Journalism in the service of society

Books that explain the world… Best nonfiction reads of the year

Some of the new books recommended by Guardian writers. Composite: From a Jacobean traveller’s travails in Sindh to the tangled roots of Nigeria, our pick of new nonfiction books that shine a light on Asia, Africa and South America



You Have Not Yet Been Defeated: Selected Works 2011-2021
By Alaa Abd El-Fattah

Yu have been defeated

‘The text you are holding is living history,’ writes Naomi Klein in her foreword to Alaa Abd El-Fattah’s book. Photograph: Courtesy of Fitzcarraldo

In a totalitarian system where even ideas are punishable with imprisonment, this collection of essays from one of Egypt’s most high-profile political prisoners is like an oasis in a desolate landscape. Part manifesto, part memoir and part record of some of Abd El-Fattah’s trial scenes that are more than worthy of Kafka, the book contains passages smuggled out from Cairo’s infamous Tora prison.

Abd El-Fattah has been detained repeatedly, and held in a maximum-security facility indefinitely without charge since 2019. “When I demand my right to read and write, I am not demanding a luxury. Rather, I am asking to be allowed to live in this age,” he tells a prosecutor, while still unable to know the charges against him. He is also denied access to reading materials, making this book all the more powerful.

“The text you are holding is living history,” Naomi Klein declares in her foreword. The pages of You Have Not Yet Been Defeated are a journey through the uprising of 2011, autocracy and ultimately hope. It is a call to arms for the digital age, and for protest movements worldwide.

Ruth Michaelson
You Have Not Yet Been Defeated is published by Fitzcarraldo



Lula and His Politics of Cunning: From Metalworker to President of Brazil
By John D French

‘The most popular president in the history of Brazil and perhaps the world,’ says John D French of Lula. Photograph: Courtesy of North Carolina Press

At first sight, Lula and His Politics of Cunning appears to be a book about Brazil’s past: the storybook tale of a sharp-witted union leader who rose to become “the most popular president in the history of Brazil and perhaps the world”.

But French’s masterly account of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s journey from rural poverty to the Brazilian presidency – and his subsequent downfall – is infused with the present and the future. “The story is not yet over,” French writes of his 76-year-old protagonist, who looks poised for a sensational political comeback in next year’s presidential election.

The looming showdown between the leftist Lula and his far-right arch-rival, Jair Bolsonaro – elected in 2018 after Lula was jailed by a judge who went on to work for Bolsonaro – hovers over French’s biography. The author’s contempt for the current president – whom he calls a “fascistic far-right troll” – is also clear.

But the star of the show is the grit and sagacity of a politician who once likened himself to a Brazilian pit viper called the jararaca. Based on French’s admiring telling, Lula the pit viper is gearing up for the fight of his life.

Tom Philips
Lula and His Politics of Cunning is published by University of North Carolina Press



The Silent Coup: A History of India’s Deep State
By Josy Joseph

The silent coup

‘India no longer feels like a democracy,’ writes Josy Joseph. ‘The contract of trust between citizens and law enforcers is permanently broken.’ Photograph: Courtesy of Context

India may still often be referred to as “the world’s largest democracy” but in recent years it has become apparent that this is a democracy at a crossroads. In this compelling book by the award-winning Indian journalist Josy Joseph, it is not India’s political leaders who are under the spotlight but the murky workings of India’s deep state, from the police to the federal investigative and intelligence agencies.

Traversing incidents such as the Mumbai train blasts, the Kashmir insurgency, the Gujurat “war on terror” and the Delhi riots, Josy depicts, through a variety of colourful characters, how corruption and political agendas run through the core of the agencies that should be responsible for justice and accountability, subverting democracy in the process.

“India no longer feels like a democracy. The contract of trust between citizens and law enforcers is permanently broken,” he writes. “In most parts, Indian society is adrift in lawless waters.”

Hannah Ellis-Petersen
The Silent Coup is published by Context, an imprint of Westland publishing house



Youthquake: Why African Demography Should Matter to the World
By Edward Paice

Africa’s demographic changes ‘will be one of the most significant global shifts in the coming decades’, according to Edward Paice. Photograph: Courtesy of Head of Zeus

A common stereotype about Africa is that it is a ticking timebomb; its population is exploding, threatening to “swamp” Europe with an ever-increasing “flood” of illegal immigrants. There is another less common but equally misleading stereotype that the growing youth population, the “democratic dividend”, will lead to economic miracles as the energetic under-25s, who make up 60% of Africa’s population, will generate spectacular growth as people elsewhere in the world age and decline.

