Internationally flavored and globally spiced *Armchair BEA Week*

Thursday, May 29, 2014




One of my favorite things to talk about is diversity in books. Diversity in characters, locations, themes, complexions, and authors. What is more beautiful than walking into a sandbox with plenty of differences to go around?

That said, it is very hard to make sure there is some diversity in the books I read. Fancy this situation: At the end of a tiring day at work, I walk into my local library, happy to be in there, planning to only return a book. But the new books shelf catches my eye and so I head in there to see what books are enjoying some of the sunshine. 99% of the time, there are only mostly American and some British books in there. Even if I do see an odd Nigerian or Chinese title in there, how likely I am to pick one of those as opposed to a shiny American title that everyone has been raving about?

Not very.

Last year, I decided to read serendipitously. I picked books at random from the library, sometimes after hearing a blogger talk about it, and sometimes just because. I didn't have any method to my decision process. It was driven mostly by instinct and impulse. By the end of the year, I was very disappointed to see that only 9% of my books were set outside US and Britain or written by non-US and non-British authors. A tiny part of the problem here was that I did not try to read more international authors.

But, who likes to pay that much attention to his or her books?

The bigger problem is really accessibility. I don't see many international books promoted in the States, unless they involve a sob story (pretty much any Lisa See book, Please Look After Mom, and countless others) or involve some controversy (Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother). I don't want to read a sob story after I get home from a grueling day at work. I do read serious fiction, but if I were reading serendipitously, my picks would almost always be cheerful books.

This year, I am doing that project. Where I don't read serendipitously much - maybe a little here and there, since it's still my preferred manner of finding books to read. But mostly, I spend hours browsing through Goodreads groups and blog posts and bookish articles, looking for mostly fun or light, but occasionally serious books from around the world. Yes, it's challenging. But surprisingly, it's also been super fun and satisfying. I don't commit to any of the books I find. I'm mostly looking for fun books from different countries that anyone can read without feeling overly depressed. Aren't those the kind of books that will bring back fans?

I've already come across a few good books this year (Uganda, China, Tahiti, Australia, Zimbabwe, Nepal) but one of the books I want to highlight today is this fun, light, and quick book I read couple of years ago - The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu (See my full review here). Set in Zimbabwe, this book is set mostly in a salon, where Vimbai has convinced herself that she is the best hairdresser in town. But one day, a guy named Dumisani arrives looking for a job (and getting it too). His skills get Vimbai jealous, scheming, and not too happy. But Dumisani is incredibly polite to her and winning even the readers' hearts. While on the one side, it explores the tenuous relationship between these two characters, on the other hand, it also introduces gay characters, and some Zimbabweans' low tolerance of them.

Light, fun, quirky. Just the kind of books I want to see become more popular. There are countries out there forever linked with war. What is an Afghan book without the mention of a war? What is a Rwandan book without the mention of a war? As much as it is important to know how these countries and their peoples have suffered, I am sure they contribute more to literature than just books that necessitate a box of kleenex next to you. Where are the cheerful and funny books from these countries?

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This post is part of my Armchair Traveler project.

33 comments:

tanya (52 books or bust) said...

Sounds like a great book. I really liked Crazy Rich Asian. I think Kevin Kwan is American, but has kind of lived a bi-cultural life.

Athira / Aths said...

I need to read that book. I don't really mind if the author is settled somewhere - I think immigration also adds to the ethnicity. But in that case, I would expect the book to have some diversity in culture.

Elizabeth Bevins said...

I thought Like Water For Chocolate was a beautiful story! If you haven't tried it you must.

biblioglobal said...

I made a similar comment about Rwanda when I read a book about that country, that I was interested in finding books that were not about the genocide. Mary Okeke, who has a blog focusing on African books, had an interesting response: "The Rwandan Genocide was hard, I believe when something like that takes
place, the citizens are found in a state of shock. Probably, writing
about it, or telling others (foreigners) about it, is their way of
healing. It would almost be a lack of respect if any writer in Rwanda or
from Rwanda could write about anything if not about the Genocide. Again, I believe with time, when the healing process has occurred, they would come to write about something else."

I agree with you that it is good to find books that don't just focus on the dark side, but Mary's comment gave me a lot of food for thought.

Andi said...

I read mostly from my home TBR, so I've made an effort to stack it with more international authors. I also joined a Goodreads group that reads international authors exclusively, and that's opened my eyes to some amazing books! Wonderful post!

biblioglobal.wordpress.com said...

Also, I want to add that I'm really enjoying reading your blog. Lots of wonderful reviews of interesting books! Looking forward to reading more.

Joy Weese Moll said...

Added The Hairdress of Harare to my TBR. Thanks! I agree that serendipity leads me to books by and about people like me. I have to work a little harder to find books with a farther reach -- good thing that it turns out to be worth the effort!

Kristina D said...

