Getting to know a place through critical authors and novels

There are many ways to prepare for a trip, an adventure, a journey. Many ways to critically reflect on the place in which you are travelling to but also prepare yourself mentally and physically to travel. Or perhaps you are not going to a country to travel, but are interested in knowing more about it because of a research project or a distinct personal interest. I think the most obvious way to prepare or to get to know a place is to buy a guidebook. Read a bit about the country and start to explore what you would like to see and do. For me, this is usually linked to nature, national parks and the outdoors such as hiking, climbing, surfing, etc. Each place offers different types of opportunities for adventure. However, its important to think of a place, not just as a ‘destination’ but as having its own history, culture and heritage. But then, how do people prepare to enter a new place and space with some understanding of it through the lens of its own people? How can you hear a distinct view of its society, politics and heritage? As well as the challenges it has faced and perhaps conflicts it has experienced?

Shwedagon Paya, Yangon, Myanmar

Shwedagon Paya, Yangon, Myanmar

As a researcher, I do admit that I like to also do research on a place before going there. This includes reading some academic pieces on its history, culture and politics but also current issues through newspapers or op-eds or local business or lifestyle magazines. On a lighter side, it also includes looking at travel blogs and discussion forums that are really useful to get a feel for what’s in store. One practice that I really love to do to help get to know a place is reading novels about it. Preferably written by authors who come from that country or who have worked/lived there for a long time and who provide stories or reflections that are critical, political and offer insights into the challenges that people from that context face. Both fiction and non-fiction provide different types of insights into a space.

Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda

Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda

Some of my favourites:

DRC: King Leopold’s Ghost (Adam Hochschild)

India/South Asia: The White Tiger (Aravind Adiga), anything by Jhumpa Lahiri and Salman Rushdie

Myanmar: Finding George Orwell in Burma (Emma Larkin), The Glass Palace (Amitav Ghosh)

Nigeria: Things fall apart (Chinua Achebe), anything by Wole Soyinka, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Teju Cole, Helon Habila

Pakistan/South Asia: anything by Mohsin Hamid

Rwanda: Baking Cakes in Kigali (Gaile Parkin). Although in the case of Rwanda and the Great Lakes region, I would recommend anyone going there to read more critical historical and political work by Philip Gourevitch, Susan Thomson, Mahmoud Mamdani…

South Africa: Cry, the beloved country (Alan Payton)

Sri Lanka: The Road from Elephant Pass (Nihal de Silva), Funny Boy (or anything by Shyam Selvedurai), Running in the Family (or anything by Michael Ondaatje)

Pottuvil lagoon, Sri Lanka

Pottuvil lagoon, Sri Lanka

Of course, there are so many different types of books about a place that one could refer to to get to know it. But I think novels written by persons of that country or authors who have worked in/know the country well offer distinct perspectives. How do you get to know a place before going and what are the novels or books that you would recommend to people who would like to visit a certain country/place?

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One thought on “Getting to know a place through critical authors and novels

  1. I just found out yesterday that I am heading to Baku, Azerbaijan in May and realised that in order to take my own advice I would need to find a novel on the country to read prior to going. In searching for a Azerbaijani author, I came across this fascinating project from 2012 – a British editor/writer who decided to commit to “A year of reading the world”. http://ayearofreadingtheworld.com/thelist/ Not only did I find some options for my Baku trip but I saw reference to many of my above-mentioned books plus a wonderful list to refer to for future trips. Happy reading! 🙂

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