Youthquake turns both the doom-laden and rose-tinted narratives on their heads. This meticulously researched, nuanced and careful book brings a voice of reason to the debate. The fact that Africa comprised 10% of the world’s population in 1980 and is projected to make up 25% of it by 2050 will have immense and complex consequences for the continent and the rest of the world.

The book explores in compelling detail the positives, the negatives and all the bits in-between of what will be one of the most significant global shifts in the coming decades. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Africa and its place in the world.

Mary Harper, BBC Africa editor and author of Getting Somalia Wrong? Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State (Zed Books, 2012) and Everything You Have Told Me is True: The Many Faces of Al Shabaab (Hurst, 2019). Youthquake is published by Head of Zeus



Mithi: Whispers in the Sand
By Salman Rashid

Myth Whispers

Contrary to the more common narrative of the region, Salman Rashid writes of Hindus and Muslims coexisting peacefully. Photograph: Courtesy of Sang-e-Meel

In 1984, when Pakistan’s Thar desert was largely inaccessible to outsiders due to a lack of roads, the travel and history writer Salman Rashid could be seen negotiating his way across its dunes in a 4×4. Today, life in the rural areas of Pakistan is as unfamiliar and alien to the country’s urban residents as it is to foreigners. Mithi: Whispers in the Sand, an account of Rashid’s explorations in Sindh’s Tharparkar district between 1984 and 2017, provides a nuanced understanding of the sensibilities and habits of local people through a series of detailed interviews.

Rashid notes that the communities in every village and town in the district are “remarkably cohesive”, with Hindus and Muslims coexisting peacefully in the same areas and demonstrating a spirit of unity.

“We are growing in numbers, but God has stopped making more land,” says Kheth Singh, a Rajput elder, as he expresses concern over the felling of trees when land is brought under cultivation. He refers to the village of Keetri, where locals have banned cutting down trees or plants.

Rashid also attempts to weave a historical narrative, comparing the reports of colonial administrators with locals’ oral histories and his own archaeological findings. He refers to the published observations of the English merchant Nicholas Withington, who was robbed endlessly while travelling through the area in the winter of 1613-14 and left with barely even his clothes.

Ali Bhutto
Mithi: Whispers in the Sand is published by Sang-e-Meel



Our Women On The Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World, Edited by Zahra Hankir

Zahra Hankir edits this collection of writings by female correspondents reporting from their homelands. Photograph: Courtesy of Vintage

This memoir collection is a refreshing insight into living and working in some of the world’s most dangerous places. Nineteen female storytellers – all journalists from the Middle East, or with family links to the region – share their experiences of reporting in their homelands, whether in peacetime, on the frontlines, or in the thick of revolutions. In doing so, they upend our understanding of what it means to be a foreign correspondent.

Our knowledge of the Middle East is richer and more nuanced thanks to these courageous women; it is long past time that we looked at things from their perspectives. What it means to love, and to fear for those we love, echoes throughout these stories. Even if you have never set foot in Syria, Egypt or Yemen, everyone can relate to that.

Bethan McKernan
Our Women On The Ground is published by Vintage



Formation: The Making of Nigeria from Jihad to Amalgamation,
By Fola Fagbule and Feyi Fawehinmi


This account of the origins of Nigeria reads ‘like a historical novel’. Photograph: Courtesy of Cassava Republic Press

Fagbule and Fawehinmi’s book reads almost like a historical novel in which a cast of unlikely characters acting independently over time brought about a series of unlikely events that culminated in the emergence of Nigeria as a country. Chief among these characters were the two lovelorn figures of Frederick Lugard and Flora Shaw who, after severe heartbreaks, found solace in each other in their 40s and were midwives in the birth of Africa’s most populous nation in 1914.

While many Nigerians today see the country as the flawed tapestry of Lugard and Shaw’s broken dreams, Formation argues that from the 1800s, when the Oyo empire in the south collapsed and the jihadist empire of Dan Fodio rose in the north, regardless of the intervention of the two colonialists, Nigeria as a country was on the verge of emergence.

