Around the World in 80 Books

The idea for this project started in 1872—well, sort of.


It was in 1872, you see, that French author Jules Verne published his adventure novel, Around the World in 80 Days. In it, a rich British gentleman named Phineas Fogg and his trusty French valet Passepartout—whose name means “goes everywhere”—attempt to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. Adventures abound. “Very curious, very curious,” Passepartout says to himself at one point, after reaching what is now Yemen. “I see that it is by no means useless to travel, if a man wants to see something new.”

Fast forward, and travel is a little different than it was in 1872—thankfully, no longer relegated solely to wealthy explorers whirling around the world on a whim. At AFAR, we have long believed in the power of stories that take you places, and so we thought there was no better time to turn to books that help us get out into the world. Eighty of them, to be specific.

In the following collection, you’ll find novels, memoirs, short stories, books of poetry, graphic novels, and yes, even a travel guide. Because many of these are works in translation, we made every effort to note the original publish date where possible, even if there are large gaps between the first release and the version we are recommending. (It often takes years for work to be translated into English.) But how did we choose what countries to include, and better yet, what books?

Aware that “international” literature is often synonymous with works from Western Europe, we focused on stories we love from places that don’t get enough of it, which is why you’ll see the list is grounded in picks from Africa and Asia-Pacific. Aware, too, that in the original Around the World in 80 Days, we are circling the world with a white, wealthy, British male, we looked primarily to women, BIPOC, and queer authors to be our couriers this time around. With every selection, we strove to feature a writer from the respective country, writing about that country. After all, what better guide to a place can there be than someone who knows it intimately?

This list is by no means comprehensive. But drawing inspiration from the fictional Passepartout, it is our hope that these works help you “see something new.” Bon voyage.

—Katherine LaGrave




So Vast the Prison by Assia Djebar (Seven Stories Press, 1999)

What is it like to be a modern, educated woman existing in a male-dominated, traditional Islamic society? This intricate novel—first published in French in 1995 as Vaste Est la Prison—peels back the curtain via the perspective of married 36-year-old Isma.


Snares Without End by Olympe Bhêly-Quénum (University of Virginia Press, 1988)

Originally published in French in 1960, the year Benin achieved independence, Snares Without End reads like two books in one and follows the story of an African family whose life is overturned by colonial forces and subsequent tragedies. Throughout, the worst tendencies of mankind manifest in the pages.


Maru by Bessie Head (Waveland Press, 2013)

Although born in South Africa, Bessie Head spent much of her life in Botswana, and is widely considered one of the country’s most influential writers. First published in 1971, Maru tells the story of an orphan who goes to teach in a remote village in Botswana and how her presence polarizes the community.


Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue (Random House Trade, 2017)

A story of immigration and the 2008 financial crisis, Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel won a dizzying number of accolades. For good reason: The tale of Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant who finds work as a chauffeur for a top executive at Lehman Brothers—and begins to discover cracks in his employer’s facade—is a powerful meditation on class, money, and what happens when newcomers perceive problems in the American Dream.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Johnny Mad Dog by Emmanuel Dongala (St. Martins Press, 2006)

Two teens, attempting to survive a brutal civil war, take different paths: Johnny joins a rebel group, while Laokolé dreams of finishing school and becoming an engineer. Their paths collide when rebel groups invade Laokolé’s city, forcing her family to flee. The novel is drawn directly from author Emmanuel Dongala’s experience; he fled the Congo with his family in 1997 and saw his original story—Johnny Chien Méchant—published in French in 2002. In 2011, Johnny Mad Dog was adapted as a feature film of the same name.


Out of Egypt by André Aciman (Picador USA, 2007)

In this memoir, the author of Call Me by Your Name describes his childhood in Alexandria, where his family settled at the beginning of the 20th century and he was born and raised. He evokes a world that no longer exists: a cosmopolitan community of colorful exiles, described in affectionate portraits.


Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste (W.W. Norton, 2011)

Beneath the Lion’s Gaze begins in 1974, during the waning days of Emperor Haile Selassie’s six-decade rule, and sprawls into life under the Derg, the Marxist military confederation that terrorized Ethiopia after Selassie was killed. Through the vantage point of a doctor and his family, writer Maaza Mengiste traces a turbulent time in a nation’s history.


Mema by Daniel Mengara (Heinemann, 2003)

“Mema” translates to “my mother,” and indeed, Daniel Mengara’s novel is a tribute to motherhood—just not exactly the way you’d expect. This particular mema is a bold and sometimes sharp woman whose unwillingness to toe the cultural line earns her community’s disapproval. After the death of her husband and two daughters, she must fight for the future of her two sons, even as her world turns against her.


Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Vintage, 2017)

Homegoing begins in 18th-century Ghana when two half-sisters are born and their paths immediately diverge. One sister is captured and sold into slavery, while the other marries an Englishman and remains in Ghana. The novel shows the devastating effects of slavery through stories of eight generations of the sisters’ descendants, including those who remained on the Gold Coast and those who made their way from the plantations of the American South to Harlem in the 20th century.

Ivory Coast

Aya: Life in Yop City by Marguerite Abouet (Drawn & Quarterly, 2012)

A wildly successful graphic novel set in the vibrant Ivory Coast in the 1970s, Aya is loosely based on author Marguerite Abouet’s own upbringing in Yopougon-Koute, or Yop City for short. The world of Aya and her friends and family was originally introduced in French as a series of six books, published between 2005 and 2010; the first three volumes of the series are combined here into Book One.


A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Penguin Group, 2012)

Mugo is a man with a secret—one that could tear his Kenyan village apart. Despite his desire to live a quiet life after years in detention camps, he is viewed by his village as a hero and leader. Set against the backdrop of the days leading up to Kenyan independence from Britain in 1963, it’s a tale of secrets and allegiances, struggle and the hope for change. Author Ngugi wa Thiong’o was nominated for the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature; A Grain of Wheat, first published in 1967, is considered his greatest novel.


The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper (Simon & Schuster, 2009)

Helene Cooper, the New York Times’s Pentagon correspondent, recalls her childhood in Liberia, brought to a sudden end when her family fled following a coup in 1980. As well as recounting Helene’s personal memories, the book is a fascinating portrait of a society shaped by the country’s unusual history, with its ruling class descended from African American settlers.


Return to the Enchanted Island by Johary Ravaloson (Amazon Crossing, 2019)

Wealthy protagonist Ietsy Razak is named after the first man in Malagasy mythology, but struggles to live up to the legacy of his name and family. (Malagasy is one of the two official languages of Madagascar, and the Malagasy ethnic group makes up much of the population of the island nation.) Sent from Madagascar to Paris to finish his education, Ietsy instead falls deeper into debauchery before eventually returning to the Enchanted Island. A bildungsroman with emotion, it’s only the second novel from Madagascar to be published in English.


Sex and Lies by Leïla Slimani (Penguin Books, 2020)

Under Morocco’s strict penal code, sex outside of marriage is illegal, and adultery is punishable by prison time—and yet, it is women who are mostly singled out for sexual censure. In this collection of essays—Slimani’s first work of non-fiction in English—she gives voice to many of them.


Under the Frangipani by Mia Couto (Serpent’s Tail, 2008)

When the director of a home for the elderly is murdered, inspector Izidine Narita is sent to investigate. From there, things get supernatural. The ghost of a dead carpenter occupies Narita’s body to help solve the case, the elderly residents of the home all confess to the murder, and there’s no evidence to be found. Writer Mia Couto weaves her tale using dreamy, myth-filled language, making this a thriller like no other.


The Purple Violet of Oshaantu by Neshani Andreas (Waveland Press, 2017)

This 2001 debut novel from Neshani Andreas is set in a small Namibian village but tackles big themes: the misogyny Namibian women often face and the power of female friendship. Mee Ali, a happily married woman, is friends with Kauna, whose husband abuses her. Then Kauna’s husband dies unexpectedly. As the novel progresses, and Kauna faces suspicion from the village, Andreas moves back in time to reveal how these relationships came to be.


Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Algonquin Books, 2012)

A decade before the release of her award-winning novel Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus introduced readers to the political instability of postcolonial Nigeria through the lens of 15-year-old Kambili Achike. Caught between the sheltered world of her wealthy, Catholic father and the ideals of her professor aunt, Kambili and her story personify the struggles and unrest of the newly independent Nigeria.


The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya (Broadway Books, 2019)

As a child in Rwanda, Clemantine Wamariya lived a comfortable, middle-class life. Then came the genocide. Within months, Clemantine—who later escaped and became a human-rights advocate—went from being a six-year-old surrounded by home and family to a refugee. Her memoir charts her passage from those early halcyon days to living in a refugee camp to the culture shock of crafting a life in the United States.


So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ (Waveland Press, 2012)

In this semi-autobiographical, award-winning novel originally written in French and published in 1979, Mariama Bâ explores the emotional struggle of Muslim women in postcolonial Senegal. At times wistful, at times bitter, the main character, a recently widowed schoolteacher named Ramatoulaye Fall, dreams of a world with the best of old customs and new freedoms.

Sierra Leone

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah (Sarah Crichton Books, 2008)

At 12, Ishmael Beah was forced to flee his village and wander a war-torn Sierra Leone. At 13, he was picked up by the national army, handed an AK-47, and became a child soldier in the country’s devastating civil war. In this powerful and heart-wrenching memoir, readers dive head-first into his account of the experience.


Call Me American by Abdi Nor Iftin (Vintage, 2018)

Growing up in war-torn Somalia, Abdi Nor Iftin first learned about the United States through its movies; he later won a green card in 2014. This stirring memoir follows his journey from refugee to immigrant and chews on the question: What does it mean to be American?

South Africa

Always Another Country by Sisonke Msimang (World Editions, 2018)

AFAR contributor Sisonke Msimang was raised with revolutionaries. As a child in Zambia, she watched her father—a member of Nelson Mandela’s militia who fled South Africa following Mandela’s imprisonment—and others fight for Mandela’s release. The family went on to live in Kenya and Canada. So it’s no surprise Msimang became a globe-trotting activist herself. This intimate, moving memoir shares her insights about crossing borders, racial challenges she encountered attending college in the United States, and her disappointment after moving to supposedly liberated South Africa.


The Grub Hunter by Amir Tag Elsir (Pearson Education, 2012)

It’s a Russian nesting doll of novels: Farfar—a respected member of the domineering Sudanese secret police—loses his leg in an accident and must retire. And so he decides to write a novel, despite never having read one. As he writes and meets with other writers, he realizes he’s lost his place in society—and gone from watcher to watched. As for the titular grubs? They’re not the insect kind, but rather a metaphor for literary ideas that can grow into something of substance.


The Scents of Marie-Claire by Habib Selmi (The American University in Cairo Press, 2010)

No, it’s not a novel about the women’s magazine, though The Scents of Marie-Claire does center around a woman. Tunisian author Habib Selmi narrates a love story between Mahfouth, an introverted Tunisian man living in Paris, and Marie-Claire, a spirited French woman. While at first a great affair, the relationship begins to crumble, asking: Are their problems the inherent problems of love, or a result of their very different backgrounds?


A Girl Is a Body of Water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Tin House Books, 2020)

In this smart novel, the conflict of adolescence unfolds in the conflicted Uganda of the 1970s, then under the rule of dictator Idi Amin. Raised by her paternal grandparents in the village of Nattetta, 13-year-old Kirabo has a question she can ignore no longer: Who is my mother? For answers, Kirabo seeks out Nsuuta, a local witch.


The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell (Hogarth Press, 2020)

The fates of three Zambian families collide and contract in this sweeping story, which begins with a grave error made in 1904. Comprising history, fairytale, romance, and science fiction, The Old Drift skillfully shifts gears between genres and generations—so much so that you’ll be surprised at how quickly you’re done with the book.


