEA Write Award

A novel about a year in the life of a village in Northeast Thailand during the 1930’s. It is also a tale about a world scarcely known in the West: the world of “Isan”, which is what the natives call their corner of Thailand.

Kampoon Boontawee based this award-winning novel on memories of his own childhood in Isan during the depths of the Depression. The loving, courageous family at the center of the novel include a boy named Koon, who is about eight years old; his sisters Yee-soon, five, and Boonlai, two; and their parents, whose names we never learn. They are simply “Koon’s mother” and “Koon’s father”, even by their friends and family.

Kampoon also introduces his readers to a wider, equally unforgettable family: the relatives and neighbors who live in Koon’s village. It is their bravery, their goodness of heart, and above all, their indestructible, earthy sense of humor, that shape the boy Koon’s perception of the world, and his purpose in it.

Links:

The Happiness of Kati / ความสุขของกะทิ (2006)

by Ngarmpun (Jane) Vejjajiva / งามพรรณ เวชชาชีวะ, translated from the Thai by Prudence Borthwick

  • Year Published: 2006
  • Storygraph Categories: fiction, contemporary, middle grade, emotional, medium-paced
  • Won the SEA Write Award

When the mother she hasn’t seen in five years is stricken with Lou Gehrig’s disease, nine-year-old Kati travels to the house by the sea to spend the last weeks of her mother’s life with her, in this touching story of love, hope, and renewal set in Thailand.

Links:

Final thoughts

I hope you found something of interest in this list of books.

I’m always looking for more suggestions of books to read. I’d love to know which books you love or that you would recommend. Let me know in a comment below!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of it?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

Five epic poems from around the world

April is Poetry Month! So I will be sharing lots of poetry suggestions to help you find more poetry that you enjoy.

Like most forms of art, poetry is subjective and very personal. It can take time to find what you like. I want to remind you that you don’t have to like the poetry that people say you should, but I would encourage you to keep exploring poetry until you find what you enjoy.


For this week, I wanted to focus on epic poems. Epic poems are very long narrative poems, so basically a story told in verse. They often follow the typical hero or journey arc, but can be on any theme.

I think one of the most well-known epic poems in the western world would be The Odyssey or The Iliad by Homer. But there are so many more than that, and from many different parts of the world.

My last post talked about some of the most influential epic poems and for this post I want to focus on some lesser known, but fascinating, epic poems. I’ve included examples from around the world to show how diverse the options are, and also because it seems like most areas of the world have a history of epic poems.

Personally, I wonder if epic poems were common in the past because they were an easier way to share and remember the stories orally due to the rhythm, structure, and rhyming. I imagine it could be similar to how we memorize song lyrics.

I know for most of human history storytelling was primarily oral and any kind of written content was limited to “elites”, those either with lots of money, power or part of a religious order.

It’s amazing to think of how much more accessible the written word is today. Anyone can put their thoughts down on paper (or a digital document) and share it with anyone else. I think that’s beautiful.

I know nowadays epic poems are rarely the form of choice, but epic poems can be found in the literature of most cultures throughout history. And today I want to share with you a few that you might not know or realize were a poem.

Photo by areej fateyma on Unsplash

Five epic poems from around the world

Here’s a list of five epic poems from around the world.

  1. Beowulf by Anonymous / Unknown (975-1025 CE)
  2. Shahnameh by Ferdowsi (977-1010 CE)
  3. The Five Great Epics by Tamil Jains and Tamil Buddhists (no specific individuals) (5th-10th century CE)
  4. Ramakien (13th century)
  5. The Song of Kiều by Du Nguyên (1820)

Keep reading to find out more about each one. I’ve listed them in the general order of when they were “published”.

