dehner: new worlds

Reading the world (or trying to, anyway)

I can't remember how long ago I started my project to read a book from every country the world. Maybe it was six years ago, when I still lived in Japan, and my local used bookstore carried a wider range of authors than I could find in the United States. Or maybe it was four years ago, after I moved home to my small city in the Midwest, and I craved the cultural diversity I had left behind. But the exact number of years hardly matters; what's important is the way my little project changed the way I experience books and literature.



I didn't realize how much my reading habits had changed until a few weeks ago, when I took a group of students to Boston. At the Harvard University bookstore, I skimmed the shelves for authors whose names suggested far-away locales. When I found one, I flipped straight to the back of the book, searching for a photo or a bio to confirm that the author was not from the United States. I love reading about places I haven't been before, but I've learned that when books about developing countries are written by American writers, a few key themes emerge. Many of them take place in times of strife: civil war, a revolution, extreme poverty. The characters often struggle against a society that represses individual desires, mistreats women, or punishes racial and religious minorities. I've read a lot of books about Chinese women trying to find a voice in spite of rampant sexism, classism, and spousal abuse.

These themes are also prominent in non-fiction written by non-American authors and published in the United States. Even more than their fictional counterparts, they emphasize surviving atrocities and finding happiness, probably by immigrating to the United States. And let me be clear: I do not begrudge these authors the opportunity to tell their stories. They really happened. Revolution, civil war, abject poverty, hunger, sexism -- these are all realities around the world, and the people who survive them absolutely should have the opportunity to bring these issues to the world's attention. Some of my favorite books were written by people who survived political repression and genocide. Wild Swans by June Chang charts three generations of women, ultimately ending with Chang's experiences in China's brutal Cultural Revolution. The Translator by Daoud Hari relates genocide in Darfur in a humble and moving way. I'm glad I had the opportunity to read these books: each of them made distant lands feel real and personal, and in so doing, they illuminated the privileges I have had in my own life.

Yet, taken as a whole, these books also epitomize what Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie calls "the danger of a single story."</a> As Adichie tells us, the problem with this single story is not necessarily that it's untrue but that it's incomplete -- and, because we don't realize it's incomplete, it comes to dominate how we think about other people, countries, and cultures. Before I began this project, I had never read a book about a middle class family in Africa. I couldn't name a single work of literature where Islam supported women instead of suppressing them, and I certainly didn't know any books where Chinese characters rejected the individualism of the West and decided to go back home. Some of the books I read were critical of America; many more of them had nothing to do with America at all. A few of them explicitly addressed poverty and political corruption, but for most, these concerns were backdrops for everyday, human stories about falling in love or overcoming grief.

I never did finish reading a book from every country in the world. Over the course of the years, the goal of the project shifted. Instead of checking off destinations in a literary atlas, I wanted to change my mindset. It didn't matter if I read twelve books from Nigeria and none from Lesotho so long as I made a point of reading international literature -- and so long as I understood that no single book could ever teach me everything I needed to know about a country or a culture. I've also realized that I want to record the results of my project somehow. I don't want to forget the best books I've read, and I want the opportunity to discuss them with others. To that end, about once a week, I'm going to post about one of my favorite works of world literature -- and I hope some of you will too. I'm always on the lookout for more books to read!
I honestly love when people post about their other interests/what's going on in their lives. I've drifted away from the original fandoms in which I met most of my flist. So while I'm happy to see them doing well in a new fandom, I often find myself without anything to say.
This is something I've often wanted to do yet never found the patience or resources to start. I'm looking forward to your reviews. :D
You know, it's really not as hard as I thought it would be. At the beginning, I had some help from a discussion group on LibraryThing.com, but it was surprisingly easy just to scan the author names at the book store and find international literature. You could always start with some of the "easier" countries like China and Japan and Russia and work your way to the more obscure ones.
Hm, now that you mention it I think I've already got some Japanese (Murakami) and Russian (Lukyanenko) authors in. Still looking forward to your reviews, though, and maybe I'll check out some Latin-American authors from elpais pages or something...
Ooh, this is fascinating, I'm looking forward to your reviews!
I was just thinking, if you were ever looking for recs aliettedb often talks about world sf, and not just books written by people from all over the world, but she makes a point of looking for non-American and non-Western tropes in story telling. So for the different viewpoints aspect, you might find her a useful resource? She's also working on some sort of World Urban Fantasy list if I remember correctly.
Thank you! I think it's really changed the way that I see literature and the whole world, really. I'm so glad I did it!