It’s extremely important to read, not only books from diverse authors, but those published in different places around the world. My junior year of college, I took a Global Literature class, and it quite literally broadened my reading horizons. We read books by authors from Jamaica, France, South Africa, Sudan, Nigeria, India. I was introduced to characters and places, events and histories I’d otherwise never encounter through most books published in North America.
To celebrate authors from around the world and provide some global reading suggestions, I’ve compiled a list of books, one published on each continent (except Antarctica, of course). This has been a good exercise for me, because it’s made me realize how few books from around the world I’ve really read. Although I’ve read at least one book from all possible continents, for some, it is just that. Going forward, I’ll certainly be making an even greater effort to read books published in places other than North America and Europe.
Content Warning: This post includes mention of violence, murder, suicide, death, and sexual assault, as these things are present in some books listed here.
Reading changes your life. [It] unlocks worlds unknown or forgotten, taking travelers around the world and through time. Reading helps you escape the confines of school and pursue your own education.Donalyn Miller
Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih (Sudan)
This novel is a commentary on the impact of British colonialism and European modernity on rural North Africa, specifically on the culture and people of Sudan. The story takes place in the 1960s, the time period after Sudan has gained independence from Britain and Egypt, but is still suffering the lasting effects of colonization. Mustafa Sa’eed, the story’s protagonist, and the unnamed narrator have both studied abroad in London and returned to a small village on the Nile. These characters both represent the complex identities that result from colonization. When the narrator first meets him, Mustafa is secretive about his past, never proud or willing to speak freely of it. Eventually, he learns that Mustafa lived a destructive lifestyle in London, hurting himself and numerous others through reckless greed and desire. Among other things, he “conquered” women in the same way that the British empire has other nations, controlling and manipulating them for his own selfish gain. The relationships all ended in tragedy and death, whether by suicide or murder.
Mustafa recognizes that his behavior was monstrous, that most of what he learned from his studies in Europe was that he was living a lie, pretending to be someone he wasn’t, transformed into a horribly selfish and destructive person. The narrator wonders if he too has been transformed by British influence, if he is or will become a monster like Mustafa, or if he is strong enough to withstand it. This novel is complex, rich, and critical of Western culture in such an honest way. It’s exactly the type of book Westerners should read.
Considering there are no established civilizations (let alone publishing houses) on this continent, I think it’s safe to say this one will remain blank!
Human Acts by Han Kang (South Korea)
This book is a fictionalized account of the Gwangju uprising that took place in South Korea in 1980. The initial protest started with local university students in a demonstration against the martial law government which had recently been established through a military coup in December of 1979. The protesters were fired upon, raped, and beaten by soldiers. The uprising came in response to that, when locals armed themselves with stolen weapons and attempted to fight back. The uprising lasted for eleven days, during which an estimated 600 Gwangju people were killed. Needless to say, this book was difficult to get through at times.
The first several dozen pages are filled with nothing but heavily-detailed descriptions of death, literal stacks of corpses and the experience of those responsible for their care. There are other scenes throughout the book as well that depict death in great detail, and also torture and imprisonment. The death and unsettling descriptions in the book are not without purpose, of course. They immerse the reader in the horrific events the Gwangju people were forced to endure at this time, thereby evoking empathy about events that the reader might likely never know firsthand. Be warned that this novel is hard to read at times, as of course what the Gwangju people went through was devastating, but it is a beautifully-written and historically rich account.
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
I read this book in high school, per the recommendation of the guy I was dating at the time. He loved the book, said he could relate to the main character in a number of ways, and hoped I liked it as much as he did. The novel is about a socially-awkward geneticist who employs scientific means in attempts to obtain what he thinks will be the perfect wife. He creates a sixteen-page questionnaire to rule out obvious flaws and ensure compatibility in all the ways he deems important. The whole theme of this off-beat romantic comedy is that love is not as precise as we imagine or hope it to be. The “perfect” partner doesn’t exist; rather, solid, healthy relationships are something to be cultivated through intentional love and work.
