Granta 109: Work, ed John Freeman

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The Independent Culture

"Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness," wrote Sigmund Freud, but it is love that garners more pages of literature. This wonderful anthology, exploring how work might endow or deprecate our self-worth, does much to reassert the balance, however. The collection spans the globe, describing a vast array of working lives in Kenya, China, Rwanda, Peru, Sierra Leone, Dublin, Johannesburg and Essex – the latter in Sir Peter Stothard's poignant conjuring of his childhood in the Marconi work village.

While work may vary vastly, the fundamental connection between work and identity binds us all. The extent to which the professional and personal are interwoven is explored throughout this collection; we see people attempt to extricate the two, but there are times when their intimate connection becomes painfully apparent, such as when one loses the livelihood it has taken a lifetime to build up. In a powerful extract from Ngugi Wa Thiong'o's forthcoming memoir of his childhood in rural Kenya, we see his father, "the man who had had everything [but] had now lost it all", spiralling into drinking and violence as the "delicate balance of power" that makes a life is disrupted. If we are what we do, what happens when we lose that very function that sustains us?

"Rights", both abused and struggled for, feature strongly. Daniel Alarcon writes about the director of an independent publishing house fighting hard to protect the rights of authors in Peru. And we see how love and work may be united, in pieces by Kent Haruf, on his time working in a hospice; Aminatta Forna, writing about vets; and Yiyun Li, on reading newspapers.

Even in these times of recessionary doom and gloom, reading about business can be a pleasure. These essays and photographs are labours of love.