Beowulf (975-1025 CE)

by Anonymous / Unknown

  • Year Published:975-1025 AD
  • Language: Old English
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, fantasy, poetry, adventurous, medium-paced
  • One of the most often translated and important works of Old English

Composed toward the end of the first millennium, Beowulf is the elegiac narrative of the adventures of Beowulf, a Scandinavian hero who saves the Danes from the seemingly invincible monster Grendel and, later, from Grendel’s mother. He then returns to his own country and dies in old age in a vivid fight against a dragon. The poem is about encountering the monstrous, defeating it, and then having to live on in the exhausted aftermath.

Links:

Shahnameh (977-1010 CE)

(Persian: شاهنامه, ‘The Book of Kings’, also transliterated Shahnama)
by Ferdowsi

  • Year Published: 977-1010 CE
  • Language: Persian
  • Storygraph Categories:
    nonfiction, classics, history, poetry, challenging, informative, reflective, slow-paced
  • One of the longest epic poems in the world, and the longest written by a single individual
  • Considered a literary masterpiece and important to Persian literature

Among the great works of world literature, perhaps one of the least familiar to English readers is the “Shahnameh: ThePersian Book of Kings,” the national epic of Persia. This prodigious narrative, composed by the poet Ferdowsi between the years 980 and 1010, tells the story of pre- Islamic Iran, beginning in the mythic time of Creation and continuing forward to the Arab invasion in the seventh century. As a window on the world, “Shahnameh” belongs in the company of such literary masterpieces as Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” the plays of Shakespeare, the epics of Homer- classics whose reach and range bring whole cultures into view. In its pages are unforgettable moments of national triumph and failure, human courage and cruelty, blissful love and bitter grief.

Links:

The Five Great Epics (5th-10th century CE)

(Tamil: ஐம்பெரும்காப்பியங்கள் Aimperumkāppiyaṅkaḷ)
by Tamil Jains and Tamil Buddhists (no specific individuals)

  • written over the 5th-10th century CE
  • Language: Tamil
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, literary, poetry, adventurous, slow-paced
  • Are a source of historical information on the Tamil people, including their society, religion, culture and academic life

Names of all five epics:
1. Cilappatikāram 
2. Manimekalai
3. Cīvaka Cintāmaṇi
4. Valayapathi 
5. Kundalakesi

Cilappatikāram Summary

One of the world’s masterpieces, The Cilappatikaram (5th century ce) by Ilanko Atikal is India’s finest epic in a language other than Sanskrit. It spells out in unforgettable verse the problems that humanity has been wrestling with for a long time: love, war, evil, fate and death.

The Tale of an Anklet is the love story of Kovalan and Kannaki. Originating in Tamil mythology, the compelling tale of Kannaki—her love, her feats and triumphs, and her ultimate transformation to goddess—follows the conventions of Tamil poetry and is told in three phases: the erotic, the heroic and the mythic. This epic ranks with the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as one of the great classics of Indian literature and is presented for the first time in a landmark English verse translation by the eminent poet R. Parthasarathy, making it accessible to a wider audience.

Links:

Ramakien (13th century)

(Thai: รามเกียรติ์, ’Glory of Rama’; sometimes also spelled Ramakian)

  • Year Published: 13th century
  • Language: Thai
  • One of Thailand’s epic poems and
  • It is considered Thailand’s version of the Ramayana as it shares most of same the tales, but has been adjusted to the culture of Ayutthaya

Ramakien tells the story of the battle between Tosakanth (king of the demons) and a human, King Rama. Tosakanth kidnaps Queen Sida, wife of King Rama, with the hope that she will fall in love with him. The battle over Queen Sida has Tosakanth and his relatives and friends on one side, against King Rama, his loyal brother Phra Lak and an army of monkey warriors, including Hanuman the demi-god white monkey.

Links:

The Song of Kiều (1820)

The original title in Vietnamese is Đoạn Trường Tân Thanh (斷腸新聲, “A New Cry From a Broken Heart”), but it is more commonly known as Truyện Kiều (傳翹, “Tale of Kiều”)
by Du Nguyên

  • Year Published: 1820
  • Language: Vietnamese (written in Chữ Nôm – Chinese characters)
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, poetry, emotional, reflective, sad, medium-paced
  • Most famous Vietnamese poem and a Vietnamese literature classic

A stunning new translation of the legendary Vietnamese epic poem, now for the first time in Penguin Classics

Considered the greatest literary achievement in Vietnamese, The Song of Kieu tells the story of the beautiful Vuong Thuy Kieu, who agrees to a financially profitable marriage in order to save her family from ruinous debts, but is tricked into working in a brothel. Her tragic life involves jealous wives, slavery, war, poverty, and time as a nun. Adapted from a seventeenth-century Chinese novel, Jin Yun Qiao, written by an unknown writer under the pseudonym Qingxin Cairen, author Nguyen Du upended the plot’s traditional love story by conveying the social and political upheavals at the end of the 18th century in Vietnam.

Links:

Final thoughts

I hope you found something of interest in this list of epic poems.

I’m always looking for more suggestions of what to read. I’d love to know which poems you love or that you would recommend. Let me know in a comment below!

Have you read any of these epic poems, or a part of one? What did you think of it?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

Five influential epic poems

April is Poetry Month! So I will be sharing lots of poetry suggestions to help you find more poetry that you enjoy.

Like most forms of art, poetry is subjective and very personal. It can take time to find what you like. I want to remind you that you don’t have to like the poetry that people say you should, but I would encourage you to keep exploring poetry until you find what you enjoy.


For this week, I wanted to focus on epic poems. Epic poems are very long narrative poems, so basically a story told in verse. They often follow the typical hero or journey arc, but can be on any theme.

I think one of the most well-known epic poems in the western world would be The Odyssey or The Iliad by Homer. But there are so many more than that, and from every corner of the world.

This week I want to focus on some of the most influential epic poems from around the world.

Many historical epic poems tend to reflect religious symbolism from their region or may even be considered a religious text. I find it fascinating to see how interwoven creative expression (like poetry) is with religion throughout history. It makes sense, as religion was a huge part of people’s lives, but I do find our modern society forgets how much art was both a part of religion while also challenging religious views.

The five epic poems shared below are historic and have influenced religions, cultures, people, and literature around the world.

I believe it’s important to understand the context of our world, and part of that is how literature shaped our societies and understanding of the world. You’ll never know everything, but I think it’s important to continue learning about the world, especially areas that are new to you.

So without further ado, here are some very influential epic poems.

Photo by Vaibhav Raina on Unsplash

Five influential epic poems

Here’s a list of five epic poems from around the word.

  1. Gilgamesh by Anonymous / Unknown (18th century BCE)
  2. Ramayana by Vālmīki (~8th century BCE)
  3. The Odyssey by Homer (8th or 7th century BC)
  4. Mahabharata by Vyāsa (3rd century BCE–4th century CE)
  5. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1321)

Keep reading to find out more about each one. I’ve put them in order of when they were “published”. Many of the dates are vague as it’s hard to know exactly when these were written.

Gilgamesh (18th century BCE)

by Anonymous / Unknown

  • Year Published: 18th century BC
  • Language: Akkadian (from Mesopotamia)
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, poetry, adventurous, fast-paced
  • Considered the oldest heroic epic in the world, and a foundational text for heroic sagas and religious texts.

Miraculously preserved on clay tablets dating back as much as four thousand years, the poem of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, is the world’s oldest epic, predating Homer by many centuries. The story tells of Gilgamesh’s adventures with the wild man Enkidu, and of his arduous journey to the ends of the earth in quest of the Babylonian Noah and the secret of immortality. Alongside its themes of family, friendship and the duties of kings, the Epic of Gilgamesh is, above all, about mankind’s eternal struggle with the fear of death.

The Babylonian version has been known for over a century, but linguists are still deciphering new fragments in Akkadian and Sumerian.

