First off, let’s be honest. Asking friends at Food for the Hungry (FH) to pick just five international literature favorites is impossible. I ended up with a list of 30 fiction and non-fiction choices (stay tuned for Part II).
These books were our best friends on long plane rides. They filled our hearts when we found ourselves missing cross-cultural friends and places. They’re the books we’ve shared with people who said, “I wish I knew more about Country X.” They take us back to the sights, sounds, smells, and emotions we’ve felt in our worldwide travels.
So, take a trip around the globe with these wonderful windows into another world.
So Long a Letter
My colleague Megan nominated this work by Senegalese writer Mariama Ba. The novel takes the form of a long letter penned by a recently widowed woman. Megan shares: “So Long a Letter is a poignant reminiscence on struggles with grief, death, and polygamy. It will resonate with anyone who has loved and lost and with those who have embarked with hope, only to be forced to reckon with betrayal and disappointment.”
While FH doesn’t work in Senegal, I’ve heard her story in East Africa as well, especially in places where polygamy is practiced. Ramatoulaye, the heroine of the story, loses her husband of many years to a much younger woman. She had 12 children with this man and has invested years in the marriage. Instead of divorcing, she simply becomes a second wife. Ba’s descriptions of the conditions that afflict women, and the inequalities we fight against, resonate with readers worldwide.
Nectar in a Sieve
This 1954 novel, set in India, is one of the most accurate depictions I’ve seen of grinding poverty. It tells the story of Rukmani, who marries a tenant farmer at the age of 12. Rukmani’s family devotes themselves to backbreaking labor. But they owe huge sums to their landlord when the small harvest comes in. A leather tanning factory moves into their city, offering good jobs, but that pushes up prices that subsistence farm families can’t bear. Eventually, unrelenting setbacks force the family to move to the city, two days’ walk from their home.
You’ll see how awful no-win decisions confront those who fight daily against threats of starvation and homelessness. And you’ll celebrate the small victories, persistence, and bravery of the family the story follows. FH’s work often helps rural families like Rukmani’s have more options to stay in their homes, rather than migrate to cities where they face theft, homelessness, disease, and loneliness.
Murmur of Bees
Sofia Segovia’s Murmur of Bees, which is set in Mexico, got several votes. This portrait of a family and their daily lives and crises sucked me in from page one. My colleague Kim says, “The English translation reads almost like a poem, and is so beautiful and lovely. I listened to it on Audible; well worth it for the amazing narrators.” And since it’s set during the Mexican civil war in the early 1900s, I hear echoes of some of the countries where FH works. In places like South Sudan or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, violence is always just around the corner. Like the Morales family in Murmur of Bees, they fight to keep families together, and continue celebrating and grieving in the midst of constant threats.
Cutting for Stone
This made more than one favorite book list in our group. It’s set in Ethiopia, amidst times of deep political crisis. Twins brothers, born from a socially unacceptable romance between an Indian nun and a British father, grow up in an adoptive Indian family in Addis Ababa. Love gone wrong and civil war threaten the extraordinary close bond between the brothers. Even if you don’t know anyone who lived through those times in Ethiopia, as I do, you can relate to the story of love and determination here.
I like to recommend Cutting for Stone as well because it shows the diversity of life and history in East Africa. So many cultures, so many backgrounds, so many lives combine to create vibrant stories. I also vividly remember how this novel fits into an international literature genre I love: the story of those who come to the U.S. as refugees and immigrants. I also liked Cutting for Stone because it highlighted the dedicated people practicing health care in extremely trying conditions.
The Kite Runner
The Kite Runner had multiple votes too in our group. It’s a coming-of-age story focusing on Amir, from a well-off family in Kabul. Over a quarter-century, we see how the complexities of ethnic identity, religion, gender, and war radically change Amir’s life and relationships.
When the book published in 2003, I had been working alongside Food for the Hungry’s relief teams to help people in northern Afghanistan. It was perhaps the hardest initiative I’ve ever attempted in humanitarian relief. When the 9/11 attacks occurred, northern Afghanistan was in the midst of a multi-year drought. People, particularly children, were in danger of dying from hunger. FH was ready to respond to that situation before September 11. After September 11, we took a deep breath, prayed for wisdom, and moved forward with relief response in the midst of a war. I never had the privilege of working in the country. But over time, God led my heart to pray for Afghanistan regularly. And this piece of international literature helped my prayers become more specific. I’ve read it several times.
…and a bonus: Baby’s first international literature book!
It’s never too early to introduce the next generation to international literature. We recently held a baby shower for a colleague, and one of the gifts was the children’s book Lubna and Pebble by Wendy Meddour and Daniel Egneus. It’s the story of friendship flowering in a refugee camp called A World of Tents.
Happy reading! If you want to help children in other countries read storybooks, be sure to check out the storybook item in FH’s gift catalog. Children in Burundi and Cambodia will have access to storybooks that improve their reading skills. And, books can open doors to new ideas and dreams.
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