There is a long-held belief that the American public simply isn't interested in foreign lit.
Indeed, many readers ignore foreign literature altogether, and American publishers have historically been reluctant to publish translations. However, this trend has shifted gradually over the decades with the monumental success of writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and it has bloomed into today's wide acceptance of translations of European thriller writers such as Henning Menkell and Jo Nesbo.
What follows are nine non-American born writers whose work showcases the diversity of global literature. Some of these writers you may know. Others may sound mysterious or difficult to pronounce. Give these writers a chance. They may surprise you.
Kenya: Ngugi Wa Thiong’o “A Grain of Wheat”
Thiong’o is one of Kenya’s most famous writers. He is a novelist, essayist, and playwright who once wrote in English before renouncing the language in favor of his native Gikuyu. Arrested for his political beliefs, Thiong’o wrote the first modern novel in the Gikuyu language ... on prison toilet paper.
"A Grain of Wheat" tells the story of a young man imprisoned in a concentration camp during the Mau Mau rebellion in 1960's Kenya. Separated from his beloved for six years, he finds that she birthed his rival's child while he was in prison.
This powerful novel asks probing questions about the price of freedom.
Cuba: Leonardo Padura “Havana Fever”
The Havana-born winner of Cuba’s highest literary honor, the National Prize for Literature, is best known for his “Havana Quartet,” a series of four noir mystery novels. “Havana Fever” is Padura’s fifth novel that continues the series’ story 14 years after the investigations that concludes “Havana Black.”
Padura’s detective Mario Conde has retired and now makes a living trading in antique books. Searching through the abandoned library of a wealthy Cuban who fled the country 43 years earlier after Batista’s fall, Conde is intrigued by an article he discovers about a bolero singer who mysteriously disappeared years before.
Conde’s search for answers will take him through the dark streets of Cuba and deep into the smoky past of Havana, a city once ruled by gangsters, pimps, nightclubs, and men without pity.
Ireland: Jamie O’Neill “At Swim, Two Boys”
The acclaimed Irish writer Jamie O’Neill is often compared to his earlier compatriot, James Joyce. “At Swim, Two Boys” is widely considered to be one of the masterpieces of Irish literature, and it earned O’Neill the highest advance ever paid to an Irish writer.
The novel is set in Dublin between 1915 and 1916, the year of Ireland’s uprising against British rule. The story follows the paths of two teenagers, Jim and Doyler, boys from opposite sides of the tracks but who nonetheless find themselves drawn into a powerful friendship. They meet day after day at Forty Foot, a jutting rock where men bathe nude, and Doyler promises that by the end of a year Jim will be able to swim far out to Muglin’s Rock.
A novel about friendship, love, desire, the boundaries of class, and what happens when you cross those boundaries, “At Swim, Two Boys” is a powerful novel not easily forgotten.
Russia: Ludmilla Petroshevskaya “There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales”
Petroshevskaya is one of the most popular and highly-regarded writers working in Russia today. A novelist, short story writer, and playwright, she is best known in America for her collections of dark modern fairy tales. Her stories combine fantasy, the supernatural, horror, and humor into tales that examine the domestic lives of modern Russians.
Petroshevskaya’s work easily recalls Hans Christian Anderson or the Brother’s Grimm. Her stories tend to begin simply, such as the tale of a man who cannot find his children and goes out in search of them. But unlike Anderson or the Grimm Brothers, these stories become something more. The father in Petroshevskaya’s tale seeks his children everywhere, but when asked what his children look like, what are their names, the gender of his children, he can’t remember anything. Yet he remains driven, convinced that his children are missing and that he must find them.
Japan: Yoko Ogawa “The Housekeeper and the Professor”
Yoko Ogawa is one of Japan’s most revered writers. She has won both prestigious Japanese awards, such as the Akutagawa Prize, and prestigious foreign awards, such as the American-based Shirley Jackson Award.
“The Housekeeper and the Professor” is a compelling tale of an elderly professor suffering from a peculiar illness. His short-term memory lasts for only 80 minutes, after which it erases itself, leaving him unaware of what he has done or who he has met recently. Every morning, he “meets” his housekeeper again for the first time.
Ogawa’s novel follows the relationship that arises between the housekeeper and the professor, and it asks deep questions about what it means to live here and now, in the present, and not be burdened by the past.
Denmark: Carsten Jensen “We, the Drowned”
In a part of the world best known for dark, violent thrillers, Carsten Jensen has set himself apart and earned comparisons to Hermann Melville, Leo Tolstoy, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Winner of the Olof Palme Prize and the Soren Gyldendal Prize, Jensen began his writing career as a political columnist, but distinguished himself with the publication of the monumental “We, the Drowned.”
“We, the Drowned” is the epic story of the port town of Marstal, Denmark. Telling the long history of this tiny seaport, Jensen’s novel includes shipwrecks, war, cannibals, shrunken heads, prophetic dreams, and the long mesmerizing pull of the sea. A novel quite unlike any other, “We, the Drowned” is one of the most engaging and thought-provoking novels of modern Europe.
Yugoslavia/America: Tea Obreht “The Tiger’s Wife”
Though she has settled in the U.S., Obreht was born in Yugoslavia. One of the most gifted writers of her generation, she was named one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” most talented writers. Her first novel, “The Tiger’s Wife” won the Orange Prize for Fiction.
“The Tiger’s Wife” is the story of a young doctor and her recently deceased grandfather. The young doctor attempts to unravel the mystery of her grandfather’s death, and while doing so remembers the many tales her grandfather told her when she was younger, tales of the “deathless man” and the tiger’s wife.
Sicily: Andrea Camilleri “The Terra-Cotta Dog”
Winner of the Nino Martoglio International Book Award and the Italian Republic’s Grand Officer in the Order of Merit, Andrea Camilleri is one of Europe’s most popular writers. Born in Sicily, he is best known for his series of crime novels featuring the detective Inspector Montalbano.
“The Terra-Cotta Dog” is the second novel in the series. Montalbano must unravel the mystery of two unknown lovers discovered dead inside a cave. Their bodies date from World War II. Most mysterious of all, however, is the strange assortment of items found arranged with the bodies: a group of coins, a water jug, and the titular terra-cotta dog.
India: Arundhati Roy “The God of Small Things”
Indian author and political activist, Arundhati Roy is the Booker Prize winning writer of over a dozen books. One of the bestselling Indian novelists of all time, Roy is perhaps best known for her political views and her activism.
“The God of Small Things” is the story of Rahel and Estha, fraternal twins living in India in the late 1960s. The story revolves around the death of their beautiful young cousin and the revelation of the twins’ actions the night their cousin mysteriously drowned.
Canada: Ruth Ozeki “A Tale for the Time Being”
Author, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist priest, Ozeki is also the winner of the American Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Though best known for her fiction, she is also the editor of the website Everyday Zen.
“A Tale for the Time Being” is the story of 16-year-old Nao, who lives in Tokyo and has decided she can no longer handle her classmates constant bullying. Determined to end her life, she first intends to write the tale of her great grandmother, a Buddhist nun who has lived over a hundred years. Intertwined with Nao’s tale is the story of Ruth, a novelist who lives on the other side of the Pacific on a remote island. One day Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on shore, debris from the 2011 tsunami that hit Japan. What lies inside the lunchbox is Nao’s story.