Links:

Ramayana (~8th century BCE)

by Vālmīki

  • Year Published: 8th century BCE–3rd century CE
  • Language: Sanskrit
  • Religion: Hinduism
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, poetry, religion, adventurous, challenging, slow-paced
  • One of the largest ancient epics (nearly 24,000 verses)
  • Influenced both Sanskrit poetry and Hindu and Buddhist cultures

The Ramayana is, quite simply, the greatest of Indian epics – and one of the world’s supreme masterpieces of storytelling ‘Almost every individual living in India,’ writes R. K. Narayan in the Introduction to this new interpretation, ‘is aware of the story of The Ramayana. Everyone of whatever age, outlook, education or station in life knows the essential part of the epic and adores the main figures in it – Rama and Sita. Every child is told the story at bedtime . . . The Ramayana pervades our cultural life.’ Although the Sanskrit original was composed by Valmiki, probably around the fourth century BC, poets have produced countless variant versions in different languages. Here, drawing his inspiration from the work of an eleventh-century Tamil poet called Kamban, Narayan has used the talents of a master novelist to recreate the excitement and joy he has found in the original. It can be enjoyed and appreciated, he suggests, for its psychological insight, its spiritual depth and its practical wisdom – or just as a thrilling tale of abduction, battle and courtship played out in a universe thronged with heroes, deities and demons.

Links:

The Odyssey (8th or 7th century BC)

by Homer

  • Year Published: 8th or 7th century BC
  • Language: Homeric Greek
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, poetry, adventurous, slow-paced
  • Considered one of the most significant works of the Western canon, with re-imaginings continuing to be produced till today.

The epic tale of Odysseus and his ten-year journey home after the Trojan War forms one of the earliest and greatest works of Western literature. Confronted by natural and supernatural threats – ship-wrecks, battles, monsters and the implacable enmity of the sea-god Poseidon – Odysseus must test his bravery and native cunning to reach his homeland and overcome the obstacles that, even there, await him.ody

Links:

Mahabharata (3rd century BCE–4th century CE)

by Vyāsa

  • Year Published: 3rd century BCE–4th century CE
  • Language: Sanskrit
  • Religion: Hinduism
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, fantasy, historical, emotional, informative, reflective, medium-paced
  • The longest epic poem known at over 200,000 individual verse lines ( approximately 10x the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined)
  • One of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India revered in Hinduism (the other is Ramayana)

Dispute over land and kingdom may lie at the heart of this story of war between cousins the Pandavas and the Kouravas but the Mahabharata is about conflicts of dharma. These conflicts are immense and various, singular and commonplace. Throughout the epic, characters face them with no clear indications of what is right and what is wrong; there are no absolute answers. Thus every possible human emotion features in the Mahabharata, the reason the epic continues to hold sway over our imagination. In this superb and widely acclaimed translation of the complete Mahabharata, Bibek Debroy takes on a great journey with incredible ease.

Links:

The Divine Comedy (1321)

by Dante Alighieri

  • Year Published: 1321
  • Language: Italian
  • Religion: Christian / Catholic
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, poetry, challenging, dark, reflective, slow-paced
  • Represents the soul’s journey towards God using Catholic theology and philosophy
  • Considered a key work in Italian literature and one of the greatest works of Western literature.

Belonging in the immortal company of the great works of literature, Dante Alighieri’s poetic masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, is a moving human drama, an unforgettable visionary journey through the infinite torment of Hell, up the arduous slopes of Purgatory, and on to the glorious realm of Paradise; the sphere of universal harmony and eternal salvation.

Now, for the first time, John Ciardi’s brilliant and authoritative translations of Dante’s three soaring canticles The Inferno, The Purgatorio, and The Paradiso have been gathered together in a single volume. Crystallizing the power and beauty inherent in the great poet’s immortal conception of the aspiring soul, The Divine Comedy is a dazzling work of sublime truth and mystical intensity.

