1. All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes by Maya Angelou
We were Black Americans in West Africa, where for the first time in our lives the color of our skin was accepted as correct and normal.
This is a story of an outsider in Ghana, but it’s so much more. It’s a political critique, a deeply personal memoir of a mother and son, Black identity, African identity. While Maya Angelou takes you to dark places, she never lets you forget a poet is leading the way, with sentences filled with emotion that cover the range of humanity, this is a wonderful introduction not just to Ghana, but our own worlds and identities. It builds on the narrative of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Gather Together in My Name. Do yourself a favor, whether you’re planning on going to Ghana or not, read it.
2. The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey by Salman Rushdie
To understand the living in Nicaragua, I found, it was necessary to begin with the dead. The country was full of ghosts. Sandino vive, a wall shouted at me the moment I arrived, and at once a large pinkish boulder replied, Cristo vive, and what’s more, viene pronto.
I’ve always enjoyed the tapestry and complexity of everything Salman Rushdie has written. He doesn’t do predictable plots. And this narrative is characteristic of his fiction — it’s pointed, wonderfully written with large words for even larger ideas, and it uncovers the layers to a country I only know about through random headlines. In The Jaguar Smile, Rushdie brings to life people, politics, history, and of course, place.
3. In an Antique Land: History in the Guise of a Traveler’s Tale by Amitav Ghosh
I first began to dream of Cairo in the evenings, as I sat in my room, listening while Abi-Ali berated his wife or shouted at some unfortunate customer who had happened to incur his displeasure while making purchases at his shop.
Amitav Ghosh has written many gorgeously penned novels and the most devastating essay on the 1984 pogroms I have ever read, so I immediately picked up this work when I heard about it. It’s a wonderful mix of history and narrative, including what he does best — the first person. Whatever you want to call it — fictionalized memoir, historical non-fiction, paranormal dystopian vampire romance (okay, not really) — it’s a great read.
Ghosh traces the journey of an Indian slave to a small Egyptian village. He begins the story with historical facts, written a strong voice driven narrative. But rather than tell only the story of an Egypt from several hundred years ago, he also tells of the modern, mingled with the traditional state of this Egyptian village.
4. My Invented Country by Isabel Allende
Let’s begin at the beginning, with Chile, that remote land that few people can locate on the map because it’s as far as you can go without falling off the planet.
Isabel Allende doesn’t just write stories, she loads them up with dynamite first. Every single thing I’ve read of Allende’s, from her short stories to her novels, I have been completely absorbed by. Just like the strong sense of place in her novels with politics and beautiful landscapes, this travel memoir is about all of these things infused with the personal: the concept of home. She talks about Chile as home, it’s what she carries within her and is inseparable from her identity — just as the United States becomes without her fully realizing it until September 11. She tackles the nuances of other countries in Latin America, like the open machismo in Mexico compared to its subtler form in Venezuela.
5. A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid
As your plane descends to land, you might say, ‘What a beautiful island Antigua is’ — more beautiful than any of the other islands you have seen and they were very beautiful, in their way, but they were much too green, much too lush with vegetation, which indicated to you, the tourist, that they got quite a bit of rainfall, and rain is the very thing that you, just now, do not want, for you are thinking of the hard and cold and dark and long days you spent working in North America (or, worse, Europe), earning some money so that you could stay in this place (Antigua) where the sun always shines and where the climate is deliciously hot and dry for the four to ten days you are going to be staying there…
This tiny 10-by-12-mile island is brought vigorously to life with Kincaid’s beautiful essay. I could give you more of a synopsis, but after reading the excerpted sentence above, I dare you to keep from reading the rest.
6. Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje
Drought since December. All across the city men roll carts with ice clothed in sawdust. Later on, during a fever, the drought still continuing, his nightmare is that thorn trees in the garden send their hard roots underground towards the house climbing through windows so they can drink sweat off his body, steal the last of the saliva off his tongue.
A travel memoir from the same guy who wrote The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost? Yes, please.
I had to have it as soon as I saw it lying in a heap of books on a blanket outside a train station somewhere in South India. I forget how much I paid, but I was for sure overcharged because I couldn’t contain my excitement that it existed and that I’d found it.
Running in the Family has history and family lore pumping through its veins. It’s an absolutely fascinating journey into Ondaatje’s Dutch-Ceylonese lineage, filled with what makes his novels so intriguing — he is able to seamlessly bring characters to life as well as the spaces that they inhabit.
