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Reading the World

How diverse are your bookshelves? I'm constantly asking myself that question, challenging my assumptions - for why read if not to experience as many different worlds, view things from as many perspectives and to inhabit as many different people as possible?

And yet there are many, many white males on my bookshelves. I spent 2018 focussing on female writers from the last 100 years in an effort to bring diversity to my shelves and my reading. In this I was helped by a list called #vote100books that was curated for the Hay on Wye 2018 Book Festival to tie in with the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act. I will blog about it another time, but if you want to know which books made it to the top 100 by female authors between 1918 and 2018 then you can find out here. There are some surprises in there!

The #vote100books list promotes brilliant books by women writers in an attempt to begin redressing the patriarchal bias in the canon of literary greats. It was useful and effective and led me to re-examine my favourite hundred books for gender bias. But that in turn made me look at my shelves for other unconscious bias, such as ethnicity and nationality.

There are around 200 countries in the world, and I have probably read authors from less than fifty of them. It's time to address that and to undertake a literary tour of the world!

Of course it goes without saying that there will be some countries that do not have a strong literary tradition. While story-telling must be almost universal, novel writing seems to be a very Western thing. Even writing from many countries in Africa, South America and Asia will be influenced by Western colonial language and attitudes. The Kenyan writer Nğuği wa Thiongo’o has written an excellent series of essays in his book Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature which explore this.

These things are important, but it would be easy to tie myself in knots and disappearing down a rabbit hole if I attempted to be completely balanced. I’m interested in literature – fiction – the way it is written and the way it imparts its wisdom. This can subtly differ from one country to another. There may be giants of literature in one corner of the globe that are unheard of in another corner of the globe. There may be perspectives and styles that I’ve not come across before that connect with me and fire off my synapses.

It's going to be difficult choosing the books though. Some countries will present several amazing authors who are Must Reads; some may struggle to put up anything worth reading - which is not to say that they are culturally poor, probably just that literature is not their medium. And why should it be?

Luckily, through Bookstagram, and also through Google, I have access to a world of recommendations. Lists and opinions are not hard to come by. A couple of months ago, I decided that I would start in South America. A dozen countries, more or less. Again, I’m not going to get hung up on which territory is recognised by the United Nations, and which isn’t. This is a literary exercise, not a political one.

I chose South America partly because of Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina) a relatively recent discovery for me, and partly because of Isabel Allende (Chile) and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia) whom I have known a little longer. Borges is the one that made me realise that there is a whole literary world that I may not know about. His writing is consciousness expanding. I had no idea that there was writing like this out there.

Having chosen South America, I did the obvious thing and asked the Bookstagram community on Instagram for recommendations. In a recent “Where are you from?” post I got responses from over 60 countries, including very strong representation from South America. So I asked “Which authors and books should I read from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, etc?”

I got some great responses, and these are my picks:

  • Argentina ~ Julio Cortazar – Hopscotch

  • Bolivia ~ Edmundo Paz Soldan – Turing’s Delirium

  • Brazil ~ Clarice Lispector – The Passion According to GH

  • Brazil ~ Luiza Sauma - Flesh and Bone and Water

  • Chile ~ Isabel Allende – The House of Spirits

  • Chile ~ Roberto Bolano - By Night in Chile

  • Chile ~ Pablo Neruda – Selected poems

  • Colombia ~ Gabriel Garcia Marquez – One Hundred Years of Solitude

  • Ecuador ~ Jorge Icaza – Huasipungo

  • French Guiana ~ nothing yet, any recommendations?

  • Guyana ~ ER Braithwaite – To Sir, With Love

  • Paraguay ~ Augusto Roa Bastos – I, The Supreme

  • Peru ~ Mario Vargas Llosa – The Feast of the Goat

  • Suriname ~ Cynthia McLeod - The Cost of Sugar

  • Uruguay ~ Juan Carlos Onetti - A Brief Life

  • Venezuela ~ Rómulo Gallegos – Dona Barbara

Do comment below if you’ve read any of these, or if you have any alternative suggestions!

I’ll be starting to read these books in January 2019, and then thinking where in the world to go next. Probably Central America or the Caribbean. Why don't you join in - I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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