Links:

Final thoughts

I hope you found something of interest in this list of epic poems.

I’m always looking for more suggestions of what to read. I’d love to know which epic poems you love or that you would recommend. Let me know in a comment below!

Have you read any of these poems (or even part of them)? What did you think of it?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

See the fierce power

This is a quote from the epic poem Song of Kiều by Du Nguyên, translated from the Vietnamese by Timothy Allen.

Quote by Du Nguyên, “See the fierce power of a poem. Learn how words can leap across the years.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

If you’re interested, you can read an excerpt from the book here.

Song of Kiều – Summary

A stunning new translation of the legendary Vietnamese epic poem, now for the first time in Penguin Classics

Considered the greatest literary achievement in Vietnamese, The Song of Kieu tells the story of the beautiful Vuong Thuy Kieu, who agrees to a financially profitable marriage in order to save her family from ruinous debts, but is tricked into working in a brothel. Her tragic life involves jealous wives, slavery, war, poverty, and time as a nun. Adapted from a seventeenth-century Chinese novel, Jin Yun Qiao, written by an unknown writer under the pseudonym Qingxin Cairen, author Nguyen Du upended the plot’s traditional love story by conveying the social and political upheavals at the end of the 18th century in Vietnam.

Copyright © 1820 by Du Nguyên.

Translated from the Vietnamese by: Timothy Allen (2019)

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

Five philosophical poets to make you think

April is Poetry Month! So I will be sharing lots of poetry suggestions to help you find more poetry that you enjoy.

Like most forms of art, poetry is subjective and very personal. It can take time to find what you like. I want to remind you that you don’t have to like the poetry that people say you should, but I would encourage you to keep exploring poetry until you find what you enjoy.


For this week, I wanted to explore the intersection of philosophy and poetry. In my mind, these two often go hand-in-hand, as both explore our experience of the world and our place within society.

Many great thinkers have dabbled in art, and many artists have been great thinkers. Not to mention most religions often have both philosophical thinking and poetic musings/lessons within their religious texts.

Personally, I think some of our biggest concepts are most eloquently expressed in an artistic way. I believe it leaves more room for emotion, expression, and interpretation.

I’ve put together this list of philosophical poets. They are individuals who are known to have discussed large philosophical ideas and spiritual concepts through their poetry.

Most of these poets are from the middle ages (500-1500), as I think it’s important to discuss discuss the diversity of philosophy. A majority of discussions around medieval philosophy focus on the Greek and Roman influences, but there were so many important philosophers around the world with different perspectives and valuable insights.

So this list of philosophical poets is just an introduction to some big thinkers who chose to express their ideas through poetry.

Photo by Sam Moghadam Khamseh on Unsplash

Five philosophical poets

Here’s a list of five philosophical poets to help you think. Each of these authors are known for being thought-provoking and insightful.

  1. Omar Khayyam (1048-1131)
  2. Rumi (1207-1273)
  3. Hafez (1325-1390)
  4. Kabir (1398-1518)
  5. Kahlil GIbran (1883-1931)

Keep reading to find out more about each one. I’ve listed each in order of when they lived.

Omar Khayyam (1048-1131)

  • 1048-1131
  • Genre(s): poetry, philosophy and math
  • Languages: Persian/Farsi and Arabic
  • Key books: Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
  • Key themes: pleasures of life, rationalist philosopher, pessimist

Omar Khayyam was born Ghiyath al-Din Abu’l-Fath Umar ibn Ibrahim Al-Nisaburi al-Khayyámi. Khayyam was a poet, philosopher and mathmatician in 11th-century Persia. Most of his ideas within math and astonomy were not proven until long after his death.

Most of the poetry attributed to Khayyam is in the form of quatrains, which are four lines that form either a stanza or full poem. It’s difficult to confirm the authenticity of the poems attributed to Khayyam, especially as other Persian scholars were known to write in quatrains.