I took the high opinion of this book that my boyfriend at the time had as evidence that he wished he could do the same: use science and math to find the perfect partner; in other words, that I was not it. As an insecure seventeen-year-old who already knew deep down that I would never be what my boyfriend wanted me to be (for a number of reasons, let’s be honest), I had a hard time enjoying the book when I first read it. I remember thinking the main character was entitled, misogynistic, and arrogant, and I struggled to root for him at all. I’ve been rereading excerpts to help me write this post now, however, and I realize I should perhaps give it another chance. By the end of the novel, the main character does seem to develop some self-awareness and recognize the fault in his behavior. Such strong character development is one of the things that can make a story so good. This book received high praise from authors I admire and trust, so perhaps I was harsh in my judgments before, simply projecting my own insecurities. I certainly plan to reread this book at some point soon.
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (Netherlands)
Most of the books I’ve read that were published in Europe come from the U.K. so I wanted to make sure the one I included on this list was published elsewhere. Unlike most of my peers, I read this book when I was in my twenties, rather than middle school. Knowing more about the history of World War II and the true horrors that Anne Frank would have been living through made for a more touching reading experience.
This is among the most widely read books on the Holocaust, and I believe that’s because it humanizes the experience of Jewish people at this time in a very present way. It’s one of those books that brings historical events to life in ways textbook recounting simply cannot, because it was written in real time, as these events are unfolding around Anne. She illustrates how unifying the human experience is, that even in times of unimaginable horror, we are all still flawed people at the core. We worry about seemingly trivial things while the world is falling apart around us. Anne was a witty, sassy, sometimes selfish, and overall very ambitious young girl. Reading her diary and knowing how things end for her is heart-breaking, but to continue sharing her story and reading this book is to carry on her legacy.
5. North America
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (Canada)
I chose this as my North American book, because of course most books I’ve read in my life were published in North America, where I’m from. But this one was published in Canada, rather than the United States. The novel takes place in the rural countryside of Prince Edward Island, where the author grew up. It is the story of a little orphan girl who ends up being sent to two middle-aged siblings by mistake, who are instead looking for a young boy to help them on their farm. They, of course, grow to love Anne as their own, in spite of the struggles they all endure in the process.
This novel explores the hardships of adolescence, especially for those who don’t quite fit in. Anne is a redheaded, outspoken, well-read girl with quirky interests and a unique personality. She doesn’t always get along with her classmates or others in the small town, but she always comes from a place of good intentions. This is another of those books I read as an adult, rather than in adolescence, as most others I know did. It was richer, I think, reading it later in life, after having experienced some of the difficulties the novel touches on and having had the help of time to fully process them. The book resonated with me in a number of ways. We all long to be accepted and loved, to achieve great things, and to live a meaningful life, just like Anne Shirley of Green Gables.
6. South America
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (Chile)
I learned a lot from this novel about the rise of Democratic Socialism in Chile in the 1970s. At this time, there was a great disparity between the upper and lower classes. There were people living in lavish mansions with several wings, courtyards, servants, and unused rooms and furniture, while at the same time, there were people living in shacks of scrap metal and cloth, their children bloated with hunger, wearing soiled and torn clothing, if any at all. It’s no wonder the lower classes were enraged. There was an abundance of wealth in the hands of very few, while others’ basic needs were not even met.
The novel’s author is the goddaughter of Salvador Allende, the first democratically-elected Socialist president in Chile. When he was elected, the nation’s most wealthy realized that, with him in power, their riches were threatened. In order to prevent losing any of their money, they used the plethora of resources at their disposal to obtain weapons and stage a coup with the help of the United States military. On September 11, 1973, Salvador Allende was murdered by military officials. Anyone who supported the president was imprisoned, some tortured. The author herself fled the country in 1975, knowing that just by association to the former president, her life was in danger. This novel is rich with history, a story told by someone with firsthand experiences of the historical events and family ties to all of it. It was an eye-opening read, demonstrating ultimately that no matter who ends up in elected seats of “power,” those with the most money and resources already at their disposal have the means to steal back control, if they so choose.