Ahilan Arulanantham: TOP TEN BOOKS

Ahilan Arulanantham

Credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Human rights lawyer Ahilan Arulanantham is the director of advocacy and legal director for the ACLU of Southern California. For his work protecting immigrants and minority communities from government oppression, he was recognized as a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient in 2016. His other awards include the 2010 Arthur C. Helton Human Rights Award.

Below are Ahilan Arulanantham’s favorite books, available to purchase as a set or individually.


Learning Politics from Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka

Mark Whitaker
A compassionate book about a remarkable man (whom the author knew personally). Sivaram was a rigorous journalist, a sophisticated thinker on topics ranging from analytic philosophy to counterinsurgency theory, and a militant who fought for justice for the Tamil minority. Even if you know nothing about the Sri Lankan conflict, this book is worth reading just to understand how a person like Sivaram could have existed anywhere on Earth.

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Impossible Subjects

Mae Ngai
This is the history of immigration law that has most influenced how I think about my work. Through a compelling mix of descriptive history and social analysis, it traces the origins of the concept of the illegal immigrant in our law and culture. Our nation’s immigration discourse would improve if people were less judgmental in their approach to the topic, and this history helped to set me in that direction.
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Funny Boy

Shyam Selvadurai
A set of related vignettes telling the story of a boy who grows up as a gay Sri Lankan Tamil as the civil war starts in that country. In an understated but powerful way, it lays bare the intersectional systems of oppression operating in the main character’s life. This novel comes as close as any I have read to capturing the experiences of the Sri Lankan refugees I have known, and also speaks to the experience of displacement more broadly.
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The Mismeasure of Man

Stephen Jay Gould
A wonderful book on the flawed history of intelligence testing, which is fascinating in and of itself, but the story it tells speaks more broadly to how scholars can labor under the shadow of false ideas.
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Calculated Kindness: Refugees and America’s Half-Open Door, 1945 to the Present

Gil Loescher and John Scanlan
The definitive account of U.S. refugee policy and the motivations driving it from World War II until the mid-1980s. It remains as pertinent today as when it was written. Although the book was published long before the Obama Administration’s dismal mistreatment of Central American refugees in the last few years, the book explains that immoral policy as though it were written yesterday.
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The Dew Breaker

Edwidge Danticat
Also a set of related vignettes, but about Haitian refugees in New York and their experiences in Haiti. Even as it tells stories of horrific violence, it also forces the reader to see moral ambiguity in the perpetrators of that violence.
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1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Charles C. Mann
Another great non-fiction book about a topic I love – Native American civilizations prior to 1491. Like The Mismeasure of Man, it illustrates how conscientious scholars were completely wrong about virtually every aspect of a topic they studied — here, pre-Columbian American life — because they operated under false preconceptions.
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Philosophical Investigations

Ludwig Wittgenstein
I fear that anyone reading this list who studied philosophy already knows this book, and anyone who did not will never read it. I hope that’s not true! Although I came to know Investigations well in graduate school, I still keep it by the side of my bed and turn to it from time to time. The habits of thought I developed studying this book continue to shape how I analyze all kinds of analytical problems in my work.
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The Autumn of the Patriarch

Gabriel García Márquez
While this is as good a work of Latin American historical fiction as any that I have read, what I love about it is what it teaches about the nature of power and its isolating effects. The book also has a beautiful structure; it tells ostensibly the same story six times, starting in the same place each time but veering off in frightening directions.
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A Bend in the River

V.S. Naipaul
A beautifully written, insightful novel about (among other things) colonialism and race. I am not a fan of Naipaul’s non-fiction (or his politics), but I do not believe there is a better work of post-colonial fiction than this.
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