Women Around the World Reading List

Who doesn’t want to travel all the time, have new adventures, and hear new stories? No one? That’s what I thought. If we had infinite time and money, I suspect most of us would be hopping through new cities, countries and experiences all the time, but life sometimes gets in the way of our travel dreams. Travelling is largely about seeing new perspectives and learning new things. When life obligations or lack of funds are keeping you from travelling (for now), picking up a good book is the best way to still experience these things without leaving your home or pissing off your boss.

We live in a patriarchal world (again, for now), where men’s voices and stories are the norm, especially in more conservative countries. We can’t progress in our societies without seeking out and actively listening to the stories and experiences of all of our people. I always considered myself to be fairly well read, but when telling someone about my favorite books a few years back, I realized that the majority of them were written by cis white men. This realization inspired me to make an active effort to seek out varied voices in the stories I read, and from there, my plan to read a book by a woman from every country in the world was born (this list will NOT be limited to cis women).

I am choosing countries in no particular order, and have no concrete deadline for when I expect to have read them all (reading as homework is way less fun). On this literary journey around the world, I am aiming to include only books written by women who are actually from the country in question (for example, while I absolutely adore The Poisonwood Bible by Barbra Kingslover, it would not count as a book from the Congo because it is not written by a Congolese woman). What it means to be from a place is a huge topic that is largely subjective, so the guidelines for what exactly that means will be decided on a case by case basis. I am also aiming to choose books by Indigenous women whenever possible.

Follow on Instagram or Facebook to stay up to date on my literary journey, or send me an email if you’re interested in reading along with me! I would love to have people to discuss the stories with as I go. What are some of your favorite books by women around the world? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

  1. Poland: Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

    Flights is a fragmentary novel about journeys, the human body, and the physical act of travel told in 116 short vignettes. Because this book is very literally about travelling, I thought it would be a great book to kick off this journey. It’s beautifully written, deeply fascinating, often strange, and never lacking in the dark humor that is so prevalent in Eastern Europe.

  2. Saudi Arabia: Daring to Drive by Manal al-Sharif

    I have a very, very big soft spot for memoirs, and Daring to Drive quickly became one of my favorites. It tells the story of how Manal went from being a religious radical in her adolescence to becoming a leader of the movement to support women’s right to drive, when she filmed herself driving and uploaded it to YouTube in 2011. What seems like a simple act led to an enormous backlash (including Manal’s arrest), but eventually, change. This book is gripping from page one, and provides a far more nuanced insight into Saudi Arabian culture and life than we in the West ever get from news outlets covering the area.

  3. Nigeria: Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

    This book is inspired by Nigerian folktales and the civil war in 1967. Under the Udala Trees tells the story of Ijeoma, a young girl from Biafra who’s family is broken up and displaced by the war. After being sent away to safety, she falls in love with another refugee girl from a different ethnic community. When they are discovered, Ijeoma is forced to learn how to hide this part of herself. This story sounds bleak, but it is consistently thought provoking and hopeful. It does an excellent job of exploring both the dangers and the optimism of living and loving openly.

  4. Egypt: The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz

    The Queue is a surrealist, dystopian novel about a centralized authority known as “The Gate” that has risen to power after the “Disgraceful Events” which are clearly reminiscent of the Arab Spring. I’m a huge sucker for dystopian stories, but in all honesty I didn’t love this one. I found it to be a bit slow and repetitive, but it got great reviews from others, so maybe we just weren’t the right fit.

  5. Iran: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

    This memoir is a book lover’s dream - it’s a book that uses other books to tell its story. Azar Nafisi, a professor and feminist, hosted a secret book club in her home for her most committed female students to study forbidden Western novels. The women come from all walks of Iranian life, and through their stories Azar paints a detailed portrait of the struggle between love of one’s country and desire for one’s freedom that is a fact of life for women in Iran. Discussions of feminism in the West often site the hijab as a way of oppressing women, and Reading Lolita in Tehran does an amazing job of truly illustrating why this view (and larger ideas about what feminism means across different cultures) is flat and reductive. Azar uses works by Vladimir Nabokov, Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Henry James to tell her story and to depict the deeper, complicated emotions and truths of the lives of her and her students. She references these books a lot, so I highly recommend you brush up on them before reading this if you want to get as much out of it as possible (although it’s still very enjoyable and worthwhile if you, like me, are not widely read on all of these authors.)

Dara IsraelComment