Help me read the world
March 31, 2015 10:41 AM   Subscribe

How can I read more about life in countries other than the USA?

I'm trying to learn more about other countries. When I'm learning about a new country, I look for narratives from people who live there, but I'm not finding much.

I'm interested in books, articles, essays, blog posts - whatever. Techniques ("try Googling x") and specific works are both welcome.

Some of the resources I've tried:

* the book list from A Year of Reading the World
* picking a random city in the country and searching for "living in [city]" or "life in [city]' or "born in [city]"
* picking a random city and looking for it in Google Books

Things I'd like:

* works by women
* works by indigenous people rather than colonists
* relatively modern perspectives - say the last 100 years or so

Things I'd like to avoid:

* horrific stories of warfare or genocide
* horrific stories of mistreatment of women

Of course I know these things happen, but I also know they're not the whole story of living in other countries, and I would really like to read something about what life is like or was like for an ordinary person in a given country.

A good example: I recently read "A Cowrie of Hope", which involved crushing poverty and a pretty bad marriage, but not endless scenes of violence against the female protagonist.

I just think there must be blogs or journals or other online sources I'm missing.

If you picked a random country every few days and wanted to learn more about it, more about life in that country for its people, where would you look?

Note: although I'm approaching this from the perspective of "today's country is X, let me find writings about today's country," I am also definitely open to "here is a bunch of great writing about life in sub-Saharan Africa / Central American / central Asian countries".

posted by kristi to Education (20 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
The author is Scottish (and not from Botswana, though he did live and teach there for some time), but you might take a look at The Number One Ladies Detective Agency book series. They are uniformly wonderful.
posted by jquinby at 10:46 AM on March 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Elena Ferrante, particularly My Brilliant Friend and sequels for impoverished mid century Naples.
posted by tavegyl at 11:07 AM on March 31, 2015

Best answer: If you can read French, RFI is an excellent resource for world news with an African emphasis. Since it's news, some of the stories will naturally be depressing, but they also have the usual non-depressing stories. (That is, you don't just get African news when something is going terribly wrong.)

I also like the ourafrica tumblr. The content is pretty typically tumblr -- it has a lot of images and isn't focused on rigorous or in depth exploration or anything like that, but every once in a while they post something intriguing and that I go to learn more about. Also, pretty images.

One issue that you'll likely run into is that many countries don't have a developed literary scene. It's just not as large a part of the culture in the same way that it is in Europe or the Americas. You could try googling "literature of X," but if that's not fruitful -- what about television shows, movies, etc? Nigeria, for example, has a pretty successful TV and film industry. You might be able to find some of it.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:23 AM on March 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Global Voices sounds exactly like what you are interested in - people translate articles and blog posts from a variety of countries on a variety of topics into a variety of languages.
posted by ChuraChura at 11:39 AM on March 31, 2015 [5 favorites]

Came here to post Global Voices. Leaving satisfied. It's the global part of my daily news diet. It taught me that people from Trinidad and Tobago are called Trinbagonians.
posted by irisclara at 11:46 AM on March 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: On the lighter side I've been enjoying learning about modern Australia while reading Liane Moriarty novels. I also really enjoyed reading What Every Russian Knows and You Don't, and it has gotten me well embarked on my current Kindle read, The Twelve Chairs, which is making me snort regularly though the people who formatted this book for Kindle at Amazon have some 'splainin' to do.

On the more serious side, South Africa has produced in this century some truly incredible novelists, including Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee. And have you tried anything by Orhan Pamuk, a wonderful Turkish author? Also very enlightening about Iran in the modern age though not always easy to read are the novels of Khaled Hosseini.

I tend to look for novels written by non-U.S. authors . . . there are lots, and many great translators out there.
posted by bearwife at 11:46 AM on March 31, 2015

Best answer: I would really recommend Wild Swans which I loved. It is about the author, her mother, and her grandmother and their lives in China. I don't usually like non-fiction but I seriously loved this book. It does have some gory parts and mistreatment of women but it doesn't harp on these, it's just a very clear account of the author's family. Based on what you said about A Cowrie of Hope (which I have not read), it sounds like Wild Swans would work for you. It paints a fascinating picture of the transition from "traditional" to modern China.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 11:50 AM on March 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think newspapers are a good place to start. The Guardian is a good British paper, and Der Spiegel is a good German one with an international English edition.

