Asian Epics

StormKing, Cornwall, NY, 2020

The Tale of Kiêu by Nguyẽ̂n Du  

Epic PoemPoets and PoetryPolitical Eighteenth Century

Written in the classic Vietnamese narrative form called Truyện Nôm, or a story in the southern script, The Tale of Kiêu illuminates the life of Thúy Kiều, a young woman who sacrifices her independence and her body in order to free her father and brother from the debts they owe the government. The price Kiêu pays for selling herself into marriage is immense and, in the end, it is her ability to feel worthy of love that becomes her greatest sacrifice. Timeless themes of personal identity and political obligation are laced through the narrative. In his introduction to the bilingual edition of The Tale of Kiêu, Alexander Woodside defines Du’s work as much more than just a literary artifact: “Western readers who are curious about Vietnam and the Vietnamese may well gain more real wisdom from cultivating a discriminating appreciation  of this one poem than they will from reading the entire library of scholarly and journalist writings upon modern Vietnam.”  

The Shahnameh by Abu al-Qasem Ferdowsi 

Epic PoemPoets and Poetry Mythical Eleventh Century

Composed over a span of thirty years (977-1010), The Shahnameh chronicles the foundation of the Iranian empire through the ages. Though commonly known as “The Persian Book of Kings,” Shah means more than just male royalty–according to scholar Hamid Dabashi,  Ferdowsi also intends it to mean best, or significant— so the epic is filled with formidable men, women, and creatures who battle, enchant, arouse and beguile their way through the narrative. Vivid, thrilling, devastating, and fantastical, The Shahnameh reads like a more elegant version of Game of Thrones rendered in couplets. 

The Tales of the Heike 

Epic ProseMilitary NarrativeTwelfth Century

Like the Grecian epics, The Tales of the Heike cannot be traced back to one individual author. This epic, usually told in prose-form, comes from the oral and written tradition of medieval Japanese gunki-mono, or warrior tales. The narrative is set in 1185, at the very end of the Genepi War, a conflict between the Tiara and Minamoto clans that would help usher Japanese society into a feudal system. Though told from the perspective of several different samurai, and peppered with military exploits, The Tales are also layered with Buddhist themes, especially, as Haruo Shiraine and Burton Watson illustrate in their 2006 translation, the Law of Impermanence, which becomes strikingly significant in the context of war.

Poet Protagonists


Possession by A.S. Byatt

Byatt’s Possession is so gorgeous and finely-wrought, it glimmers like a polished disc of jet. The novel toggles between two narratives, one set in modern times, the other in the Victorian era. Dual romances play out across the centuries as the male and female protagonists in each time period (the Victorians are poets, the modern characters are literary scholars who specialize in those same Victorian poets) explore poetry, sexuality, the occult, and each other. Byatt’s prose is poetic in nature, packed with symbolism, allusion, and metaphor. 

Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar 

Oh, Hopscotch! If you like mazes, “choose your own adventures”, skipping chapters, skidding back and forth between pages, and brilliant, wandering bohemians, Cortázar’s masterful puzzle of a novel is for you. The main character, Horatio Oliveria, is a poet and writer who falls into innumerable kerfuffles and hardships as he wanders both Paris and Buenos Aires with his artistic cohort. 

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño 

The “Visceral Realists” are a boisterous band of poets who embark on a quest to locate the “original Visceral Realist,” Cesárea Tinajero. The novel sprawls out across the globe, as the narrative voice shifts between a variety of characters who lament elitist poetry of privilege and amplify the power of the real– the raw, transcendent language of the people.