7. From Heaven Lake — Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet by Vikram Seth
The flies have entered the bus, and their buzzing adds to the overwhelming sense of heat. We drive through the town first: a few two-storey buildings of depressing concrete, housing government offices or large shops — food stores, clothing, hardware.
I picked this book up in Lhasa without ever having read Vikram Seth’s novels. I’d heard about the goliath of his Suitable Boy, in college, of course, but it was all about white literature in my undergrad and postgrad years. So I never read anything by people of color aside from white academic approved texts — Jhumpa Lahiri, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Pico Iyer.
I found this at a book stall and had to read it immediately. I was pretty much doing Seth’s exact journey without knowing it. I had just finished teaching in China for two years and was heading to India to meet up with my sister and parents by hitch hiking through Tibet and Nepal. Vikram Seth left his graduate program at Nanjing University and hitchhiked back to New Delhi through Tibet.
Seth brings out colourful characters and weaves politics like magic. Unfortunately I’ve never read the entire 1,000 page novel of Suitable Boy, but man did I make a valiant effort. I made it to page 643 and it’s still bookmarked from six years ago — a year before my daughter was born. One day.
8. A Turn in the South by V.S. Naipaul
The land was flat, like the pampas of Argentina or the llannos of Venezuela. But trees bordered the fields and gave a human scale to things. We passed tobacco barns, tallish, squarish, corrugated iron structures, where in the old days tobacco was cured. They were in decay, the corrugated iron rusted dark red, the wood weathered gray.
Naipaul is a world class jackass with deep-rooted misogyny and right wing, fanatical racist Hindu beliefs that re-envision history. Plus, he very quickly jumped on the “Islam is the devil” bandwagon before it was truly popular — but goddamn, he can tell a good story.
The writing in his travel book is sometimes totally on key with the characters brought to life with keen observation. And the topic of race is so uncomfortable for the folks in the book contrasted with Naipaul’s indifference about it, that it’s almost comedy. He covers areas in the American South, from Atlanta to Charleston, Tallahassee to Tuskegee, Nashville to Chapel Hill.
9. Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica by Zora Neale Hurston
Jamaica is the land where the rooster lays an egg. Jamaica is two percent white and the other ninety-eight percent all degrees of mixture between white and black, and that is where the rooster’s nest come in. Being an English colony, it is very British. So in Jamaica it is the aim of everybody to talk English, act English and look English. And that last specification is where the greatest difficulties arise. It is not so difficult to put a coat of European culture over African culture, but it is next to impossible to lay a European face over an African face in the same generation.
This is written by Zora Neale Hurston. That, in and of itself, should be enough to make you want to go out and buy it. If not, I’ll add one more thing: it’s about VOODOO. More specifically, it’s the normalization of Voodoo and other spiritual beliefs that allows it to be genuinely explored through her personal experiences in both Haiti and Jamaica. A wonderful, wonderful book. This ain’t no minstrel show.
10. Butter Chicken in Ludhiana by Pankaj Mishra
Elsewhere, I found a ‘fast-food’ restaurant where a pizza was grated Amul Cheese on sliced white bread, and a vegetabe burger consisted of tikki slapped between two fruit buns. The restaurant, however, was crowded; duplication, however inept, was paying off. For instance, the muzak at this restaurant, which was of India’s biggest non-film musician: a Rap singer from Lucknow, who, by defltly replacing socia comment with inane chatter, had turned himself into a millionaire. Significantly, hiw mist successful album was entitled Main bhi Madonna, roughly as Me too Madonna.
Butter chicken has its roots in Mughlai cuisine and is what Punjabis in dhabas serve to outsiders. Even though it has nothing to do with canonical Punjabi food, it’s also ubiquitous throughout India as Punjabi khana. Let the fools have their butter chicken.
This isn’t Pankaj Mishra’s usual hard-hitting, incisive, research-heavy style of writing. Nor is it a look at the political machination of the butter chicken industry. It’s an incredibly well written book about a small town in Punjab by someone with a traveler’s soul. He attempts to humanize the people he meets without forcing his own ideology and there are of course certain heavy themes like the new Indian middle class and the Indianified toxic capitalism that reigns free, but overall this is a character driven story. We see wit, insight, and scenes with shopkeepers talking about planning holidays in London. Come for the Butter Chicken, stay for the wit and insight (new tourism campaign for Ludhiana).
This article originally appeared at Ishq in a Backpack and is republished here with permission.