Khayyam rose to fame as a poet in the modern world in 1859 when Edward FitzGerald published his translation of Khayyam’s poetry. However FitzGerald’s translation of the poetry took significant liberties and is not considered an accurate translation.

Links:

Rumi (1207-1273)

  • 1207-1273
  • Genre(s): poet, scholar, theologian, faqih, and mystic
  • Languages: mostly Persian, but also Turkish, Arabic and Greek
  • Masnavi is considered one of the greatest poems in the Persian language
  • Key themes: knowledge of oneness of God through love and external religions observances especially through music, dance and poetry

Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī (Persian: جلال‌الدین محمّد رومی), or often just Rumi, was from 13th century Persia (Greater Iran). He was a poet, an Islamic scholar, a Maturidi theoloian, Hanafi faqih (jurist), and Sufi mystic.

Rumi has been influential across the world, especially in the Middle East, Europe, Central Asia, and South Asia, both in spiritual practices and literature.

His works are still read widely in the Persian-speaking world, and the translations of his work are popular all over the world. He’s often described as the “most popular poet” and even the “best selling poet” in the USA.

Rumi’s poetry focuses on the love that infuses the world. He was especially interested in seeking knowledge of tawhid (oneness of God) through love and believed passionately in using music, poetry, and dance as an outward expression of reaching for God. Rumi believed that music could help an individual focus their whole being on the divine, and these ideas are what led to the practice of whirling Dervishes becoming a ritualize form of worship and meditation.

Links:

Hafez – sometimes spelled Hafiz (1325-1390)

  • 1325-1390
  • Genre(s): Lyric poetry, mystic poetry
  • Language: Persian
  • Key books:  The Divān of Hafez (a collection of his remaining poems)
  • Key themes: the beloved, faith, exposing hypocrisy, expressing the ecstasy of divine inspiration

Hafez (sometimes spelled Hafiz) was born Khājeh Shams-od-Dīn Moḥammad Ḥāfeẓ-e Shīrāzī (Persian: خواجه شمس‌‌الدین محمد حافظ شیرازی).

He was a Persian lyric poet who has influenced post-14th century Persian writing more than any other Persian author. Many Iranians consider Hafez the pinnacle of Persian literature and his works are still part of everyday life.

Hafez was a Sufi Muslim and wrote in the literary genre of lyric poetry or ghazals. Ghazals are a specific form of Arabic poetry that deals with romantic and spiritual love, and are considered ideal for expressing the ecstasy of divine inspiration.

Hafez is the most popular poet in Iran and most households own a copy of The Divān of Hafez (many use it for fortune telling). His work was first translated into English in 1771 and after that he also influenced many western authors like Thoreau, Goethe, W.B. Yeats, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Links:

Kabir (1398-1518 CE)

  • Estimated to have lived around 1398-1518 CE
  • Genre(s): Mystic poet and saint
  • Language: Sadhukkadi (a mix of Hindi, Bhojpuri, and Punjabi) & Bhojpuri
  • Key themes: critical of organized religions, loving devotion of God

Kabir is a well-known mystic poet from India and is considered an important figure for multiple religions, including Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam and Sufism.

He was critical of religions, especially organized religion. He often questioned the meaningless and unethical practices of all religions. His criticisms focused heavily on the major religions of his country, Hindu and Muslim, while maintaining his own independence from both of those religions.

Throughout his life, he was threatened by both Hindus and Muslims, but when he died both religions claimed him as theirs.

Kabir’s poems were composed with simple words and most were written in Sadhukkadi (a mix of Hindi, Bhojpuri and Punjabi). There are 82 works attributed to Kabir, but the authenticity of these works is still being discussed. It’s possible that changes have happened over time and also that some works attributed to Kabir were actually written by others.