This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Graywolf Press, 2018)

Set in the late 1990s in Zimbabwe, This Mournable Body follows a narrator named Tambu, who is educated but unemployed and reckoning with betrayals of all stripes. Eventually, Tambu’s hope for the future and her reality painfully collide.




This House of Grief by Helen Garner (Text Publishing Company, 2016)

A nonfiction courtroom drama, This House of Grief concerns the murder trial of a 2005 accident/crime in a small town southwest of Melbourne. Garner, who grew up nearby, attended the trial and offers a riveting account of a family tragedy in an insightful effort to understand not who did it, but why.


First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Luong Ung (Harper Perennial, 2006)

In this bestselling memoir, author Luong Ung vividly recounts her life in a Cambodia ravaged by the Khmer Rouge. Ung was five years old when, in 1975, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army charged into Phnom Penh, ripping her from her happy, privileged life. She details tragedies that followed—working in labor camps, starvation, the loss of her parents—but also her ultimate transition to activism. In 2017, the book was adapted for a film of the same name, directed by Angelina Jolie.


Waiting by Ha Jin (Pantheon, 1999)

Winner of the National Book Award, Waiting is based on a story Jin heard from his wife: that of an army doctor waiting nearly 20 years to divorce and marry his longtime friend, only to question his decision to leave his first wife. Individual freedoms when living under communist rule are heavily at play.


A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (Vintage, 2001)

This epic-length novel takes place in an unnamed Indian city by the sea that bears a strong resemblance to Mumbai, where Mistry was born. When an emergency order leads a young widow to take in three boarders, their different tales offer looks at contemporary India in all its complexity.


The Rainbow Troops by Andrea Hirata (Sarah Crichton Books, 2014)

A bestseller in Indonesia when it first came out in 2005, Hirata’s coming-of-age autobiographical novel delivers all kinds of feels. You can’t help but cheer for poor young Ikal and his “Rainbow Troop” of elementary-school friends, who follow the lead of two motivational teachers on a remote island off the coast of Sumatra.


Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri (Riverhead Books, 2020)

Sorrow, fate, anger, and the unfairness of poverty are present on practically every page of Yu Miri’s 2014 novel in translation, Tokyo Ueno Station, which is told from the perspective of a dead man haunting a Tokyo train station. It is a necessary read about those considered on the city’s margins of society.


Mother’s Beloved: Stories from Laos by Outhine Bounyavong (University of Washington Press, 1999)

A slim 160 pages, Mother’s Beloved nevertheless manages to pack a lot in a little: In each of these 14 stories, the author focuses on “ordinary” people who are touched by tragedy or blessed by good luck. Throughout, the scars of war and the threat of environmental destruction are present.


We, the Survivors by Tash Aw (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019)

Technically, this is a novel about an interview with a murderer, though that would mean In Cold Blood is as simply summed up. Tash Aw creates a lovable protagonist, Ah Hock, whose oral history unfolds from humble childhood in a fishing village to rapidly modernizing Malaysia and his (all-too-real) conflict with class and race.


The Blue Sky by Galsan Tschinag (Milkweed Editions, 2020)

The Blue Sky is the first in a trilogy of autobiographical novels from Tschinag, whose name in his native language is Schynykbajoglu Dsurukuwaa. (The work was first published in German as Der Blaue Himmel in 1994.) In the book, Dshurukawaa, a young shepherd boy who is part of the nomadic Tuvan people in Mongolia’s Altai Mountains, is experiencing great change: His tribe’s way of life is disappearing, and he is soon to become a man.


On the Road to Mandalay by Mya Than Tint (White Orchid Press, 2019)

Fortune tellers. Waiters. Artists, porters, petty criminals, and sailors: all get their stories told in this assemblage of 1980s profiles from Mya Than Tint, who won the Myanmar National Literature Award five times before his death in 1998. In one story, an interviewee laments that the author should be featuring “ordinary” people and not actresses and celebrities. But under an authoritarian regime, whose stories get told is strictly controlled—which is the very beauty of this collection.