Told in clear, precise prose, this is a rare history book written by two young finance executives that moves Nigeria’s narrative in a different and exciting direction for the 21st-century reader.

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s latest book, Dreams and Assorted Nightmares, is published by Masobe Books.
Formation: The Making of Nigeria from Jihad to Amalgamation is published by Cassava Republic Press



All Roads Lead North: China, Nepal and the Contest for the Himalayas
By Amish Raj Mulmi

Nepal’s geopolitical shift away from India, its giant southern neighbour, towards the regional superpower, China, is explored by Amish Raj Mulmi. Photograph: Courtesy of Hurst

Amish Raj Mulmi’s book describes the recent pivot by Nepal from south to north. In 2008, with Nepal’s monarchy in the dustbin of history, the new Maoist prime minister, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, chose to go first not to Delhi but to Beijing to attend the Olympics, provoking a sharp intake of breath from Indian policy strategists.

That process has only gathered momentum with Nepali political leaders sympathetic to China gaining ground and talk of a high-speed rail link between China and the Nepali capital, Kathmandu. There has been growing pressure too on the Tibetan diaspora living within Nepal.

Mulmi’s detailed look at Nepal’s long encounter with Tibet and China is leavened with personal experiences but the message is clear: Modi’s bullish nationalism does not play well in Himalayan capitals.
Ed Douglas is the author of Himalaya: A Human History
All Roads Lead North is published by Hurst



The Philippines is Not A Small Country
By Gideon Lasco

The Pbillpines

Gideon Lasco’s book is a ‘love letter’ to his compatriots but also a good read for non-Filipino readers who want to better understand the country. Photograph: Courtesy of Bughaw

Is Manila traffic really the worst in the world? Why do many Filipinos support President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal “drug war”? Why do they keep electing bad leaders? Are they racist?

This collection of essays is Gideon Lasco’s love letter to Filipinos who are tired of complaining about everything going wrong in the Philippines, especially these days. Lasco, a medical anthropologist, wants his compatriots to redirect their energies into understanding the country’s vicious cycle of poverty and bad governance – correcting some misconceptions along the way – so they may find a way out of it.

“In the process of writing and curating this manuscript, I was especially mindful of young Filipinos, many of whom are unsure as to what the future brings, uncertain as to what to make of their national identity, and unclear as to how to critically engage with our nation’s problems,” Lasco wrote in his introduction.

Lasco’s musings make it a good read for non-Filipino readers who want to better understand the idiosyncrasies of the country and its people.

Carmela Fonbuena
The Philippines is not a Small Country is published by Bughaw, an imprint of the Ateneo de Manila University Press



Ship of Fate: Memoir of a Vietnamese Repatriate
By Trần Dình Trụ

Trần Dình Trụ’s memoir tackles the complex, traumatic experiences of people desperate to flee their homeland, yet also umbilically tied to it. Photograph: Courtesy of University of Hawai’i Press

After the takeover of Saigon by Vietnamese communists in 1975, a million refugees – Trần Đình Trụ included – fled Vietnam, often in flimsy fishing boats. It is estimated that half of them drowned at sea in their attempt to seek refuge in south-east Asia before resettling in the west. Although Trụ managed to escape, his heart remained in Vietnam, where his wife and children had been left behind. So, along with 1,500 Vietnamese repatriates, Trụ decided to return.


On his arrival, he was imprisoned in a “re-education camp” for 13 years, suffering gruelling labour and torture. Written in 1991, when he and his family finally resettled in the US, Trụ offers a rare Vietnamese perspective into both the chaotic fallout of the Vietnam-US war – and the private war raging inside him as he witnessed the loss of his homeland. “We are all just water lilies, carried by the current without ever knowing where the river flowed.”

This is not a new book – although the English translation is only from 2017 – yet it resonates with our current era, tackling the complex, traumatic limbo experienced by the many desperate people fleeing conflict today.

Georgina Quach
Ship of Fate is published by University of Hawai’i Press


Global development is supported by

Books that explain the world... Best nonfiction reads of the year 7

Comments are closed.

Naija Times