SEATTLE — Developing nations are the subject of many narratives by experts and speculators alike, but the stories that are homegrown have the most to tell. These top books about life in a developing country share insights into the blunt realities, and perhaps more importantly, the positives that have come from their writers’ first-hand experiences.
Top 10 Books About Life in a Developing Country
- “The Girl Who Smiled Beads” by Clementine Wamariya
The true story of Clementine Wamariya and her sister, Claire, as they travel across Africa to escape the brutal genocide in Rwanda. The novel spans the six years they spent as unaccompanied child refugees “unwanted by everyone” in camps and prisons, before achieving asylum in the U.S. in 2000. In “The Girl Who Smiled Beads,” Wamariya creates a contrast between the experiences which have outlined her journey and the person she is now, acknowledging influence but refusing others’ pity.
- “Persepolis: Story of a Childhood” – Marjane Satrapi
A groundbreaking set of graphic novels by Iranian writer and artist Marjane Satrapi, “Persepolis” illustrates her upbringing in Tehran during the 1980s after the Iranian Revolution had reinvented the country. “Persepolis” has a goal, to reshape the image of Iran and show the world that sites of conflict are not inherently bad. Satrapi asks, “Isn’t it possible there is the same amount of evil everywhere?” in this memoir, which is now an animated film.
- “The Kite Runner” – Khaled Hosseini
The quintessential school novel of the 2000s, most Americans have heard about “The Kite Runner” by virtue of its striking impact on literature. Two boys from different social castes grow up together in Kabul before and during the Afghan War. Together they develop an unnamed awareness of human divisions and struggle to process inexplicable violence. The story gives a fascinating glimpse into the atmosphere of an ancient national capital at the moment of collapse into an all-devouring conflict.
- “Aya” – Marguerite Abouet
A series of six illustrated bandes dessinées from a French, Côte D’Ivoirian writer who remembers a happy but complicated childhood during the country’s economic boom of the 1970s. Aya is the ambitious central character in a story that’s funny and engaging in its portrayal of young Africans as members of an environment decidedly different from typical fixations on Africa’s suffering. Published in English in 2007, “Aya” is a counterbalance to the pessimism that prevails in foreign viewpoints.
- “A Long Way Gone” & “Radiance of Tomorrow” – Ishmael Beah
Ishmael Beah was a 13-year-old child in 1993 when he fled war in Sierra Leone, one of many normal boys who unwittingly became child soldiers in government service. In his 2007 memoir “A Long Way Gone” he explains that “this is how wars are fought now”. The book is an explanation of how he became someone he never wanted to be and how he stopped following the instincts to kill that became normal. “Radiance of Tomorrow” followed in 2014. Based on the rebuilding of Sierra Leone and the reckoning of two fictional friends, it asks how hope can replace shame.
- “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” – William Kamkwamba
Focus on the roles of NGOs and foreign governments in impoverished areas often creates assumptions about the dependency of their beneficiaries. In “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” readers see a Malawian boy helping his neighbors by his own initiative. William Kamkwamba used found books and spare parts to create a windmill that brought his family electricity and water during Malawi’s 2002 famine. His true story inspired his country, saved his family and will soon be depicted in a Netflix series.
- “Born on a Tuesday” – Elnathan John
The story of how radical movements begin and take root within a generation. “Born on a Tuesday” explores the environment of northern Nigeria’s segregated Muslim community through a nameless boy. He explains that in this place “things are never simple, never wholly about religion or ethnicity.” When the boy is involved in political attacks and drawn into a circle of radicalized clerics, his questioning about what is right is as much an exercise for readers as it is for him.
- “A Thousand Miles to Freedom” – Eunsun Kim
When she was 11 years old, Eunsun Kim, her mother and sister escaped their home in North Korea after a nearly decade-long journey. In “A Thousand Miles to Freedom,” Kim recounts waiting alone as her mother searched for food, “I left my will on the coffee table and, my face soaked in tears, I laid myself down and closed my eyes. I was sure that I was never going to wake up again.” Writing was a method of survival for Kim, and her story evidences the lengths she and others have taken to fight starvation, imprisonment and poverty.
- “A Moonless, Starless Sky” – Alexis Okeowo
Alexis Okeowo is a writer for the New York Times and a daughter of Nigerian parents. Her book “A Moonless, Starless Sky” follows a half dozen “ordinary men and women fighting extremism in Africa”. Through their resistance, Okeowo’s subjects demonstrate the resolve that has saved them from victimization. As a work of nonfiction and like all top books about life in a developing country Okeowo’s work exposes the humanity of people who would otherwise become statistics.
- “Half of a Yellow Sun” – Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie
A future classic, Ngozi Adichie’s “Half of a Yellow Sun” is the story of three Nigerian characters linked by romance and service to a university professor caught up in the Biafra War of 1967. As their connections disintegrate with the divisions brought by conflict in their region and tribal allegiances, we see the country falling apart and, as The Guardian notes, the characters become alienated even from themselves. Adichie’s “Half of a Yellow Sun” has won many accolades as have her TED Talks “The Danger of a Single Story” and “We Should All Be Feminists”.
– Marissa Field