Mad Country by Samrat Upadhyay (Soho Press, 2017)

“Like a Buddhist Chekhov,” crowed the San Francisco Chronicle, Nepali-born fiction writer Samrat Upadhyay “speaks to common truths” and cultural identity in eight short stories, set in Nepal and the U.S. A highlight is “America the Great Equalizer,” about a Nepali graduate student in Illinois who begins to identify with African Americans during the Ferguson protests.

New Zealand

The Bone People by Keri Hulme (Penguin Group, 2010)

The prestigious Booker Prize has generally recognized British novelists. Hulme was the first New Zealander to win the award (in 1984) with her debut novel, in which she weaves dreams and mythology with strands from her Maori and Celtic background in an unusual account of alcoholism, child abuse, and other issues in the lives of three outsiders.


Insurrecto by Gina Apostol (Soho Press, 2018)

Insurrecto explores the eternal question: Who gets to write history? We meet Chiara, an American filmmaker touring the Philippines to write a screenplay about the 1901 Balangiga massacre, during which occupying American soldiers killed as many as 50,000 Filipinos. Is the subject matter horrifying? Yes. Is the novel witty, punny, and consistently funny? Surprisingly, yes.


How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee (Hanover Square Press, 2019)

Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Jing-Jing Lee’s debut novel reflects Singapore’s discomfort with its less-glorious past (namely Japanese occupation) through the story of an elderly woman, haunted by her own time as a forced “comfort woman” during World War II.

South Korea

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (Grand Central Publishing, 2017)

This sweeping novel begins in Japanese-occupied Korea and follows four generations of a family of immigrants to Japan. Lee’s book has the feel of an ambitious 19th-century work in the style of Balzac or Dickens, with countless characters and an attention to the telling details of their daily lives.

Sri Lanka

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala (Vintage, 2013)

In 2004, a tsunami swept the east and south coasts of Sri Lanka, killing a reported 30,000 people. Among them were the parents, sons, and husband of author Sonali Deraniyagala. In her intimate memoir of the event and aftermath, Deraniyagala recounts her unfathomable loss and the progression of her grief.


Notes of a Desolate Man by Chu T’ien-wen (Columbia University Press, 1999)

Our narrator, Xiao Shao, is a middle-aged gay man coping with the loss of his childhood friend to AIDS—and struggling with his own mortality, against the backdrop of Taiwan’s tense relationship with China. Despite its title and subject, Notes of a Desolate Man is not grim: Chu T’ien-wen infuses her novel with human and comic observations, like the radical treatments Shao and his friends use in an attempt to banish age. Published in Taiwan in 1994, the novel won the coveted China Times Prize.


The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai (Algonquin Books, 2020)

The Mountains Sing is something of a duet: Alternating between the perspectives of family matriarch Diệu Lan and her granddaughter Hương, the novel spans nearly a century of Vietnamese history, covering everything from the French colonial period up to the present day. It’s a gripping read about the long-lasting consequences of war.




The Fall of the Stone City by Ismail Kadare (Grove Press, 2013)

Though originally published in 2008 and set in one of Albania’s darkest, most tumultuous historic periods, The Fall of the Stone City is timeless, wry, and magical, even as it charts the crest and crash of an occupation and subsequent dictatorship. If you’re a fan of Veep and The Death of Stalin, this is the book for you.


Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova (Graywolf Press, 2017)

In this memoir, writer Kapka Kassabova returns to her homeland of Bulgaria to explore the country’s border with Greece and Turkey. Border is a rare book: On its face a travel narrative, it also examines the tentacled effects of the Cold War and Europe’s great migration crisis.


Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo (Europa Editions, 2013)

The first in a trilogy of thrilling, fast-paced crime novels (completed by Chourmo and Solea), 1995’s Total Chaos is often hailed as a key “Mediterranean noir” novel. The city of Marseilles, in all its conflicted, corrupted, racially charged, and yet vibrant and beautiful glory, plays a key role, but it’s the way the narrative skillfully veers between present-day action and the memories haunting protagonist Fabio Montale that make it truly memorable.


