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 Wangari Maathai
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.
2. Recipes For A Sacred Life: True Stories and a Few Miracles by Rivvy Neshama
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.
3. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba
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.
4. Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood by Fatema Mernissi
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.
5. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi
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, and violence.
6. Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire
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.
7. To the Edge of the Sky: A Story of Love, Betrayal, Suffering, and the Strength of Human Courage by Anhua Gao
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 sky."
8. In the Land of the Grasshopper Song by Mary Ellicott Arnold and Mabel Reed
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.
9. The Favored Daughter: One Woman's Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future by Fawzia Koofi
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.
10. Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculée Ilibagiza
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.
11. House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East by Anthony Shadid
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 Marzena Sowa
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.
13. Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
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