Early last year I read an academic paper extolling the value of fictional narratives in illuminating the social dynamics of developing countries . That launched me into a mélange of narratives in the course of the year, taking me from Kenya to Afghanistan to India to Cuba. The best of these books combined compelling prose, true characters, and insights into some of the world’s most desperately struggling populations.
Half of a Yellow Sun follows the lives of two adult sisters during the Biafran war of independence from Nigeria (Biafra didn’t stay independent; that’s why you may not have heard of it). I read this while in Nigeria for work and was completely absorbed. I remember finishing it in the wee hours of the morning (with a day of work ahead of me) and neither being able to sleep nor to pick up another book. Adichie really seems to capture the spirit of the time and illuminates ethnic conflicts that continue to flare up all over the world (most recently in Kenya).
What Is the What jumps back and forth in the life of a young male Sudanese refugee to the United States. Eggers, the author, novelizes the true story of Valentino Achak Deng, introducing fictional events and characters to capture experiences outside of those lived by Deng alone. Eggers reminds us of the pleasures people find even in terrible situations. He doesn’t shy away from the manifold tragedies of modern Sudan, but somehow he still manages to leave us with hope.
My reading carried me from African-authored classics (So Long a Letter from Senegal and Petals of Blood from Kenya) to Western-authored thrillers (The Darling and The Mission Song), from fluffy (the Ladies’ No 1 Detective Agency books) to deeply sobering (The Inheritance of Loss). Several powerful, engaging books focused on the struggles of women, whether polygamous wives (A Thousand Splendid Suns and So Long a Letter) or prostitutes (Man, Woman, and Hunger and Instead of Cursing You).
I learned so much, and I didn’t even have to crack open an ethnography or a history book.
 David Lewis, Dennis Rodgers, and Michael Woolcock, “The Fiction of Development: Knowledge, Authority, and Representation,” Development Studies Institute Working Paper 05-61, September 2005. [link]
Here’s the whole list (with links to my reviews):
• 1 World Manga, by Roman (unnamed poor countries)
• Cause Celeb, by Fielding (unnamed African country)
• The Darling, by Banks (Liberia)
• En Vez de Maldecirte [Instead of Cursing You], by Moreno (Mexico)
• The Full Cupboard of Life, by Smith (Botswana)
• Half of a Yellow Sun, by Adichie (Nigeria)
• El Hombre, La Hembra, y El Hambre [Man, Woman, and Hunger], by Chaviano (Cuba)
• The Inheritance of Loss, by Desai (India)
• The Kalahari Typing School for Men, by Smith (Botswana)
• The Mission Song, by le Carre (unnamed African country)
• The Namesake, by Lahiri (India – United States)
• A Passage to India, by Forster (India)
• Petals of Blood, by Thiong’o (Kenya)
• So Long a Letter, by Ba (Senegal)
• A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Hosseini (Afghanistan)
• What Is the What, by Eggers (Sudan)