Born in America to Afghani parents, author Nadia Hashimi grew up hearing her parents’ stories of the thriving Afghanistan they left in the 1970s. But when she finally visited decades later, she found a struggling country that bore little resemblance to their memories—especially in the way women were treated. Because of the increasing restrictions on female freedom, the custom of bacha posh, the practice of dressing a daughter as a son, has become common. Hashimi’s first novel, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, traces that modern tradition back to its possible origin, a time when women dressed as men to guard the king’s harem. Here, the author explains how these two cultural flashpoints inspired her debut.
In The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, Jonas Jonasson unfurls a wide, whimsical net that readers will relish being caught up in. Things go from just bad to comically worse to enjoyably ridiculous in this tongue-in-cheek tale. From South Africa to Sweden, from latrine cleanup to atom bomb cover-up, from pillows to presidents and potato farms, Jonasson’s wittily constructed web intertwines historical figures and facts with the exploits of a decidedly less plausible (but more entertaining) cast of characters.
“There’s a scene in your story that’s unrealistic. The one where your main character’s marriage was arranged so quickly. In those days, matchmaking could take years, especially between old, wealthy families.”
This was the feedback from a family friend who read the manuscript for Three Souls during its early stages of editing. This friend grew up in a very traditional family and had majored in Chinese literature. If my novel’s depiction of Chinese family life in the years before World War II passed her critical judgement, I could breathe a sigh of relief.
Hargeisa, Somalia, was balanced on a fragile precipice in the fall of 1987—held in the grip of a powerful dictatorship, with signs of revolution emerging with ever-increasing frequency. Nadifa Mohamed’s moving, thought-provoking second novel, following Black Mamba Boy (2010), focuses on three female characters caught up in the maelstrom whose lives intersect in unforgettable ways.
Dinaw Mengestu’s third novel skillfully blends two disparate narratives—the account of an African revolution and the story of a survivor’s new life in America—to create a moving portrait of the dilemma of identity.
The death that launches Yiyun Li’s second novel, Kinder Than Solitude, has been a long time coming. Twenty years before, Shaoai was mysteriously poisoned by someone close to her, leaving her crippled and diminished. Her death comes as a great relief for the novel’s three main characters, Moran, Ruyu and Boyang—once childhood friends in China, but now estranged. But with that sigh of relief comes the truth.
Ellen Litman gives a new twist to the familiar coming of age/boarding school story (think A Separate Peace, Prep, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) in her second novel, Mannequin Girl. Set in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, it features the precocious daughter of two teachers whose life is radically changed when she receives a diagnosis of scoliosis.
A middle-aged and miserable American woman reaches the end of her mental rope and absconds to some foreign or underdeveloped place to find herself—and possibly a mate. This new genre encompasses the wildly popular if dissimilar Eat, Pray, Love and Wild. Add to these a novel, A Well-Tempered Heart by Jan-Philipp Sendker, where the unlikely foreign setting is Myanmar, aka Burma.
America is anomalous, as insular as its two oceans suggest. Consider the game known stateside as soccer and elsewhere as football. An American would struggle to name a global soccer star, despite their commanding astronomical salaries and divine admiration. The Sun and Other Stars, by Chicago author Brigid Pasulka, offers a glimpse into the glamour and goofiness of the so-called "beautiful game.”
Moses Ebewesit Odidi Oganda is killed in the prologue of Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s first novel, Dust. From there on, everything falls to pieces.
We’re in 2007 Kenya, though the country has been tormented ever since the Brits decided to graft it onto their Empire. Add to this the Mau Mau uprisings, myriad political assassinations and the mandatory forgetting of the disappearances and torture of thousands of men, women and children. As one of the characters contemplates in this grief-stricken book, the three languages spoken in Kenya are “English, Kiswahili and Silence.”