Links:

Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931)

  • 1883-1931
  • Languages: Arabic and English
  • Genre(s): poetry, parables, fables, essays, short stories, novels
  • Key books: The Prophet (philosophical essays)
  • Key themes: religion, free will, the soul, happiness, justice, body/death

Gibran Khalil Gibran (Arabic: جُبْرَان خَلِيل جُبْرَان) is commonly referred to in English as Kahlil Gibran. He was a Lebanese-American poet, writer, philosopher and visual artist.

Gibran is considered one of the most important influences in the Romantic movement within Arabic poetry and literature during the first half of the twentieth century and is still widely celebrated as a literary hero in Lebanon.

Gibran’s writing spanned different forms and themes. His work has been seen to be innovative and breaking away from the forms of the past literary styles. The Arabic vocabulary used in his works were considered more colloquial or ordinary language, rather than the traditional or classic Arabic used in literature.

He is best known for his book The Prophet, a collection of philosophical essays, which has become one of the best-selling books of all time. The Prophet became popular in the 1960’s and was widely influential on musicians and artists of that era (including The Beatles, Elvis Presley, David Bowie, and Johnny Cash).

Links:

Final thoughts

I hope you found something of interest in this list of philosophical poets.

I’m always looking for more suggestions of authors and books to read. I’d love to know which philosophical poets you love or that you would recommend. Let me know in a comment below!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of it?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

A woman’s world

Excerpt from Song of Kiều by Du Nguyên

Photo by Tri Vo on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the epic poem Song of Kiều by Du Nguyên, translated from the Vietnamese by Timothy Allen.

Kiều now brims with a strange melancholy
till tiny pearls run down her cheeks.

‘A woman’s world is weaved from woe,’ she says,
’and the only thing we dream of is despair.
God rips off our wings. God makes us die.
Đạm Tiên, once a wished-for wife,
is now a bony basket of wormy earth.
Those boys are gone that used to hold her,
and the promises they made are fallen to silence.
Since no one is left to mourn for her,
I will burn these few sticks of incense
to mark how we have chanced upon her grave.
Perhaps she can see us, from her Yellow Springs.’

Then Kiềum murmurs a heartfelt prayer
and stoops to lay some grass upon the spot.
Twilight falls across the rotting weeds
and an evening breeze rustles the barley reeds.
She draws a pin from her hair and carves
a perfect four-line poem on a nearby tree.
She steps back. She clears her mind,
then melts into tears, like a squall of sudden rain.
She pictures herself alone on a dark night,
where shapeless horrors crowd the road ahead.
She is a petal on flowing water, a water fern
catching and drifting along a swollen stream.

Vân laughs and says: ‘My sister, how silly you are
to waste hot tears on a long-dead stranger.’

Kiều answers: ‘But since this earth began,
Cruel fate has cursed all women.
I look on Đạm Tiên’s mossy tomb,
and see my own, in days to come.’

Quan says: ‘So this is the real story.
You talk of Đạm Tiên, but weep for yourself.
Look, it’s getting dark. There is a chill in the air,
and we still have a long walk home.

‘When stars die, their fire is gone,’
says Kiều, ‘but a dwindling light shines on.
My soul has found its mate in this gloomy place.
Let’s wait a while. I want to meet her ghost.’

Before they can answer, a tornado swirls up.
It shakes the tree and tears off its leaves,
trailing a strange perfume in its wake.
They look along the path that the wind took
to find it left damp footprints on the moos.

Vân and Quan stare at each other, dumbfounded.

Kiều says: ‘See the fierce power of a poem.
Learn how words can leap across the years.
She is my sister, though I am alive and she is dead.’

Again she takes the pin from her hair
and adds a verse of thanks to Đạm Tiên.
This one is a word picture in the old style,
free from the shackles of rhyme and metre.