Report to Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis (Faber, 2005)

Kazantzakis is best known for two other books—Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ—but it’s this autobiographical novel from 1961 that paints some of the most visual scenes of Crete, where the author was born. The story moves through Italy, Jerusalem, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Russia, and the Caucasus before landing back in Crete—just like Kazantzakis himself.


The Door by Magda Szabó (New York Review of Books, 2015)

First published in Hungarian in 1987 and translated in 1995, 2005, and 2015, The Door explores the filial, fraught, and intimate relationship between a middle-class writer and her housekeeper in communist Hungary. As it crescendos to a heartbreaking ending, the story holds tight to the privileges of privacy and trust.


Independent People by Halldór Laxness (Vintage, 1997)

You have a sheep farmer who spent 18 years as a servant and is now fiercely committed to his freedom. Then you have his daughter, who rebels against her father’s obsessive ways. So yes, this novel by the Nobel Prize–winning Icelandic author Halldór Laxness—originally published in Icelandic in two volumes in 1934 and 1935—is about independent people. More critically, it’s a reminder that even the most self-sufficient folks need others to survive.


The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante (Europa Editions, 2018)

This quartet tells a captivating saga of the brilliant yet complex, and sometimes conflicted friendship between two women that starts in the early 1950s. Spanning 60 years, the four books—My Brilliant Friend (2012), The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014), and The Story of the Lost Child (2015)—are set against the backdrop of Naples and a world undergoing significant changes. With the intricacies of relationships at the center of the story, Ferrante pulls at every one of your heartstrings.


The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (Graywolf Press, 2020)

Rijneveld, 29, became the youngest winner of the Man Booker Prize with their debut novel, which was a bestseller almost immediately after it was first released in Dutch in 2018. The story follows the life of Jas, a young Dutch child who lives on a dairy farm with their repressive religious family. After tragedy strikes, Jas develops a dark obsession with “crossing over.”

Northern Ireland

The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty (Blackstone Publishing, 2019)

McKinty’s first novel to feature Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy in Carrickfergus, near Belfast, the 1981 story is shaped by “The Troubles,” decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland. Unlike many mystery series, this one improves as it progresses; originally set to be a trilogy, it concluded recently with a sixth book.


A House in Norway by Vigdis Hjorth (Norvik Press, 2017)

Political and personal collide in this story, which follows Alma, a divorced textile artist who views herself as a liberal feminist. But Alma’s personal ideals are tested when a Polish family moves into an apartment in Alma’s home, and she’s forced to confront whether she is compassionate in actuality—or just in theory.


View With a Grain of Sand by Wisława Szymborska (Mariner Books, 1995)

Yes, the Nobel Prize for Literature has gone to some obscure and dour Europeans, but Szymborska, who won the award in 1996, is a pleasure to read. This selection of 100 poems draws from seven of her books, over a span of 33 years, including Salt (1962), No End of Fun (1967), and The End and the Beginning (1993).


Lisbon: What the Tourist Should See by Fernando Pessoa (Shearsman Books, 2008)

The unassuming title might sound like a dry guidebook, but its author was Portugal’s most celebrated writer, a prolific poet and critic. Pessoa spent almost his entire life in Lisbon, wandering its streets and waterfront piers. His love for and fascination with the city is palpable on every page.


One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Signet, 2008)

This terse novel brought the author international acclaim when it was published in 1962. Solzhenitsyn drew on his own experience of imprisonment in a Soviet labor camp to describe an “ordinary” day for Ivan at a Siberian labor camp. The horror is in the details about food, weather, clothes, and work.

Middle East



Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon, 2004)

Where have historical graphic memoirs been all my life? You might ask yourself once you finish Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s retelling of the Islamic Revolution from her perspective as a 10-year-old. Innocence comes with a side of adult irony, though heartache knows no age limit.


