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Posted on August 2, 2022 at 6:00 am
This summer’s reading challenge dares us to “Read Beyond the Beaten Path.” Reading stories by international authors is a wonderful way to do that.
International fiction—also called foreign fiction—allows us to not only imagine the sights, smells, and sounds of other landscapes but also gain exposure to diverse customs, cuisines, and cultural norms. You can sometimes even sense how an author’s primary language affects the thought processes inherent in their storytelling.
For all these reasons, I relish reading books by authors from other countries.
Overall, the category of international fiction is huge. It encompasses everything from classic literary tomes like Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (first published in 1605) to 21st century manga like Koyoharu Gotoge’s Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba (serialized from 2016 to 2020).
It also includes works written in English by multilingual writers (for example, Indian author Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things) as well as books published in translation. Blockbusters like Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo belong to this category.
SCLD offers over 600 works of translated fiction from around the world, including:
As the above book selections demonstrate, foreign fiction is also not confined to a specific age group.
Once you wander beyond the beaten path of bestsellers, you’ll find many more engrossing books to explore. They may even expand your understanding of the world.
Below I discuss some works of adult foreign fiction I’ve discovered while browsing the library’s shelves. These weren’t written by the most famous international authors known to a U.S. audience—and that’s exactly why I’m discussing them here.
Tanzanian-born British author Abdulrazak Gurnah won the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature. Having never heard of him before the prize announcement, I immediately looked to see which of his books are in the library’s collection—and there are several. His novel Paradise offers a riveting coming-of-age tale. When a debt must be paid, the protagonist is taken from his parents’ home to become the servant of a wealthy merchant who travels for trade. With beautiful, concise language and a keen sense of humor, Paradise reveals diverse East African cultures through the interactions of an international cast of characters. Gurnah’s most recent novel is Afterlives.
The short story collection Flowers of Mold, by Korean writer Ha Seong-Nan, simultaneously disturbs and delights. With a sensibility not unlike the popular Korean film Parasite (Kisaengch’ung), these stories were translated into English by Janet Hong in 2019. Delightful moments of lightness and humor come into balance with uneasy tensions that suggest an underlying threat of decay. Sometimes the stories simmer and sometimes they boil over. Either way, each story features a cast of mostly ordinary, mostly urban people living their lives with moments of beauty and conflict. The collection won the 1999 Dong-in Literary Award.
When thinking of Chilean fiction, Isabel Allende may be the first writer that comes to mind for many readers. Chilean author María Luisa Bombal is, however, a literary foremother and one of the first writers ever to employ what is now called magic (or magical) realism. Bombal’s novel House of Mist explores the inner life of a woman raised on fairy tales and social customs that limit her role in the world. Stuck in an unhappy marriage, she desperately seeks satisfaction in ways that can be varyingly interpreted as real events or mental fantasies. Either way, the psychological landscape rings true.
Sky Burial, by Chinese born British-Chinese journalist and writer Xinran, follows the heroic journey of Shu Wen, a young woman who leaves China in the 1950s to search for her husband, an army doctor sent to serve in Tibet. Based on a true story, the book takes readers through years of war, kidnappings, mountain storms, Tibetan religious ceremonies, and nomadic living. This truly epic tale, translated into English by Julia Lovell and Esther Tyldesley, combines straightforward language and a breathtaking plot. Good luck putting this book down once you start reading it!
The Woman in the Purple Skirt, by Japanese author Natsuko Imamura, is a quick read and an enjoyable light thriller. The delightfully unreliable narrator known as the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan has become obsessed with her neighbor, the Woman in the Purple Skirt. After deviously steering the Woman in the Purple Skirt towards a job at the same hotel where the narrator works, the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan is still not satisfied. How far will the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan go and what does she really want? Before being translated into English by Lucy North, the book won the 2019 Akutagawa Prize.
Dawn, a short story collection by imprisoned Kurdish political activist Selahattin Demirtas, portrays a wide spectrum of life in contemporary Turkey. Translated by Amy Spangler and Kate Ferguson, these tales range from feel-good stories to political commentary. In one, a successful businesswoman learns a secret about her father. In another, a prisoner talks with sparrows outside his cell window. In a third, a family perpetrates an honor killing. Be warned—some stories portray violence, including rape. Throughout these stories, the protagonists live complicated lives amid scarcity, terrorist bombs, and traditional customs—but also amid love, caring for others, and the quest for a better tomorrow.
The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth, by Thai writer Wiraphon (Veeraporn) Nitiprapha, follows the lives of three orphans entangled in a web of star-crossed love. The novel switches back and forth in time between childhoods in a provincial town to young adulthood in crowded Bangkok, where even the dense urban environment can’t stop little sister Chareeya from cultivating a sumptuous garden. While full of tragedy, this novel is also full of beauty, including the language masterfully rendered into English by translator Kong Rithdee. Art, music, cuisine, textiles, and supernatural moments all weave into the fabric of the characters’ lives.
The short story collection A Kitchen in the Corner of the House, by Ambai, is written in Tamil, one of India’s many living languages and one of the oldest surviving classical languages in the world. Translated by Lakshmi Holmström, these vignettes focus on contemporary India with poetic language and keen observation of human behavior. Lovers of mythology will revel in allusions to classical literature—such as the Hindu epic Ramayana—featured in some of the tales. Throughout the stories, the shadow of traditional gender roles looms large over characters and situations. Ambai is the pseudonym of C. S. Lakshmi, an Indian researcher, writer, and recipient of a 2021 Sahitya Akademi Award.
Despite not being household names in the U.S., I’m sure you noticed that several of these authors have won literary awards either in their own countries or internationally. Seeking out literary award recipients is one great way to find fantastic foreign fiction.
Here are a few of the most prestigious international fiction awards to help you in your search for international literature:
I’d love to hear how you’re reading beyond the beaten path and what international fiction you’ve enjoyed. Share with us in the comments.