Around the World in Amy's Gaze
Updated: Nov 14
I'm rubbish at geography. I'm very interested in how the world works; in history and political movements; in cultures and how they differ or converge. But I often find that shapes on maps are just a bit meaningless. Plus I'm a product of my primarily Eurocentric education, so vast swathes of the world are simply blank in my mind.
I was trying to remedy this while waiting at an airport yesterday by playing a geography game, but kept noticing that a lot of the information I was getting wasn't sticking in my mind. This was especially true of information about Africa. I have close friends who have lived in Benin and South Africa; I studied Egypt for a semester at uni; I have written a play about Mauritius. But very few other African countries have any kind of story for me to attach the information to, and Africa has more countries than any other continent! My South American knowledge is similarly dire.
So instead, I am going to educate myself through story. I plan to take a couple of years to read my way around the world - and I'm sharing my literary wanderings here! You can read along with me if you like, or just pop some comments in to let me know your thoughts. Maybe you have a book very close to your heart by an author from the Central African Republic you wanna tell me about. Please do!
A quick google will reveal that I am far from the first to try this. Everyone who's done it has their own approach, but here are my rules:
I will read one book from every single country in the world.
This is not because I think nationalities are the be-all and end-all of who we are, but because they're a start. When you're dealing with the mass of all of humanity, you need to use some categories and easy handles, but these eventually break down when you get more granular. I've been down some very interesting Wikipedia and U.N. website rabbit holes about what even is a nation, who decides, etc., and have learned that each country gets to decide which other countries they call 'countries'. About two hundred (give or take) are recognised by almost everyone, and most of those are in the U.N. (with Palestine and the Holy See being given a sort of consolation-prize status). There are also some delightful rogue agents calling themselves and each other countries while no-one else has ever heard of them, plus some countries recognising Taiwan rather than mainland China as THE China. Anyway, given that I'm living in the United Kingdom, I'm taking their list of 195 countries as the one I'm using.
The book must be set in that country.
At least partially.
The author must be from or have lived in the country.
I'm not going to litigate this too hard because that's gross, but a certain level of lived experience of a place is what I'm seeking, rather than generalisations or assumptions from people who don't know what they're talking about.
The book can be in any genre.
I will lean toward novels because that's what I enjoy, but I'm also up for folklore, plays, whatever. (Probably not short stories because bad experiences in high school Literature class led me to despise those.) This also includes alternative histories, magical realism, etc., as long as the book is still set in the relevant country. By these rules, the excellent Babel by R.F. Kuang would count as a British book, even though it is an alternative, magical version of British history, because Kuang has lived here and the book deliberately calls the place they are living in England. However, Kuang's other excellent book The Poppy War would not count as a Chinese book, because even though China inspires the setting, it is not called China and is clearly not meant to be a straight stand-in for actual China. Arbitrary? Yes. Next!
The book must be in, or translated into, English.
(My high-school Japanese might be up for a Japanese picture book.)
So where to start? Speaking of Japan, I could start there, with the earliest novel ever; I could start somewhere in Africa where humanity began; I could start somewhere in the Middle East with the oldest civilisations. Purely alphabetically, I'm going to start in Afghanistan, with A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. See you on the other side!