Saturday, April 17, 2010

Blogging on Books

So you are off on an international adventure, off to spend some time in the developing world. You will likely find that you have more time on your hands than you expected. Of course, you should spend as much time as possible getting to know the community in which you are living, but on those rainy days when you can’t leave the house or just need a break from all the stress of your own “otherness” and want to read something in the language of home, it’s good to have some books around to read.

I’m not a fan of reading stories set in places like those I’ve travelled to get away from. I’m a big fan of using books to expand my consciousness rather than escape from it. And, no, exotic romance novels set in historical or far away locales don’t count (not because the writers weren’t accurate in their research, but because the use of the romance genre plot undoes the whole idea of breaking out of mental limitations and social roles.) Now, of course there are a number of non-fiction volumes one can read on development, education, policy, travel, etc. And I will eventually cover some of my biggest recommendations of such volumes, but first I want to start a list I’d like to call “Narratives for the Non-Resident,” namely novels.

Fiction? But that just screams escapism, doesn’t it? As a matter of fact, it doesn’t have to, and it can be a great way to both relax and at the same time open up your mind and your experience to new perceptions. [And I am assuming that this is why most people leave their comfortable first world existences to experience life in developing nations. If you are going in order to place your perspectives upon the people there…well, I doubt you are reading my blog, anyway, but if you are, I beg you to reconsider your motives.]

Now, of course your best bet is to pick up some narratives from the region or nation to which you are travelling. I am going to put most biographies with fiction as well, not because they are untrue but because they fall into the same narrative mode of story-telling in which the reader can lose themselves (if the book is well written, of course.) So, for example, anyone travelling to Honduras should read Don’t Be Afraid, Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart, which is the story of one campesino woman, Elvia Alvarado, as told to and translated by Medea Benjamin. Going to Guatemala? I, Rigoberta Menchu, now a contested classic of autobiography, should definitely be on your list. When I travelled in Chile, I found that Isabella Allende’s The House of the Spirits really helped me identify with Chilean culture and history.

But there are many books that make excellent reading abroad in any developing locale (or just to read and reflect on such travel.) I’ll start the list in just a moment but first a quick note about what to do with books once you are done reading them. If you are still abroad, especially if you are in a non-English speaking nation, ask around to find out if a hotel, hostel, restaurant, volunteer organization, tourism board, or other group has a foreign language book exchange. You can usually find one somewhere in a large town or city, and you will really enrich another person’s travels by sharing your literary gold with them!

So, with no further adieu…(drumroll, please)…I present the debut of:

Novels & Narratives for the Non-Resident

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
The story of the daughters and wife of a Baptist preacher who leave the US for a mission in the Congo is the 1960s. They encounter a world unlike any they have ever known, filled with challenges, sorrows, and joys they’d never expected. I read this novel while in Honduras and it was an excellent companion, like having a friend with whom I could discuss the difficulties and wonders that one experiences working and living in the developing world.

The God of Small Things by Arundati Roy
For me, this novel opened up a new perspective on the colonization of histories, the enriching and maddening realities of diversity, and the importance of considering children’s perspectives as rich and nuanced realities. Roy writes beautifully of a well-to-do Indian family straddling their own colonized realities. Written from the perspective of fraternal twins as they face the many experiences life can bring and must decide what to accept and how to move past the pain of cultural shames and ambiguities.

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
Buck’s story of life in a small Chinese village is a classic, a well-written and engaging story that reminds us how universal the human experience really is. For a beautiful discussion of the Chinese perspective on this novel, go to

White Teeth by Zadie Smith
This story is set in England (and I read it while living in London) but it is a wonderful, humorous and humble account of two cross-cultural families trying to make their marginalized identities work while living in the metropole of London. The struggles and foibles of both the first-generation and second-generation characters had me in stitches at the same time that I was thinking about and laughing at my own self as a foreigner abroad.

Did I miss something?
Obviously this is a short list, just the beginning of a returning feature, I hope. If there is a biography or novel you think should be added to this list, please leave a comment below for others to see. Make sure you give the book’s title and author and a brief description of the story line and why it fits with the theme of “reading to expand” rather than “reading to escape.”

1 comment:

  1. Great list - thanks. Even though I'm not home there's a few there I'd like to read (if I ever get a chance with all the thesis related reading that never ends).

    Suggestions(if you can find it)- Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones, a New Zealand author. It is set on war torn Bougainville Island in the Pacific, and is narrated by Matilda, a 13 year old girl. After the teachers flee the isalnd, the only remaining white man in the village offers to teach at the school, and starts to read the novel Great Expectations to the children. Matilda is fascinated with story and with the orphan boy Pip although this causes big problems with her mother. It's quite an intense story, dealing with the big topics of war, colonisation, religion and racial divides, but is easy to read and very thought provoking.