Can't say I've gone out of my way to look for books from foreign authors but I do pick them up if I come across at the library and they sound interesting

Lisa Sheppard said...

Ah see now, I knew there had to be books from other countries that were light. I read a fair number of books set in other countries and by authors from other countries but they are often quite heavy.

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

This year I've been keeping better track of my reading, and it's bumming me out what a high percentage of my reads come from America. If that situation doesn't improve as the year goes on, I think I'll set a goal for next year where I CANNOT read more than 50% books by Americans.

sprite said...

Thanks for the recommendation. Last year I also read without focusing on nationality or race and at the end the of year was equally frustrated with the results.

Athira / Aths said...

I haven't! Thanks for the recommendation!

Athira / Aths said...

I am trying to buy more books by international authors, but I have a long way to go. I did join a Goodreads group early this year so that has been a big help too!

Athira / Aths said...

I agree - it feels really good in the end. Like I learned something new, or met someone new. I need to remember that feeling so that I read diversely more often.

Emma @ Words And Peace said...

some great recommendations here, thanks!

Belle Wong said...

The Hairdresser of Harare sounds delightful! I like your focus on diverse books that are funny and quirky. For me, the deep-themed heavier books just don't work, and it's because I don't normally read books like that, no matter who wrote them or where they're set. I'm mainly a genre reader. And I like fun and quirky! I have to second the Crazy Rich Asians recommendation - another fun read!

Kristen @ Pretty Little Pages said...

I've added quite a few of the books you mentioned to my TBR. And I think you're spot on with accessibility. My local library is the epitome of small town. They're very antiquated with their book buying and refuse to branch out into diverse categories of any kind. It's very disheartening.

Cayce said...

I'm the same. I love and want to read diverse books, but don't want sob stories/tragedies. So thanks for putting The Hairdresser of Harare on my radar :)

Chrizette said...

I have had a hard time in the past with book selections and was mostly disappointed by my choices, so this year I am reading (mostly) by recommendations. I don't have a problem with finding diversity as I live in South Africa and we define the word :) But my favorites this year has been mostly American.

Kristen H. said...

That's awesome that you've been more conscious of how you are choosing what to read. I tend to be a very random and feely type of reader. I'll pick up books randomly and without thought, leaning towards what I love or heard buzz for. I'll have to see if I can delve into some new cultures in my library book choices this summer.

Athira / Aths said...

I try that too but I wish libraries featured such books more often.

Athira / Aths said...

Yeah. I don't think we shouldn't read those books, but every once in a while, when we look for a light read, we invariably look for books closer to home. Why can't there be similar books set in other countries? I'm sure there are - they just don't seem to be as popular.

Athira / Aths said...

I did something of that sort this year and am finding that it's really hard to stick to that. Still, pushing through. As long as I see significant diversity in my reads, I'm happy.

Athira / Aths said...

Looks like if we didn't pay attention to our reading (which is the way to read), we won't be leaving this coast ever. Wish other books also got tons of publicity.

Athira / Aths said...

You're welcome!

Athira / Aths said...

I am certainly looking forward to reading Crazy Rich Asians. I'm good with putting immigrant books as well in the international pile - they are diverse too.

Athira / Aths said...

The library I used to go to before - about 20 minutes from my home - was pretty diverse. Their patrons and staff were very diverse too. The one I go to now, not so much. That was the first thing I noticed when I stepped into this library for the first time. After being so used to seeing a diverse bookshelf, not seeing that anymore was disappointing.

Athira / Aths said...

I hope you like it!

Athira / Aths said...

I would be happy reading American books if I were living in South Africa or even back home in India. :-) I guess my main problem is finding books from other countries. I would guess that is a fairly common problem in a lot of countries. I know there are stores/libraries in the US that are very diverse - they are just not anywhere near where I stay.

Athira / Aths said...

I certainly think random is the way one should read books - I would hate to spend a lot of time picking a book. I just wish there was more diversity in the shelves from which we pick the books.

Athira / Aths said...

That's a valid point. I certainly don't think we should all ignore books about the war and read funny books that don't even mention the hard life people in a country have had. To be honest, I love reading war books. There is a lot of good and bad that war brings out in people - since I'm very into trying to understand the human mind, war fascinates me. But everyone once in a while, when I'm a funk, I look for light reads - books that won't tax my mind and will uplift me. I find that the books I pick during these times are mostly US or British books. That's what I would like to change. I think anyone will pick a book on war when they are in the mood for it - the war could be set in Rwanda, Poland, or the United States. But when we all want a book to laugh with and cherish, we are looking at American reads. I'd love for people to know that there are more than war books out there in other countries. I guess that's what I was trying to say and may still not have said it well. :-)


Thanks for your very thoughtful comment! I had to feature it on my blog.

nandana said...

Have you read Hottest Dishes of Tartar Cuisine? It's a great light read.

Athira / Aths said...

I have not read it! I will have to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation.