Here is a quick roundup of some of my favorite foreign books of 2022.
As you all know, reading foreign books from different cultures has always been one of my interests. It takes some additional research at first but opens up a new world of insights as soon as you get started.
Now that we entered 2023, I wanted to look back and select the best international fiction books I read last year. They are all great stories that will make you fall in love with reading, but they differ regarding backgrounds, ethics, and tones of voice.
So, have a look at my list of 9 foreign books I read in 2022.
I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem (Guadeloupe)
Author: Maryse Condé
“I caught sight of a lot of faces the same color as mine, and I understood that here too, the children of Africa were paving their tribute to misfortune.”
In 1692 in Salem, a town close to Boston, more than two hundred people were trialed for witchcraft. The majority of those found guilty were hanged. According to the Essex County Archives records, one of the guilty was the enslaved Tituba Indian from Barbados.
Tituba’s story and many enslaved black people are scarcely documented, leaving us with hints of their hardships and life stories. Tituba lived a relatively free life at first, but her love for the enslaved John Indian changed that. She became enslaved too and a victim of the vengeful religious practices of the people of Salem, Massachusetts. Even though the spirits protected her, Tituba could not escape the untrue accusations leading to her imprisonment.
The author – Maryse Condé fictional account retells a part of history by giving Tituba a voice. Condé was born in Guadaloupe, studied in Paris, and worked in Africa. She has written several historical novels about black Caribbean women and cultural clashes.
The Mountains Sing
Author: Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
The Mountains Sing is a gripping tale about the Communist Land Reform and the Vietnam war. It’s an intergenerational story told through the eyes of a young girl (the author) and her grandma recounting their family history. This book also shows the human costs of the war from the point of view of the Vietnamese people and the true power of kindness and hope.
I couldn’t help seeing some overlap with First They Killed My Father, another young girl’s war account in Vietnam’s neighboring country, Cambodia (there’s also a Netflix movie). Although both are incredible stories, I liked the Mountains Sing best. It’s impactful, beautifully told, and has a refined and interesting historical view.
Nguyen Phan Que Mai was born in Vietnam in 1973. Growing up, she saw how bad the war was for her country. She has written eight books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction published in Vietnamese. Her work has been translated and published in more than ten countries, most recently in Norton’s Inheriting the War anthology.
The Henna Artist
Author: Alka Joshi
The Henna Artist paints a vivid and compelling picture of one woman’s struggle to find happiness in a society torn between the traditional and the new. It gives readers a glimpse into a world that is at once lush and fascinating as well as harsh and cruel.
At seventeen, Lakshmi – the main protagonist, flees from an abusive marriage and ends up in the pink city of Jaipur, India. She starts working as a henna artist and manages to build relationships with the city’s upper class.
One day, a girl suddenly appears on her doorstep, claiming to be her younger sister. Since she made her livelihood on her ability to keep her past hidden, her sister’s arrival becomes a massive threat to everything she created.
India’s desert state of Rajasthan is where the author of “The Henna Artist,” – Alka Joshi, was born. In 1967, her family moved to the United States. She got her Bachelor of Arts from Stanford University and her Master of Fine Arts from the California College of Arts in San Francisco. Alka ran an advertising and marketing firm for 30 years before she wrote The Henna Artist.
The Cost of Sugar
Author: Cynthia McLeod
The Cost of Sugar takes the reader back to the late 18th century when Surinam was a Dutch colony. McLeod shows what life was like back then through the eyes of two Jewish sisters, Elza and Sarith. The title refers to the high toll enslaved people (and colonists) paid for sugar. This product promised future riches for the colonizers.
The story moved me deeply and filled me with a sense of admiration for the maroons (enslaved Africans who escaped to the jungle and fought for their freedom). It also taught me a great deal about Dutch colonial history.
Cynthia McLeod is a Surinamese novelist and historian specializing in Suriname’s history. She’s also the daughter of Suriname’s first president, Johan Ferrier.
A Long Petal of the Sea
Author: Isabel Allende
Imagine you’re a young doctor in the Spanish civil war (1936-1939).
You expect to die young.
You don’t expect to turn 103 after being friends with the famous poet Pablo Neruda and Chilean president Allende.
This happened to Victor Dalmau, the protagonist of A Long Petal of the Sea. Isabel Allende’s incredible new novel encompasses Dalmau’s life, from fleeing Spain to being exiled again after Chile’s military coup in 1973 that killed president Allende (the author’s uncle).
Suppose you want more info about Chilean history, I’d highly recommend the movies NO (about the referendum against dictator Pinochet) and Neruda.
Isabel Allende, born in Chile, is known as the “most-read Spanish-language author in the world.” Her books celebrate women’s lives and are based on historical figures and her own life. They also incorporate aspects of mythology and realism. She has given lectures and conducted book tours at numerous colleges in the US.
The Shadow of the Sun
Author: Ryszard Kapuscinski
If you’re interested in Africa, The Shadow of the Sun is a must-read.
Ryszard Kapuscinski is a Polish journalist who lived in Africa when 17 countries became independent from colonial rule. He met these African leaders and has adventurous stories (like almost dying in Senegal’s desert). More than anything, though, his historical and political analyses are clear and sharp.
Ryszard explains each country’s history in a few pages. What comes out is a fantastic picture of Africa, not as a collection of countries or places but as a lively and often joyful mix of people, cultures, and encounters.
The author is curious and humble. He’s not pretending to know Africa. In his words: “This is not a book about Africa, but rather about some people from there – about encounters with them, and time spent together.” His unconventional approach and deep respect for the people he meets challenge the way most people think about the problems Africa is facing at the start of the 21st century.
Author: Haruki Murakami
Some people have said Haruki Murakami’s work is Zen Buddism for the West. He is extremely popular in Europe and the US but often criticized in Japan for choosing a Western approach. Nonetheless, I thought it would be worth a read.
For some reason, though, Murakami’s books didn’t appeal to me. Although interesting, his work didn’t fully capture my attention.
I had pretty much given up on Murakami when a girl in a bookstore recommended Sputnik Sweetheart. She said it was one of her favorite books and left a lasting impact. I decided to read it, and she wasn’t wrong.
The book tells the story through K, who’s in love with the aspiring author Sumire. Sumire, however, falls head over heels for the older lady Miu and the two book a holiday to Greece. One night, K gets a call with an urgent request to fly to Greece as Sumire has suddenly disappeared.
Sputnik Sweetheart is much more than a thrilling story, though. I like how Julie Myerson described it in the Guardian: I don’t know what Murakami’s startling new novel is about. But it has touched me deeper and pushed me further than anything I’ve read in a long time.”
If you haven’t read anything by Haruki Murakami, start with Sputnik Sweetheart.
The Sex Lives of African Women
Author: Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah
Although the author is from Ghana, the book includes interviews with African and Afro-American women worldwide. Sex sells, and that’s likely why people would buy this book. But don’t be fooled by the title. The Sex Lives of African Women is primarily about relationships (with others and yourself), intimacy, and emotional maturity. It won several awards and became an economist book of the year.
The stories are entertaining, courageous, and intimate and help build understanding and empathy for black women worldwide, the LGBTIQ community, and sex workers.
Author Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah runs a prize-winning blog, The Bedroom Adventures of African Women, wrote for The Guardian, and started several successful artistic and feminist initiatives. She spoke to 30+ worldwide for her book, sharing their lessons about themselves, sexuality, and relational wisdom.
The Time of the Black Jaguar
Author: Arkan Lushwala
In The Time of the Black Jaguar, Arkan Lushwala shares ancient indigenous wisdom from his elders.
“Why do we no longer have rituals to compensate the Earth for what we’ve taken from Her?”
“Why did Napolean feel so important that he needed to conquer the world? “
The Time of the Black Jaguar talks about how our world is changing. Arkan Lushwala shares why indigenous healers see greed and the incapacity to share as an illness and why too much effort is as bad as no effort at all. This book shows us how to be courageous, do the right thing, and give us a chance to help save our planet. It also talks about the peaceful 5000-year-old Caral civilization that didn’t use any weapons.
The ideas in The Time of the Black Jaguar come from native cultures that are thousands of years old. Arkan Lushwala is from Peru and is responsible for transferring Peruvian spiritual traditions that originate in the Andes. I summarized some of his ancient lessons in this blog post.
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