Travel Novels That Reveal Harsh Truths

While traveling, I’m always reading one, or more likely five, books at a time.  I read the following three books one after another while traveling throughout southeast Asia and while I admittedly felt extremely bummed out afterwards, I’m pleased I did.  These three works are all largely based on true stories making them all the more powerful.  Each novel features younger characters that reveal harsh realities of those living in developing countries.  If you haven’t had the chance to travel, read these novels and venture far and wide from your couch.  You won’t be sorry you did although you’ll probably be more sympathetic to those across the ocean.

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When the Elephants Dance is equal parts misery and magic, written by Urize Holthe, a Filipina-American writer from San Francisco, the novel is inspired by actual experiences of her father who was a young boy in the Philippines during World War II. When the Elephants Dance begins during the final week of the Japanese-American battle for possession of the Philippines.  Told by three distinct narrators, the novel recounts supernatural tales based on indigenous Filipino mythology and Spanish-influenced legends as told by an extended family hiding in a cellar during the last week of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines.  Alternating between the gruesome realities of rape, starvation, and torture brought on by the war, When the Elephants Dance is a multi-layered view of the history and culture of a war-torn nation.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo won a national book award for nonfiction.  This novel is based on three years of reporting in Annawadi, a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport.  No matter how different you may seem from the characters in this novel, you’ll be rooting for them from page one.  This is a story of personal tragedy set within a city’s larger global recession that results in suppressed tensions over religion, caste, sex, power and economic envy.  As the tenderest individual hopes intersect with the greatest global truths, the true contours of a competitive age are revealed and one realizes the fragility of human life. 

In the Sea There Are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda is the story of a ten year old boy who is left to travel from Afghanistan to Italy on his own.  This story seems especially pertinent at a time when masses are scrambling across borders to safer havens.  Travel with ten-year-old Enaiatollah over the course of five years as he treks across mountains, rides in suffocatingly small spaces, and faces violent seas in an inflatable raft.  While Enaiat eventually reaches safety, the same is not true for his traveling companions.  If you’ve ever needed to harbor compassion for illegal immigrants read this novel.

While this certainly isn’t the most uplifting post, it’s way up there as one of the most important.  Sometimes it’s easy to feel removed from our planet’s social tragedies, but these three novels close the gap between privilege and misfortune.  Whenever I’m having a bad day, I like to remind myself of all my first-world problems, it helps me to feel ridiculous and grateful at the same time.

The image of me reading was taken by the truly talented Saleem Ahmed.

 

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