I’m kind of a memoir junkie. Seriously, I love nothing more
than nosing around other people’s business and lives, learning from their
successes and failures, and stepping out of my own workaday existence for a
moment and into someone else’s — and if that all comes in the form of some
must-read memoirs from around the world, even better. After all, the next best
thing to hitting the road and experiencing some globally-inspired, hard-won
life lessons of your own is bearing witness to someone else’s. And this way you
don’t even have to pack a carry-on.
The memoirs on this list come from places as scattered and
disparate as Kenya and Malawi, Morocco and Iran, Cuba and Poland, California and
Manhattan — but one thing they all have in common is that each has been been
written by someone with an exceptional story to tell. Some of these memoirists are
Nobel Peace Prize winners, and others are national leaders, and still more are
just imperfect, inspiring, Average Janes like you and I, who have managed to
mine their own lives for magic and mystery and meaning. What makes a better
read than that?
Check out these 12 must-read memoirs from around the world.
1. Unbowed by
Kenyan environmentalist, feminist, political activist, (and
to top it all off, single mother,) Wangari Maathai has led one extraordinary
life. Born in a rural Kenyan village in 1940, Maathai was not only determined
to get an education at a time when Kenyan girls rarely did so, but she planned
on using it to make her community and her continent a better place as well.
After earning a Bachelors, a Masters, and two Doctorates, Maathai founded the Green
Belt Movement, designed to fight deforestation in Africa and employ women as
tree planters in their communities — one of the many accomplishments that earned Maathai the Nobel Peace Prize.
A memoir-in-essay, Rivvy Neshama’s Recipies for a Sacred Life is filled with stories from home and
afar, and lessons from afar that you won’t be able to help but bring home with
you. Pulling on her vast wealth of knowledge — collected from places as diverse
and far-flung as Manhattan and Mexico, Austria and England, Boulder, Colorado
and Mali — and from Eastern spirituality and Western philosophy, Neshama’s own
stories will inspire you to find the magic and meaning in your own everyday
life. Plus, her voice is totally contagious — whether she’s reminiscing about
her beatnik college days or lamenting the arrival of her first AARP magazine (sometimes all within the
short space of a single page-turn) you’re going to want to curl up with this
book and crawl inside.
Born in Malawi during a time of severe drought and hunger,
where electricity was still considered “magic” and clean water nearly
impossible to come by, William Kamkwamba wanted to make a difference. Inspired
by a book he read as a child called Using
Energy, Kamkwamba used materials he found to construct a windmill designed
to power electric lights and a water pump — despite the doubts of his entire
village. This hugely inspiring story demonstrates how one boy’s dreams changed
his entire village.
This memoir gives readers a glimpse into a part of the
Muslim world rarely seen — even by those who live in it. Author Fatima Mernissi
grew up behind the walls of a Moroccan harem, where women were forbidden access
to the outside world. Instead, the women of Mernissi's harem — mothers and
grandmothers, aunts and cousins, and her father’s multiple wives — created worlds
of their own through storytelling. Dreams
of Trespass takes readers not only into the mysterious (and unglamorous)
life of a Moroccan harem, but into the vivid internal lives of the women
confined there as well.
Raised by a family who participated in pre-Revolution
communist and socialist movements in Iran, graphic memoirist Marjane Satrapi
grew up in Tehran during the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, the Iranian
Revolution, and the war with Iraq. Through a series of black-and-white comic
strips, Persepolis tells the story of
Satrapi’s childhood — from ages six to 14 — and the challenges she and her
family faced during this period of social and political upheaval, censorship,
Between 1960 and 1962, in the wake of Fidel Castro taking
control of the Cuban government, a U.S. program called “Operation Pedro Pan”
airlifted more than 14,000 children out of Cuba, and relocated them to the
United States — without their families. Carlos Eire was one such child; born to
a privileged Havana family, who grew up in an idyllic, almost magical landscape
until the Cuban Revolution, which overthrew then-dictator President Batista and
installed Castro in his place. This memoir tells the story of Eire’s life before
the Revolution, and what was lost in his departure from his homeland.
Anhua Gao was born the same year that Mao Tse Tung declared
the foundation of the People's Republic of China, and she grew up in a
communist-ruled country facing its most political upheaval in modern history. After
the loss of her parents and some harsh realizations about the country she
loves, Gao finds safety in Britain — the country her mother once pointed out on
a Chinese world map, and described as being located "on the edge of the
In 1908 Mary Ellicott Arnold and Mabel Reed took positions
as field matrons for the Karok Indians as part of the U.S. Bureau of Indian
Affairs. Moving to the Klamath and Salmon River country of northern California,
Arnold and Reed were tasked with teaching Native American women about 19th
century Victorian culture. Instead, they found themselves assimilating to
Native American culture, and they quickly learned that the reputation of
America’s native peoples perpetuated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs was hardly
the whole truth. In response, they wrote this memoir of their experiences.
As the nineteenth daughter born to a family living in a culture
where daughters are viewed as a liability and curse, Fawzia Koofi was left outside in the harsh Afghanistan sun to die shortly after her birth.
Instead of perishing, she survived, and she has lived a life marked by resilience
ever since. Through abuse by her family, two wars, the murders of her father,
brother, and husband, as well as several attempts on her own life, Koofi
eventually defied all odds and became the first female Afghan Parliament
speaker. This is her memoir of that journey.
In the heat of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, seven women hid
together in a bathroom for all 91 days of the campaign of slaughter against
Rwanda’s ethnic Tutsis. Immaculée Ilibagiza was one of those women. After being
released from hiding, Ilibagiza discover that almost every single member of her
family had been murdered during the three-month genocide. Left to Tell is Ilibagiza’s story of survival and loss, and her
long path towards peace and forgiveness.
After surviving capture as one of the four New York Times'
reporters imprisoned in Libya, Anthony Shadid returned to his great-grandfather’s
crumbling estate in Lebanon — a place his family hadn’t called home in
generations. Through rebuilding his ancestral home, Shadid managed to fortify
his own challenged spirit as well, and took the time and space he needed to
explore the legacy of his homeland — one that has been all-but lost to
violence, war, and politics.
12. Marzi by
Another graphic memoir, Marzi tells the story of Marzena
Sowa’s childhood in Communist Poland, as understood through her eyes as a
child. Her father is a factory worker, her mother an employee at a dairy, both
food and funds are scarce, and life behind the Iron Curtain is tense. But through
it all Sowa maintains her childlike wonder — the world is still curious and
exciting, even as lives around her crumble.
Alexandra Fuller's homeland, Rhodesia, no longer exists on
any current map. Now Zimbabwe, during her childhood in the country it was a
conflict-torn state in the heart of southern Africa. Through civil war and
political upheaval, Fuller and her family lived a nomadic live — moving across
Africa in order to flee the ever-moving, ever-escalating violence. Despite it
all, the European-born Fullers exhibit unfailing love and fierce devotion for
the continent they chose as their adopted home — one that Fuller’s parents
could not bare to part with, even though staying might have killed them.
Image: E.Ce Miller