Geographic Comfort Zones in Literature

FILE - May 10, 2011 file photo of Sultan Ahmed Mosque or Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. On a moonlit night in the backstree
FILE - May 10, 2011 file photo of Sultan Ahmed Mosque or Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. On a moonlit night in the backstreets of Beyoglu, one of Istanbul's oldest districts, the worn facades and sharp-angled shadows recall the mournful character of the city that Nobel-prize winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk described in a memoir. New, brash Istanbul charges ahead, and it's harder to uncover those pockets of dark ruin that epitomize "huzun," the dense, communal melancholy that permeated the former imperial capital in Pamuk's work. As Turkey strives for global status, its leading city strains to channel expansion that threatens its heritage, environment and even its identity.(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici, File)

A gift of a book I have yet to read gave me the idea for this post.

How can that be? Well, the Silent House novel I received last month is by Orhan Pamuk of Turkey. The country that Nobel Prize winner is from reminded me that I and many other readers have a geographic comfort zone when it comes to literature.

For me, I would guess that about 75 percent of the novels I've read were by American or British authors, perhaps 15 percent by Canadian or French or Russian authors and the remaining 10 percent by authors from everywhere else -- including other European countries, Latin America, Asia, Africa and New Zealand.

Why that skewed geographic breakdown? I speak and read English as my primary language, so I obviously gravitate toward English-language books. They were assigned in school when I was a student; they're easily available; I don't have to worry about potentially bad translations from other languages; and I recognize the social and cultural norms depicted in their pages. Plus, one gets into certain habits!

Literature from France and Russia entered my secondary mix for several reasons -- including marriage to a woman who teaches French and memorable trips to places such as Paris and Moscow. And France and Russia (like many other countries) have of course produced a number of stellar authors.

But authors in my aforementioned 10 percent realm have also penned some terrific books. Through their writing, I've experienced characters who often live very differently than we do (though they usually share the same basic human wants and hopes). Heck, even a mediocre novel can be interesting if the setting is "exotic" enough.

Some novels from faraway places aren't available in English, and we might not even know they exist. But if we do know about such books (and some are quite famous), they are often well worth a try.

Among my very favorite novels from my 10 percent category is one I recently read for the first time -- The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, who was born in Peru but spent much of her childhood in Chile and is of Chilean descent. Her riveting, multigenerational, magic realism-infused saga of family and social upheaval gives readers a real sense of Chile's history and culture; indeed, it's hard (for me at least) to think of a similar novel with a U.S. milieu.

Speaking of magic realism, there's also the One Hundred Years of Solitude masterpiece by Gabriel Garcia Marquez of Colombia and Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel of Mexico.

Among the other novels I love that aren't from the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, France or Russia are almost everything by Erich Maria Remarque of Germany -- especially his enthralling The Night in Lisbon and Arch of Triumph books set in the Nazi era (when Remarque became a German exile).

There's also The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco of Italy (death in a medieval monastery), Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room by Janet Frame of New Zealand (gripping story of a comatose man who's mispronounced dead), Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton of South Africa (race relations and more) and Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes of Spain (no need for me to explain that book!).

I tried hard to love Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe of Nigeria, but didn't -- though I admired it. For whatever reason, some novels from faraway countries don't resonate in every westerner's brain, and it's not always the author's fault!

Then there are novels set in certain countries but written by authors who live elsewhere (though they may have spent time in those "certain countries"). Among the countless examples of that genre is the Japan-focused Shogun by James Clavell, who was born in Australia to British parents and later moved to the U.S. These kinds of works (which aren't being explored further in this post) can serve as a gateway to reading fiction by authors actually based in far-off nations.

When it comes to fiction writers you read, which countries are most of them from? Why do you focus on literature from those countries? And what are your favorite books from outside your geographic comfort zone?

Feel free to answer just one or two of the above -- and I hope your geographic comfort zone includes American-asked questions! :-)


Dave Astor's memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional (Xenos Press, 2012) includes a preface by Heloise; back-cover endorsements by Arianna Huffington, "The Far Side" cartoonist Gary Larson and others; appearances by Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King, Martha Stewart and others; and a mix of humor and heartache. If you'd like to buy a personally inscribed copy (for less than the Amazon price), contact Dave at