I think you should also look into oral histories. Here is collection of oral history resources from the University of Leicester. I'm sure there are others.
posted by colfax at 12:16 PM on March 31, 2015

Your 'written by indigenous people' requirement knocks out a number of great ethnographies popular with undergraduate readers, but I think you'd have pretty good luck searching for 'memoirs by a woman from [region/country],' e.g. this or this.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 12:54 PM on March 31, 2015

Best answer: Beyond the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo is about daily life in a Mumbai (Bombay) slum. It's definitely about poverty and injustice and is tough going at times, but provides a lot of interesting context particularly around social, religious and economic structures in the emerging India economy. It is non-fiction, meticulously researched and based around an incident & court case. It is well-paced and reads like fiction. Boo is not, however, Indian, she is a white American journalist, I believe married to an Indian man.
posted by vunder at 1:16 PM on March 31, 2015

Best answer: Irish author Donal Ryan's The Spinning Heart was longlisted for the Booker Prize and comes highly recommended.

I read your question and realised I don't read enough Irish authors so I asked my reading bestie and she says: "The Spinning Heart takes you completely into life in an Irish town. With such completely rounded characters that you believe you know them all.

Also, for Dublin, really, Roddy Doyle."

posted by DarlingBri at 1:25 PM on March 31, 2015

Best answer: A bit dated at this point, but I got a lot out of Brazilian Women Speak by Daphne Patai. It is interviews with a wide range of women in 1970/80s Brazil.
posted by Pineapplicious at 1:30 PM on March 31, 2015

Best answer: Words Without Borders has a lot of good and varied international reading.
posted by Corvid at 1:38 PM on March 31, 2015

Response by poster: These are all amazingly great - thank you so very much!

A couple of quick notes:

* colfax's suggestion of newspapers made me think that human-interest type stories and features columns / columnists would be great, so any suggestions of particular newspapers or columnists would be terrific

* to clarify, the indigenous perspective is a preference more than a requirement, so if you have good suggestions that are by colonists or newcomers, please do share (thanks, Monsieur Caution)

* I can read French and Spanish reasonably well, so suggestions in those languages are fine

Thanks again for everything so far - I'm looking forward to additional ideas!
posted by kristi at 1:55 PM on March 31, 2015

Best answer: Given that you can read French, I cannot recommend highly enough the Aya de Yopougon graphic novels for getting a great telling of life for a young woman and her friends in Cote d'ivoire (some women are certainly mistreated and that is part of what drives the story, but the mistreatment is not sensationalist, all too mundane really). There are six in all, written by an Ivoirian woman and illustrated by her French husband, if I remember correctly. Actually they have been translated into English as "Aya of Yop City" but I've only read the originals so cannot vouch for the translations.
posted by solotoro at 2:24 PM on March 31, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Eden Robinson's very short memoir Sasquatch at Home (originally a talk for the annual Henry Kreisel Lecture) is about growing up indigenous in Canada. I find her writing very accessible, engaging, and insightful.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:52 PM on March 31, 2015

Best answer: OK, given your clarification and the fact that you're good with things going back up to 100 years, here are some well-known ethnographies / anthropological narratives that tend to be popular with undergrads, because they're pretty readable: Return to Laughter, Nisa, Never in Anger, To Hunt in the Morning, and Mama Lola (which, in spite of the sub-title, covers more than her life in Brooklyn). I've also had success teaching Veiled Sentiments, Crafting Selves, Translated Woman, and Biographical Objects, although they're all either more technical, more focused, or more positioned to address issues in anthropology that general readers won't care about. I haven't taught Knowledge and Passion, Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels or Parallel Worlds, but I've had friends who used them in the same context and who said favorable things. I've confined this list to books written or co-written by women ethnographers, but I've also skipped teaching ethnographies and old-school classics, and I wouldn't know what's come out in the past 10-15 years that's good.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 3:35 PM on March 31, 2015

Best answer: A really good book you might be interested in is A Woman Unknown by Lucia Graves, the daughter of poet Robert Graves. She was born in England but grew up on Mallorca during the dictatorship, and the book is about her life there, specifically focusing on the lives of the women she knew. It was very good.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 11:28 PM on March 31, 2015

Best answer: Blogmura has a collection of Journals in English by Japanese people. Many of them are women, but there are a handful of children too.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 10:29 AM on April 1, 2015

Response by poster: These are all fantastic. Thank you!

Kutsuwamushi, is this the ourafrica tumblr you meant?

lollymccatburglar, I read some of Robert Graves's letters last year and know a bit about him living in Mallorca - Lucia's book sounds great.

Mrs. Pterodactyl - I went to the big Friends of the Library book sale this week, and happened to see Wild Swans tucked under another book. I remembered your recommendation and picked it up - it looks intense, but just the sort of thing I was looking for. Thank you!

Thanks to all of you. I have a lot to read now!
posted by kristi at 9:54 AM on April 2, 2015

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