Armchair BEA: Beyond Borders

Tbook heart armchairbeahe challenge I have with the topic for Day 4 of Armchair BEA isn’t one of deciding what to write – it’s more a case of deciding when to stop writing. Today is all about one of my current passions: reading outside our geographic boundaries and cultural frames of reference. Given that I’m in the second year of my world literature quest, this is a great opportunity to talk about the experience of reading books by authors from countries outside my native land.

My adventures into world literature started in January 2013 when I felt my reading was getting a bit too ‘safe’. In my mid teens I spent the whole of one summer just reading classics written by Russian, German and French ‘great novelists’ . I can’t say I understood it all but it did jolt me out of my comfort zone.

Somehow over the years that spirit of adventure dwindled and I realised late in 2012 that I’d slipped a bit too far back into my comfort zone since most of the authors I was reading had the same frame of reference as my own. They were either British or American. I sometimes ventured a little further afield to France courtesy of Gustav Flaubert or Emile Zola. But there were great swathes of the world, like China or South America that I never touched. I decided to make 2013 the year that would begin to change.

I started with a general goal: read books by writers from 50 different countries. Just to make the goal a little more fun, I decided to start by choosing authors from countries along the Equator and the Prime Meridian. It sounded easy at the time − just find the author/book and go and buy them.

Hm, not so easy in practice. I’ve really struggled to find authors from some of the countries on my list. If I find them, then their work isn’t easily available in English or the price is astronomical ($99 in one case).  The main bookstore chains in both UK and USA don’t offer many options. Sure, if you want something from South America it’s easy to get novels by Gabriel Garcia Marquez but if your want to go beyond the ‘big names’ you’ll really struggle. Bookshops clearly don’t see a big market in translated books which is such a shame because there are so many authors whose work deserves more exposure.

But I’ve made progress. So far I’ve read novels by authors from 17 different countries – my world literature reading list is here; I’ve completed six of the 13 countries that lie along the Equator and 4 of the eight countries that are linked by the Prime Meridian.

Through these books I’ve learned about the symbolism of textile patterns in Ghana (this came from a crime fiction novel called Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey); the importance of wedding jewellery in India (Neel Mukherjee’s new novel The Lives of Others)  and the issues of female independence in Somalia (from Nurradin Farah’s The Fractured Rib). 

It’s been a wonderful experience. I wish more people would join me on my adventure.

Want to be involved?

It takes quite an effort to identify good authors to read in some countries. Fortunately I’ve had wonderful help from some of my colleagues in different parts of the world (I’m lucky enough to work for a multinational company) but some even more special people who are fellow bloggers. I’ve featured a number of them in a series I call The View From Here in which I interview bloggers about the literature from their country and their recommendations on books/authors to read. You can see those interviews on the View from Here page.

I’m always looking for other bloggers to feature so if you would like to represent your country and be featured in a future post, please let me know by leaving a comment below.

If you have any recommendations for authors in some of the countries I have yet to visit, let me know

 

 

About BookerTalk

After a day at the coal face of corporate communications, what better way to wind down than by sticking my nose into a good book. My tastes are eclectic. I find it easier to say what kind of books I don't especially like - gothic, science fiction and science fantasy do absolutely nothing for me. It doesn't mean I will never read them, because I am trying to broaden my reading horizons - that's the idea behind my challenge to read books from each country touched by the Equator or the Prime Meridian. Regardless of the author or country, the acid test of a good book for me is whether the characters are engaging, the plot realistic and the setting evocative. If I make it to 100 pages then I know I'll finish it.

Posted on May 29, 2014, in Armchair BEA, English literature, World Literature and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. I knew you’d have a great post for this topic and I was not disappointed.

  2. I’m doing the around the world project this year and I agree with you – it is so hard to find books from some countries. I also don’t want to read a book from a country just for the heck of it. I want it to be really memorable. So I’m being picky as well on top of it. I’ll have to look at your book list.

