For as long as I can remember, I have loved to read. When I was a child and confined to bed with rheumatic fever, I passed many hours reading and rereading favorite books. My favorite series were the Bobbsey Twins, British author Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Noddy series, Little Women and all the sequels, and the Jungle Doctor and Cherry Ames Student Nurse books. My English major in college and grad school concentrated on literature, so I read lots of classics, especially British literature of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. These days many of the books I read are determined by two book clubs, one of which I’ve been part of for more than 25 years dating back to when we lived in Harrisburg. The clubs introduced me to many wonderful books I probably never would have chosen to read on my own.
One category of books I find myself drawn to are those that open up a different part of the world to me, especially places where there is particular hardship because of oppression, poverty and war. While many of these books are nonfiction, quite a few are fiction. The nonfiction books are accessible and compelling narratives, whether memoir-focused or more objective journalism; none of them is difficult to read, dense or highly academic. The novels, while by definition not factually true, are gripping portrayals of life in extremely difficult circumstances, sometimes depicting horrific examples of “man’s inhumanity to man” and sometimes showing how people are able to survive despite the odds against them.
As you might suspect, I am particularly drawn to books that are set in Africa, especially Zimbabwe. The following list of Zimbabwe-based books were all written by white authors, which admittedly is an incomplete perspective. I need to find similar memoirs of the same period written from a black Zimbabwean perspective.
- Two memoirs by Alexandra Fuller: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier. Fuller always has these wonderfully creative titles that draw me in like a magnet. In Don’t Let’s Go, Fuller tells the story of her childhood in Rhodesia, especially during the civil war that led to independence and change to Zimbabwe. A fascinating combination of grimness and humor. In Scribbling, Fuller travels with a white soldier through parts of Zimbabwe where he previously fought in the war as he tried to make peace with the past. Grim but gripping.
- Love in the Driest Season: A Family Memoir, by Neely Tucker; the story of this white foreign correspondent’s family’s efforts to adopt a Zimbabwean baby girl from an orphanage where they were volunteering.
- The Last Resort: A Memoir of Mischief and Mayhem on a Family Farm in Africa, by Douglas Rogers; a story of Rogers’ parents, white farmers in Zimbabwe, during the program by the government to reclaim white-owned land.
- When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa, by Peter Godwin; another book with a wonderful title, this one also tells the story of what has happened to Zimbabwe during the Mugabe regime, again from the perspective of its white citizens and their families’ experience.
I’m also interested in books set in other parts of Africa:
- Long Way Gone: Memoir of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah. The author was 12 when he fled attacking rebels in his home country of Sierra Leone and ended up in the army. For me the most amazing part of Beah’s story is his “rehabilitation” from a hardened soldier full of hate and anger into someone who now works as an advocate for children’s rights.
- Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, by Immaculee Ilibagiza. For three months, during the killing spree in Rwanda in the 1990s, Ilibagiza hid in a bathroom in a neighbor’s house with seven other women. Most of her family was killed. She emerged with her faith in God intact and strengthened, and she embarked on a journey to forgive those who killed members of her family.
- They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky: The Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan, by Benjamin Ajak, Benson Deng, Alephonsian Deng, and Judy Bernstein. All three boys were under seven when they fled their village in Sudan. They wandered around for five years and over a thousand miles, scrounging for food in the most unimaginable places and narrowly escaping many dangers both human and natural.
- The House on Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood, by Helene Cooper. Cooper grew up in a powerful Liberian family descended from freed American slaves. Her memoir is a coming-of-age story that chronicles Liberia’s civil war and what happened to her family.
- Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. This book, published 55 years ago by a Nigerian author who recently died, is a classic in African literature but I didn’t read it until just a couple months ago. It’s the story of Nigerian tribal life (not always a pretty picture) and what happened when the missionaries came.
Books set in the Caribbean and South/Central America
- Several books by Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian American author: Breath, Eyes, Memory; The Farming of Bones; The Dew Breaker; and Brother, I’m Dying. Breathe, Farming and Dew Breaker are novels (although Breath is fairly autobiographical), and Brother is a memoir of her family, especially her father, living in the U.S., and her uncle, still living in Haiti but trying to get to the U.S. Danticat’s writing is lyrically powerful and evokes not only the heartbreak of the country of Haiti, but also the incredible resiliency of its people.
- Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Save the World, by Tracy Kidder. This is one of those amazing stories of how one extremely energetic and dedicated person can make a huge difference. The book focuses particularly on Farmer’s efforts to combat tuberculosis in poverty-stricken areas of Haiti and his commitment to address the inequalities in the distribution of health care throughout the world.
- Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, by Carlos Eire. Eire was one of the children airlifted out of Cuban in the years immediately following Castor’s revolution (Operation Pedro Pan). This is the story of his early years in Cuba before the revolution and then his resettlement in the U.S. and struggle to come to terms with his identity as a Cuban-born American. The book is nonfiction, of course, but it reads very much like fiction.
- Feast of the Goat, by Mario Vargas Llosa. Llosa is a Peruvian author who fictionalizes the horrific story of General Rafael Trujillo’s thirty-year reign of terror in the Dominican Republic. The book is not for the faint of heart or squeamish because of its graphic details of the torture perpetrated by Trujillo’s henchmen. The novel moves inexorably to the assassination of Trujillo in May 1961.
- In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez; another novel about the Trujillo years in the Dominican Republic, focusing on the Mirabel sisters who were activists against the regime and were eventually killed.
I’m not sure why I gravitate to books that often tell such horrible stories, often in graphic detail. I suspect it’s because they remind me that there is a world out there beyond the United States where people live under circumstances most of us can’t begin to imagine. I need that reminder periodically.
I also have a list of books that are set in various parts of Asia and the Middle East that I’ll share in a later post. In the meantime, what books expand your world?