Once upon an evening in an era when wi-fi had yet to be part of Jakarta, we stumbled upon a slim black book by J.D. Salinger in a second hand bookshop. For Esme, With Love and Squalor, it was called. Back then, all we knew about Salinger was Holden Caulfield and his teen angst in The Catcher in the Rye. We’ve had many long arguments about whether Holden was an entitled brat or a lonely boy disillusioned with the world, but never once we wondered about other stories that Salinger wrote.
We took the book home, take turns reading it, and fell in love with Esme, a young girl of thirteen who is the antithesis of Holden. Esme has many more reasons than Holden to be angry at the world --- she lost her parents in the war, had a little brother who looks up to her, and they live with an aunt that tells her that she is “a cold person”. And yet, Esme embraces life. She sings in a choir, starts a conversation with a soldier who was about to head into war, and shares that she is trying to be more compassionate. After meeting Esme, we no longer only think of Holden when we think of Salinger.
Just like how some musicians are defined by their radio hits, certain writers became such a household name through one or two books, eclipsing any other work within their lifetime. And what a pity it is, for both writers and readers.
Do you remember the days when you sang along to every word of Zombie with your friends, but felt that you understand The Cranberries better after listening to Dreaming My Dream? Or, if you’re a boy band fan, you might have gotten your first taste of Irish traditional music from She Moves Through the Fair, the last song in side B of Boyzone’s A Different Beat album. That’s the beauty of the B-sides, songs on the other side of the cassette that are less likely to make it to the radio, but are no less meaningful in the trajectory of an artist.
For our fifth thematic collaboration with Aksara, we’d like to share with you the joy of Reading the B-Sides, discovering the lesser known works of renowned writers and getting to know them better.
Fans of Arundhati Roy rejoiced when she released Ministry of Utmost Happiness, saying thatthey have waited twenty years to read her new work after The God of Small Things. Many of them did not know that Roy continuously write and publish in the same two decades, but they were critical non-fiction that aligns with her activism instead of novels. If you’ve read Capitalism: A Ghost Story, you’ll find a more fiery, more angry writer, yet just as eloquent as she is in her fiction.
Roy is not the only writer who has both fiction and non fiction in her repertoire. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ brand as a writer might be magical realism, famous for One Hundred Years of Solitude, but he is also a journalist who had covered the perils of narco-democracy in Colombia through News of a Kidnapping. Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for fiction for his Istanbul-based novels, but he also wrote many essays on the art and craft of writing, published in a collection as The Naive and Sentimental Novelist.
There are writers who wanted to break their own patterns and experiment. Joan Didion’s most famous essays are all about the Southern California subculture, but she has also done a narrative journalism of the civil war in El Salvador. Sylvia Plath is known for The Bell Jar, her novel, and her poems. But did you know that she also wrote many short stories, such as those compiled in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams?Virginia Woolf’s body of work is serious, contemplative, daring in her feminist views and stream of consciousness narrative. Those who have read Mrs. Dalloway or A Room of One’s Own would not expect to find Woolf writing a fictional biography... of a dog! Flush: A Biography, is Woolf’s lesser known novella, starring a cocker spaniel that was a real-life companion of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Other writers took their craft and apply it to their own life, allowing readers to trace how they become the writers they are. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is an intimate self portrait of Simone de Beauvoir’s girlhood and growth of intellectual ambition. Nawal El Saadawi’s A Daughter of Isis shows you how she ended up writing A Woman in Point Zero.
As always, you can find a note in each book on our highlighted section, explaining why we’d love to recommend the book to you. We hope you take the time to flip the pages, read a few passages, adopt some of these books, and share the joy of Reading the B-Sides with fellow readers.