For Margaret Atwood, inventing Gilead made it possible to mix aspects of several countries that were behind the Iron Curtain. For Hanya Yanagihara, Ivu’ivu, the invented island nation that is the setting of The People in the Trees, allowed her to explore patterns that have repeated in the aftermath of colonization all over the globe.
If every news cycle in your country leaves you more aghast than the one before it, conjuring an invented nation can be quite alluring. And when you find yourself feeling ever more estranged from the people leading your country, an invented or reimagined one can transport you — while also providing a welcome reason to read some excellent books.
While inventing a country for my own novel, I kept in mind the unnamed or conjured nations in some of my favorites. Here are 10 of them.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
This novel opens with a description of silence. A young man and woman meet in a class taking place in a city “swollen with refugees, but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war.” From the first sentence, Hamid evokes any number of cities and what flows unsaid between their resident students, who are living in fear of what new danger they might be risking by continuing their studies. Hamid’s mythic tone and his choice to leave the country unnamed draw the reader further into the escalating unknowns the characters experience. Without a name, the city of Exit West becomes the reader’s city, and the agony of leaving that city the reader’s agony, too.
The Pathless Sky by Chaitali Sen
In an essay titled “Why I Set My Novel in an Unnamed Country,” Sen calls the fictional country of her novel an act of rebellion, a deliberate “inverse of the immigrant narrative.” The Pathless Sky centers on a couple, John and Mariam, and the subtle ways history and status complicate their relationship. Just as couples in the US might be discovering new tensions from their disparate reactions to whatever’s happening next in the White House, John and Mariam struggle with how their reaction to their country affects their experience of each other. As I suspect may be true of many novelists drawn to inventing a nation, Sen sees the country in her novel as “a strange hybrid that probably revealed more about my own psychology than a singular geopolitical entity.”
The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee
There is a riveting lack of history in The Childhood of Jesus. Characters arrive in a city with no recollection of their birth names or ages. There is a boy named David and a man named Simon, but readers soon find out these are random names assigned to them. New arrivals to the city must speak in Spanish; any other language is considered rude. No one is allowed to question how the city runs or how randomly jobs and names are distributed. The subtle ways this disturbing dream world speaks to the bewildering reality of refugees becomes increasingly profound over the course of the novel.
The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders
This short Saunders novel is about the escalating conflicts between Outer Horner and the seven citizens of Inner Horner. With his idiotic Special Friends Vance and Jimmy, Phil builds a concentration camp and maniacally goes after anyone who defies him, including those loyal to him who still dare question any of his sociopathic choices. How will they get rid of Phil? And why is it taking so long to do so? While conjuring Phil and the two Horners, Saunders said he had in mind, at various points, Rwanda, Serbia, and the Japanese internments in the US.
Jesusalém by Mia Couto
The invented, empty hunting preserve in Mozambique where the novel takes place is called Jesusalém. Couto has written 20 books, a number of them about Mozambique’s civil war and independence from Portugal. In Jesusalém, as in many of Couto’s novels, he uses a spare, parablelike tone to conjure a boy isolated on the hunting preserve with his father and three others. As the boy both seeks and rejects his father’s version of their past, Couto explores the emotional complexity all children confront when they begin to question the histories they receive from their parents. Its English-language title was changed to The Tuner of Silences, which doesn’t strike the same resonance as Jesusalém. The desire to cross borders, Couto says in an interview about the book for the Paris Review, “is not particular to Africa. It is our common desire as human beings.”
Jerusalem by Gonçalo M. Tavares
Tavares is one of my favorite Portuguese-language writers. As in many José Saramago novels, the political imaginary in his Jerusalem exists somewhere in Europe. Two former inhabitants of a psychiatric ward reconnect in a city where a deranged psychiatrist is attempting to pathologize the horrors of human history and somehow “get inside Horror’s head and engage it in a rational conversation.” All of Europe becomes part of this terrifying metaphorical “head,” and the disturbed and fascinating characters become familiar as they wander the streets of an unnamed city that feels like it could be your own or one you have visited — one in which you might get lost as well.
Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya
In an unnamed Central American country, a writer accepts a job with the Catholic Church, copyediting testimonies from thousands of indigenous villagers about the army’s massacre of their communities 10 years before. The generals who ordered the massacres remain on the payroll and have faced no consequences. By leaving the country unnamed, Castellanos Moya expands the scope of the novel, inviting the reader to imagine other underreported massacres, as well as all the people who risked their lives to get the truth down while the generals responsible were still in power.
Sapogonia by Ana Castillo
Sapogonia was one of the novels I read early in college that exploded my notions of what novelists can do. Castillo’s Sapogonia is the metaphorical homeland for people of mixed heritage. Much of the novel takes place in Chicago and is about Latino immigration to the United States and transnational identity. Maximo Madrigal, an expatriate of Sapogonia, moves multiple times but cannot shake his destructive obsession with a woman named Pastora Ake. Bold not only in content and inventiveness but also in form, Sapogonia closes with an unexpected and feverish dream sequence. Revisiting this novel in 2018, it feels as urgent and unprecedented as when it was published in 1990.
The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
For the physical world of her invented Micronesian island, Yanagihara sought inspiration in Angra dos Reis, a group of 365 Brazilian islands in the state of Rio de Janeiro. How Yanagihara incorporates the flora of these islands with the forests of Ivu’ivu is breathtaking — the lush descriptions of the island a powerful contrast to the mounting acts of Western arrogance and greed that occur in this masterful novel.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Blessed be the invented city. “We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print,” Atwood wrote in this enduring book. Why? “It gave us more freedom.”
Idra Novey is the author of the novels Those Who Knew, an Indie Next Pick, and Ways to Disappear, winner of the Sami Rohr Prize and the Brooklyn Eagles Prize, and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Prize. Her work has been translated into 10 languages and she's written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and New York Magazine.
Those Who Knew is available now.