In 2017, I exclusively read women authors. I embarked on my year of reading women after looking through my recent reads and realizing that the majority of authors I had read were men. I spent the year reading books that had been languishing on my shelves for years, including some that have become my most beloved. I finally read classics like Rebecca, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and The Dispossessed. It was also the year that my favorite author (and the 20th-century prophet), Octavia Butler, entered my psyche. The project reignited my love of reading, because in limiting my choices, I had widened my horizons.
This year, I am aiming to broaden my perspective by beginning another personal reading assignment: an international reading project. Each month, I’ll randomly choose a country and read books written by authors from and about that country. I’m going to focus on translated works but not read them exclusively. I’ve selected books and mapped out my International Reading Project reading for the next three months.
I have begun in August by reading Iraqi authors and stories.
The first book I read for this project was Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright. This retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is gory and gut-punching. Set during the U.S. occupation of Baghdad, a junk collector named Hadi collects human body parts from the bombed-out and war-torn streets. He sews them together, creating a human-like creature known only as the Whatsitsname. Following a cast of characters that represent different aspects of Baghdad, Saadawi stitches together both a fantastical tale and a satirical parable about the on the ground effects of the Iraq War.
Next on the list was a memoir: My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq by Ariel Sabar, which I ended up listening to on Hoopla as an audiobook and finishing in two days. Sabar, who was raised in L.A., took very little interest in his father’s life as a Kurdish Jewish refugee when he was growing up in the 1980s. When his son was born, however, Sabar had a newfound interest in his heritage. This memoir is the story of his journey to learn all he can about Kurdistan and his father’s story. After living for many generations in Zakho, a Kurdish city in Iraq south of Turkey, Ariel’s father, Yona Sabar, and his family — along with almost all the Jews of Iraq — were forced to leave the country by the increasingly hostile regime. Yona moved from Zakho to Israel to the U.S., where he met Ariel’s mother and became a prominent professor at UCLA teaching Aramaic, his first language and the language of Kurdish Jewish people. This harrowing memoir is an important story about an often-forgotten nation of people through one family’s experiences.
This morning I began reading The Watermelon Boys by Ruqaya Izzidien. Izzidien, a Welsh-Iraqi author, decided to write this little-known historical fiction novel about the WWI British occupation of Iraq after realizing how little she learned in her history classes on the subject. The Watermelon Boys intertwines the stories of an increasingly jaded Iraqi soldier fighting for independence from Ottoman rule and a Welsh teenager sent to Egypt to fight. The first line of the book hooked me; it reads, “The present is an arrogant time in which to live, always has been.” I have high hopes for this one and will keep you posted. If you’d like to read it as well, it can be found on ebook here.
I haven’t begun the last two books on my list yet, but I’m aiming to finish them before the end of August. The President’s Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli, translated from the Arabic by Luke Leafgren, is billed as “an epic novel about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, following the lives of three friends from the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War to the aftermath of the American invasion.”
Last, but definitely not least, is Iraq + 100: Stories from a Century after the Invasion, edited by Hassan Blassim, an anthology of science fiction stories written by Iraqi authors as they envision what their country may look like 100 years from now. This one can be found on audiobook from Hoopla as well.
I’d love for you to join me on this journey of thoughtfully reading around the world. In September, I will be reading Italy, and in October, Chile. You can check out my International Reading Project shelf on Goodreads for my book selections. Send me your recommendations as well!
If you are a local author, host book events in the Santa Barbara area, or have any other fun bookish tips for us, please send your recommendations for consideration to email@example.com.