Pillars of Salt by Fadia Faqir (Interlink Publishing, 1998)

Confined to a mental hospital, a peasant woman from the Jordan Valley and another from bustling Amman find themselves as roommates. The two women are given narrative storytelling power in the novel, but so is a somewhat-anonymous male voice, who contradicts much of what the women say—a commentary on the repression of the “second sex.”


An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (Grove Press, 2014)

Nominated for the National Book Award for Fiction, this novel shines a light on what many might consider a mundane topic: a septuagenarian recluse who spends her time reading, translating novels into Arabic, and wading through memories of wars that have ransacked her beloved Beirut. Dry, it is not.


Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk (Vintage, 2006)

One of the world’s most evocative cities gets fêted in the eponymous title by author Orhan Pamuk, who floats throughout the city via musings on happiness, self-consciousness, society, and the loss of an empire. Thanks to Pamuk’s eye for detail, the buzzing metropolis in all its dynamism is brought to life.

The Americas



Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar (Pantheon, 1987)

This celebrated novel is most famous for its unusual structure as it follows its main characters, an Argentine intellectual in Paris and his childhood friend in Buenos Aires. You can read it from beginning to end or jumping from chapter to chapter, while the 99 “expendable” chapters that follow the main narrative (and don’t drive the plot) are optional.


Turings Delirium by Edmundo Paz Soldan (Mariner Books, 2007)

A dying president. Cyberterrorism. A brewing coup. Edmundo Paz Soldan’s sixth novel is a rollercoaster of a read, following Miguel “Turing” Saenz—a codebreaker in a top-secret wing of the government—as he attempts to track down an adolescent hacker intent on taking down the powers that be. Of course, not all is as it seems.


Crow Blue by Adriana Lisboa (Bloomsbury USA, 2014)

An award-winning author born in Brazil, Adriana Lisboa now lives in Colorado. Her 2014 novel, Crow Blue, follows a similar geographical trajectory: 13-year-old Vanja leaves Rio de Janeiro—where the shells on the beach are a dreamy “crow blue”—following the death of her mother, relocating to Colorado in search of her biological father and a new sense of family.


Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice (ECW Press, 2018)

In this postapocalyptic thriller set on a remote Anishinaabe reservation, panic sets in as phones, internet, and power go out and a community is left in the dark. As months pass and betrayals build, residents must make major decisions—and deal with the consequences.


Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)

Divided into four chapters, Ways of Going Home is actually a marriage of two storylines: One tells the story of a young boy in the 1980s, beginning with his experience of an earthquake; the second is about the novelist writing the story of the young boy. In Zambra’s capable hands, the two tell overlapping but unique stories of life during and after the Pinochet regime.


Collected Stories by Gabriel García Márquez (Harper Perennial, 2008)

Nobel Prize–winner Gabriel García Márquez is well-known for his epic, romantic novels—One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, among others—but this collection offers a taste of Márquez’s gift for shorter prose. Stories about stranded angels and villages experiencing extraordinary events contain his signature mix of surrealism and quotidian.


The Fallen by Carlos Manuel Álvarez (Graywolf Press, 2020)

The Fallen’s story of a disintegrating family is relayed by its four members: two parents and a daughter and son. Through their narration—often of overlapping events—readers see how truth looks a little different, depending on who’s telling it.

Dominican Republic

In the Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez (Algonquin Books, 2010)

Julia Alvarez’s own family was forced to flee the Dominican Republic just three months before the Mirabel sisters—who also opposed the Trujillo dictatorship—were assassinated on November 25, 1960. In Alvarez’s masterful 1994 novel, she shares a fictional account of the three murdered sisters, who were known as Las Mariposas (“The Butterflies”), while also giving a voice to the one who survived.

El Salvador

Tyrant Memory by Horacio Castellanos Moya (New Directions, 2011)

How does political unrest upend families and society? That’s the central question in Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Tyrant Memory, which layers fiction on real events: the attempted 1944 military coup against fascist dictator Maximiliano Hernández Martínez. Moya—a political exile who teaches at the University of Iowa—explores the answer via diary entries of a wealthy society woman whose husband was imprisoned for criticizing Martínez and a separate narrative about her son, fleeing for his life after the failed coup. The novel was originally published in Spanish in 2008.


Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat (Soho Press, 2015)

Edwidge Danticat’s debut novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory tells the story of Haiti’s women through the life of Sophie Caco, who moves to New York City from Haiti at age 12 to be with the mother she’s never seen. Sophie soon discovers the traumatic secret of her birth, and as she grows, she struggles to reconcile life in America with that in Haiti, where women are expected to remain “pure” and where “nightmares are passed on through generations like heirlooms. ”


A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (Riverhead Books, 2014)

Marlon James’s third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings follows events leading to and following the assassination attempt on Bob Marley in 1976. It spans several decades and tackles the crack wars in NYC in the 1980s and a changed Jamaica in the 1990s. Via unique characters and multiple dialects and perspectives, James goes deep on the complexity of Jamaican and American history, society, and pop culture.


Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea (Little, Brown and Company, 2009)

American Dirt got all the attention (and controversy) in recent years, but in 2009 there was another, warmer and funnier, novel detailing an impossible immigrant journey from Mexico to the U.S. Populated with tenacious teenagers armed with sharp wit, the story also vividly details the Mexican countryside.


The World in Half by Cristina Henríquez (Riverhead Books, 2009)

It’s a story as old as time: A child embarks on a quest to understand her family. In this case the child is a young woman, Mira, raised in Chicago by her mother to believe her father wanted nothing to do with her. When her mother falls ill, Mira discovers letters from her Panamanian father and abandons her comfortable life to search for him. As much as it’s about family, it’s also a sublime novel about the geography, culture, and people of Panama.


Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa (Picador USA, 2007)

Nobel Prize–winning author Mario Vargas Llosa is one of Peru’s most beloved authors and has written no shortage of acclaimed novels. This one, which was first published in Spanish in 1977 and centers around an illicit romance between a young student and his aunt, is at once mischievous and masterful.

St. Kitts and Nevis

The Final Passage by Caryl Phillips (Vintage, 1995)

The exodus of Black West Indians from the islands to what is considered a land of more promise is the premise of this sweeping tale from Phillips, who was born in St. Kitts but moved with his family when he was four months old. Phillips’s return to the island—when he was 22—inspired the novel.

Trinidad and Tobago

A House for Mr. Biswas by VS Naipaul (Vintage, 2001)

If Barack Obama likes a book, you know it’s a doozy. Such is the case with VS Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas, which our 44th president referred to as “the Nobel Prize winner’s first great novel.” The late Naipaul was born in Trinidad and began as a comic writer, a sensibility that informs his 1961 classic following the doomed Mr. Biswas as he fights off domineering in-laws (and his own demons) to find a home of his own.


A Dream Come True: The Collected Stories of Juan Carlos Onetti by Juan Carlos Onetti (Archipelago Books, 2019)

Novelist Juan Carlos Onetti may not be a household name like Gabriel García Márquez, but his contributions to the Latin American genre of magic realism are just as essential. His short story collection—a compilation spanning six decades, all infused with existential themes and vignettes of Uruguayan life—is the quickest way to immerse yourself in his fantastical world.


Dona Ines vs. Oblivion by Ana Teresa Torres (Grove Press, 2000)

Don your comfiest reading pants and get ready to time travel: Dona Ines vs. Oblivion traverses 300 years of Venezuelan history, beginning in Caracas circa 1715. Thankfully, there’s only one narrator: Dona Ines, who spends much of the novel as a chatty, obsessive ghost. The book won the 1998 Pegasus Prize for Literature, and was the first of Torres’s novels to be translated into English.

Written by Jessie Beck, Tim Chester, Aislyn Greene, Bryan Kinkade, Katherine LaGrave, Lyndsey Matthews, John Newton, Laura Dannen Redman, Pat Tompkins, and Irene Wang. This article was originally published in October 12, 2020. It was updated on April 24, 2024 with new information.

Katherine LaGrave is a deputy editor at Afar focused on features and essays.
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