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Your Year in Travel Reading: 12 Books by Female Novelists From Around the World

By Diane Vadino

01.18.19

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Plenty of people resolve to read more every year. And what better reading challenge than to enjoy books by female writers from countries across the globe? Here are some selections to get you started.

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In 2013, author Ann Morgan blogged about her experiences reading her way around the world. Eventually she produced a book (The World Between Two Covers, Liveright) and gave a  TED talk. (Morgan’s full list is here.) It seems that she started a trend: In her wake have sprung Goodreads groups and myriad social media–enabled individual challenges like this one

If you’re looking to tackle such a reading challenge in 2019, we hope these recommendations will get you started. They include works set in a dozen nations and were written by novelists hailing from across the globe. Some were educated in the United States or now make their homes here—such as Ghana-born Yaa Gyasi, who came to the United States at two years old and attended both Stanford and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But many books, both classic and new, are found only in translation, written by authors who were born and lived in the country in which their books are set.

What they share is a singular perspective on the cultural fissures between a multiplicity of homes—cultural, physical, spiritual, actual—and keen insight into what are for some readers unknown lands. Happy reading!

Australia

Picnic at Hanging Rock

by Joan Lindsay (F. W. Cheshire, 1967)

This story of girls gone missing on a Valentine’s Day picnic in Australia isn’t true, but it’s presented as  historical fact—and it feels like it’s only a few beats removed from a season of the true crime podcast Serial, including the ambiguous ending. Interestingly, the mystery of the girls’ disappearance was resolved in an unpublished final chapter, which had been cut from the original story at the behest of the publishers. Lindsay requested that they publish Chapter 18 posthumously, so readers desperate for closure can read The Secrets of Hanging Rock, which includes the final chapter and commentary. But the original version is perfect on its own: mysterious, remote, beguiling.

Buy it: amazon.com

Chile

Seeing Red

by Lina Meruane (Eterna Cadencia, 2016)

Lina, the protagonist of Seeing Red, is a student from Chile living in New York who suffers sudden and total blindness—not unlike author Lina Meruane, who reworked her own experience with two months of slightlessness caused in her case by a stroke. With this autobiographical foundation, Meruane explores loss and love, unconditional and otherwise.

Buy it: amazon.com

China

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

by Jung Chang (Simon & Schuster, 1991)

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Jung Chang’s family memoir begins with her grandmother, the concubine of a Chinese warlord and ends with Chung’s new life as a student in London. Along the way, the family witnesses a century’s worth of upheaval, from the Japanese occupation of Manchuria through the rise of communism and the Cultural Revolution. It’s the definition of epic—and still banned in China.

Buy it: amazon.com

Finland

The Summer Book

By Tove Jansson (Albert Bonniers Förlag, 1972)

Tove Jansson is best known as the creator and illustrator of the iconic children’s book (and comic) characters The Moomins, so famed in Finland that they’re the stars of their own amusement park, Moomin World. Her prose for adults is extraordinary, too. The Summer Book is a collection of vignettes exploring the relationship between young Sophie and her wry, unsentimental grandmother, as they spend the summer in a cottage on an island in the Baltic Sea. It’s a beautiful rendering of a fleeting season.

Buy it: amazon.com

Ghana

Homegoing

By Yaa Gyasi (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016)

Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing has no small goal: to consider the fortunes of a family of two half-sisters, one sold into slavery, the other married into wealth and privilege. Chapters alternate between eight generations of their descendents, creating a singular series of portraits. Even more remarkable: The author was just 26 when the book was published.

Buy it: amazon.com

Iceland

Hotel Silence

By Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (Benedikt, 2018)

Handyman Jónas Ebeneser first makes love with his wife on an Icelandic hillside, under the gaze of watchful sheep. Two decades later, the marriage ends, and he learns another man is their daughter’s biological father. Bereft, he leaves his native Iceland for a city only recently recovering from war, where he intends to end his life—and instead finds himself unclogging shower drains. Happy complications ensue in this story about the transformative power of service to others.

Buy it: amazon.com

India

In Custody

By Anita Desai (Penguin Books, 1984)

Anita Desai wrote three Booker Prize–shortlisted books between 1980 and 1999—Clear Light of Day, In Custody, and Fasting Feasting. The middle title—In Custody, published in 1984—may be the best: It’s the story of a renowned Urdu poet and the put-upon academic entrusted with his legacy. The setting is Delhi, but the failures—of art, profession, and relationships—are universal.

Buy it: amazon.com

Iran

Persepolis

By Marjane Satrapi (L’Association, 2000)

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Marjane Satrapi is now a big-league filmmaker—she’s currently directing Radioactive, a biopic of Marie Curie starring Rosamund Pike—but she launched her career with Persepolis. This autobiographical graphic novel is a perceptive coming-of-age story set in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Young Marjane drinks, goes to parties, and skips school—typical teenage rebellions that take on new meaning against the backdrop of a fast-changing culture.

Buy it: amazon.com

Mexico

Umami

By Laia Jufresa (Literatura Random House, 2015)

A small community in Mexico City—the inhabitants of Belldrop Mews—share their collective grief for lost friends and family, as well as the neighborhood intrigues, hopes, and ambitions that make their sorrow bearable. Several voices step forward to share the interconnected stories—and it’s emblematic of Jufresa’s inclusive, free-wheeling story that one of them belongs to a young girl, dead several years before the story’s start.

Buy it: amazon.com

Morocco

The Moor’s Account

By Laila Lalami (Pantheon, 2014)

Rabat-born Laila Lalami has lived in the United States since 1992. The Moor’s Account tells the story of another Moroccan making sense of the New World through writing: Estevanico, a slave sharing the story of the doomed, real-life Narváez expedition, which began in 1527 in Florida and ended nine years later, as the few surviving members arrived in Mexico City. As elegantly written as it is deftly plotted, the book won an American Book Award and was a 2015 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Buy it: amazon.com

Palestine

Wild Thorns

By Sahar Khalifeh (Galileo Limited, 1976)

In Wild Thorns, Sahar Khalifeh tells the story of Usama, a Palestinian who returns to his homeland after working as a translator in a wealthy Gulf State. He intends to violently resist the Israeli occupation—only to have his views confounded by the cousin he left behind and his own concerns for day-to-day survival. Khalifeh’s central concern is as old as war itself: how to balance the obligations of resistance with the need for collaboration.

Buy it: amazon.com

Sudan

The Kindness of Enemies

By Leila Aboulela (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2015)

Winner of the inaugural Caine Prize for African writing, Leila Aboulela—Sudanese by birth, now living in Scotland—evokes her own bifurcated history in The Kindness of Enemies. In contemporary Scotland, Natasha, a half-Russian, half-Sudanese academic, learns a student may have become radicalized; in a parallel narrative, a noblewoman named Anna becomes the captive of an imam whose own son was imprisoned by the invading Russians. Together, both stories consider the lives of the perennially displaced and the obligations of shared heritage.

Buy it: amazon.com

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>>Next: 8 New Books You Need to Read Before Flying to France

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