Reading Diversely: Around the World Reads

This year, I’m focusing on reading more diverse books, which includes reading books about other countries.  And so far this year I’ve made a good effort.  Of the 30 books I’ve read this year, 8 are by authors of color.  That may not sound like a great percentage but it’s a big increase for me.

For the “around the world” part, I’ve given some thought to what that means.   Clearly, some books about other countries are diverse in that they come from underrepresented voices, while others are not.  For example, do books from countries like England, Scotland, or Canada count?  I read a lot of books already that come from those countries, so I generally don’t count those as “around the world” reading.  But I would count it, if the book gives me a deeper understanding of the country.

The Reading All Around the World challenge by Howling Frog has a definition of “what counts” that I find interesting.

You may read literature by a person from the country, or non-fiction about the history, culture, language, etc. of the country.  Fiction set in a country but not written by a person who lives there does not count, because we are trying to get an inside view as much as possible; in fact, you may wish to make an effort to choose books by long-term residents rather than by people who have moved there more recently and written about it, but that is entirely up to you because I am not your mother, nor am I here to judge fine distinctions.

While I generally agree with that idea, what if the author is a white American who lives for a time in that country?  For example, Pearl S. Buck writing about China.  She studied and worked there for years, even if she isn’t native to the country.  The point is to read books by someone who can speak to what that country is about based on his or her experience. Although it would also be good to know how the work is perceived by natives of that country.

I can see making some exceptions to the “lives there” rule. What about writers who were born in the country they are writing about but spent most of their lives in the U.S.?  This is true of the book I’m reading now, The Last Days of Café Leila by Donia Bijan, which is set in Iran. Similarly, what about an American writing about their ancestors?  If the author does enough research, I would count it.

What I’m learning is that reading diversely requires intention and a little research.  I’m spending more time reading about the background of each author I read.  It’s not always obvious when a writer is a person of color and it’s certainly not obvious if they’ve lived in other countries.

I think it’s worth looking at the substance of the book as well as the origin of the author.  If I’m going to count a book as “around the world” the plot needs to really focus on that country and I should learn more about that country by reading it.  This is particularly true of historical fiction, although other types of fiction might do the same.  Books like The Shadow Land and The Good Earth are good examples.  I would also count Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder, because Irish history and culture are primary issues in this book.  Also Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies.

A trickier example is Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, because Kent is not Icelandic and has no particular connection to the country.  And yet, the book is based on a true story and is so much about the country, I feel it should count.  Also, I just finished The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill.  O’Neill was born in Montreal and lives there now, so she clearly meets the Howling Frog criteria.  But is this definitively a book about Montreal?

What doesn’t count for me?  A book where people travel to a number of countries, or a book where the story could be told in places other than the one in the book.  A good example is the latest Patricia Briggs novel, which takes place in Prague and Milan.  While I enjoyed reading about these two cities, the setting isn’t absolutely integral to the story.

Here’s another factor: how much of the book needs to take place in that country?  I would say most of it, or at least half. So, for example, my recent read by Diane Guerrero (while diverse) would not be considered “around the world” because very little of it takes place in Columbia.  Christina Henriquez’ The Book of Unknown Americans is another example.  It’s an excellent novel about immigrants from other countries, so it’s certainly a diverse read, just not about another country.  The Wangs vs. the World is another one that mostly takes place in the U.S. although we learn a lot about China.

For the “Reading All Around the World” Challenge, I’m going to include books about all countries other than the U.S., but either 1) the author must have lived in that country; or 2) the country is so integral to the plot that the book couldn’t take place anywhere else, and most of the book takes place in that country.  This broadens the definition a bit, but the point after all is to read thoughtful books about other countries.

So, taking those factors into account, so far this year I’ve read six “around the world” books: The Bear and the Nightingale (Russia), The Shadow Land (Bulgaria), Born a Crime (South Africa), Land of Hidden Fires (Norway), The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill (Montreal, Canada), and The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (Ireland).

If you’re participating in a challenge to read books from around the world, how do you decide if a book meets the challenge?  What do you consider “diverse” or “around the world” reading?

  9 comments for “Reading Diversely: Around the World Reads

  1. April 17, 2017 at 11:24 am

    What a great question. I must admit I didn’t give it that much thought when I started my own world of literature project. The only stipulation I made was that the book had to be written by someone from that country – which did involve research as you say. I did include people who had subsequently moved to another country – like Alain Mabinakcou for example who comes from Congo but now lives in France – as long as they had lived a substantial part of their life in their native country and thus could write with authority, I included them. Pearl Buck I didn’t include for ‘China’ even though she had lived so much of her life there. Here’s my reading list

    • April 18, 2017 at 10:31 pm

      You’ve got a great list, and one I will look to for ideas. I can see why you’d want to read books where the author is a native of the country, and I think I’ll keep track of that – but I think an author could write well about a country even if not a native, depending on the research and time spent there. But then, I also don’t think I’ll make it to 50 countries without a lot of flexibility!

      • April 20, 2017 at 6:56 am

        50 countries is indeed a challenge when there are so few books available here in translation – our library system doesn’t do a great job of stocking from smaller countries for one thing and I’ve found that buying them is really expensive.

  2. April 18, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    This is exactly what I hoped would happen; I want readers to be figuring this out for themselves. 🙂 Probably we will mostly overlap and argue about the edges, just like you’re doing, but I didn’t want to define that for everyone else (see: I am not your mother 😀 ). So, this is great! Yay!

    • April 18, 2017 at 10:27 pm

      Thanks Jean! I was hoping you wouldn’t mind my bending the definition a little bit. I love the challenge, and your definition has forced me to research all the authors I read so I know where they’ve lived and why they are writing about that country. I think it adds a lot to understanding the book.

  3. April 26, 2017 at 9:13 am

    I think the most important thing here is that you’re now putting a great deal of thought into your reading habits and reading books from more diverse countries. I’d certainly agree with your criteria (not that I’m any sort of authority in the challenge) because it seems like you have well thought-out arguments for them.

    • April 26, 2017 at 9:39 am

      Thanks Nicole! It’s definitely giving me a lot to think about, which is what I love about reading.

  4. April 30, 2017 at 7:11 am

    I generally use the same criteria as you have listed. I make a map each year of where books are set to make sure I’m reading broadly. I use different markers for books that are just set somewhere (like Silence Fallen) and for those that are truly of that place. I wouldn’t consider a book as representative of that country for recommendation purposes unless the author has lived there for at least a little bit or has done a huge amount of research.

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