    • Athira’s comment and this post make me really appreciate how much easier having access to a university library make my own international reading. My own library has a surprising proportion of the books I want to read and most of the rest can be borrowed easily through inter-library loan. I highly recommend checking whether you have access to one. I know that my university has library memberships that are open to anyone living in the area.

      • I was able to get access when I did a distance learning course through something called the Open University but that was only for the duration of the course.
        It must be wonderful to have this resource at your disposal

      • When I was doing my Masters four years ago, I was able to get a more diverse book list to pick from, thanks to my university library. I miss that! I was trying to see if I could at least try New York Public Library’s Overdrive collection, but I am not able to figure out if out-of-state people can even get a card. For now, my resources are PaperbackSwap and buy online.

    • That’s such a good point. I felt the one I had for France was just too easy an option so decided to switch to something more challenging and memorable (i.e.Zola). It takes time doesn’t it. Is your list on your blog? Maybe we can compare

      • I do have a list but it only has this slow year’s books – about 7 or 8. I am building a list that contains books from past years as well, so I am hoping to have that available soon.

  3. My reading before school got serious was a lot freer, but the busier you get the less time you have to go looking for books! Although studying English at university means that there is a lot of focus on reading, it also means there’s a lot of reading of English classics! Thankfully the library is very well stocked! Definitely checking your World Literature List! I made a 100 Classics List for myself with some diversity, but I might change up some of them in favour for books on your list! Great post :)
    Juli @ Universe in Words

    • Thats true – it does take time to mooch in bookshops. I don’t like just going in with a list because it makes it seem more like grocery shopping.
      Let me know which ones you decide to swap.
      Are you in the Classics Club?

  4. joyweesemoll

    I love the way you went with latitude and longitude to set up your first international book challenge. I marked your View from Here feature for future reading — great idea!

  5. There was an interesting article in last week’s Bookseller about the growth in sales in the UK of translated fiction. Given that once impetus starts it is often the case that there is something of a landslide perhaps in future you will find it easier to purchase the books you want in good translations.

  6. Mirella Kimpen

    Karen Great read! I hardly ever respond to your blogs though enjoy them thoroughly, every time!

    Where did you buy the novel by Neel Mujartee? Indeed, I cannot find it on Amazon. What is the title? I will try to buy it when going to India next week. If there is anything you would like me to bring, please, please let me know. I’d be happy to do so!

    Thanks for all the interesting blogs!

    • it was published in UK only last week Mirella – I had a e-copy from the publishers in advance. If you want a book set in India, I have other recommendations. Try The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott which is the first in his Raj Quartet series. If you’re feeling brave you could read A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth which runs to almost 1000 pages I think.

  7. What a wonderful challenge for yourself! I love your Booker challenge too. I see myself spending quite a bit of time on your blog in the future. I’m definitely thinking about books to add to your world literature list.

  8. momssmallvictories

    What a challenge to travel the world, let alone to start at the Equator. I was doing the Around the World in 80 books challenge and am sad the blog and linkups were removed. So I will br starting my own reading challenge and feel free to link up with us, even if you don’t “officially” join. Hope to get it started this summer. Thanks for stopping by my blog earlier and your support dor my new venture!

  9. This is an impressive challenge – I will certainly look at your lists more closely. I go through phases (sometimes linked to travel plans, sometimes to world events) that draw me into reading books by and about certain countries or regions.
    I like you more systematic approach :-)
    There is also an Around the World Reading Challenge hosted by hosted by Shannon @ Giraffe Days http://www.giraffedays.com/?p=18795

  10. What a fantastic goal! I really like the International Reads group on goodreads for finding books by authors from different countries. I’m not sure how helpful that would be for finding less well known authors, but it might still have some useful suggestions.

  11. notesofabooklover

    Such a meaningful and amazing project! I’ll definitely be following you and your challenge. Maybe one day, I’ll feel up to taking up this challenge too! :)
    Anyway, FYI, the link to your prime meridian page appears to be broken.

    • thanks for letting me know – I’ll fix it straight away. I do hope you decide to dip your toe into the world of world literature. it’s rewarding once you take the plunge

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