Have you read this epic poem?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

Song of Kiều – Summary

A stunning new translation of the legendary Vietnamese epic poem, now for the first time in Penguin Classics

Considered the greatest literary achievement in Vietnamese, The Song of Kieu tells the story of the beautiful Vuong Thuy Kieu, who agrees to a financially profitable marriage in order to save her family from ruinous debts, but is tricked into working in a brothel. Her tragic life involves jealous wives, slavery, war, poverty, and time as a nun. Adapted from a seventeenth-century Chinese novel, Jin Yun Qiao, written by an unknown writer under the pseudonym Qingxin Cairen, author Nguyen Du upended the plot’s traditional love story by conveying the social and political upheavals at the end of the 18th century in Vietnam.

Copyright © 1820 by Du Nguyên.

Translated by: Timothy Allen (2019)

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

Were the creator concerned….

This is a quote from the book Songs of Kabir by Kabir, translated from the Hindi by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra.

Quote by Kabir, “Were the Creator Concerned about caste, We’d arrive in the world With a caste mark on the forehead.”

Are you familiar with Kabir’s poetry? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

If you’re interested, you can read an excerpt from the book here.

Songs of Kabir – Summary

Here is the book summary:

Transcending divisions of creed, challenging social distinctions of all sorts, and celebrating individual unity with the divine, the poetry of Kabir is one of passion and paradox, of mind-bending riddles and exultant riffs. These new translations by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, one of India’s finest contemporary poets, bring out the richness, wit, and power of a literary and spiritual master.

Copyright © 1500-1599 by Kabir.

Translated by: Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

says Kabir

Excerpt from Songs of Kabir by Kabir

This is an excerpt from the book Songs of Kabir by Kabir, translated from the Hindi by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra.

Were the Creator
Concerned about caste,
We’d arrive in the world
With a caste mark on the forehead.

If you say you’re a Brahmin
Born of a mother who’s a Brahmin,
Was there a special canal
Through which you were born?

And if you say you’re a Turk
And your mother’s a Turk,
Why weren’t you circumcised
Before birth?

Nobody’s lower-caste;
The lower castes are everywhere
They’re the ones
Who don’t have Rama on their lips.

Kabir says.

I’m waiting for the ferry,
But where are we going,
And is there a paradise anyway?

Besides,
What will I,
Who see you everywhere,

Do there?
I’m okay where I am, says Kabir.
Spare me the trip.

Are you familiar with Kabir’s poetry?
How do you feel about this translation?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

Songs of Kabir – Summary

Here is the book summary:

Transcending divisions of creed, challenging social distinctions of all sorts, and celebrating individual unity with the divine, the poetry of Kabir is one of passion and paradox, of mind-bending riddles and exultant riffs. These new translations by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, one of India’s finest contemporary poets, bring out the richness, wit, and power of a literary and spiritual master.

Copyright © 1500-1599 by Kabir.

Translated by: Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

Love has to end

This is a quote from the book If Cats Disappeared From the World by Genki Kawamura, translated by Eric Selland.

Quote by Genki Kawamura, “Love has to end. That’s all. And even though everyone knows it they still fall in love.
I guess it’s the same with life. We all know it has to end someday, but even so we act as if we’re going to live forever. Like love, life is beautiful because it has to end.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

If you’re interested, you can read an excerpt from the book here.

If Cats Disappeared From the World – Summary

Here is the book summary from Goodreads:

Our narrator’s days are numbered. Estranged from his family, living alone with only his cat Cabbage for company, he was unprepared for the doctor’s diagnosis that he has only months to live. But before he can set about tackling his bucket list, the Devil appears with a special offer: in exchange for making one thing in the world disappear, he can have one extra day of life. And so begins a very bizarre week . . .

Because how do you decide what makes life worth living? How do you separate out what you can do without from what you hold dear? In dealing with the Devil our narrator will take himself – and his beloved cat – to the brink. Genki Kawamura’s If Cats Disappeared from the World is a story of loss and reconciliation, of one man’s journey to discover what really matters in modern life.

Copyright © 2018 by Genki Kawamura.

Translated by: Eric Selland

More details can be found here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.