What to Read When You Want to Experience Life Abroad

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Years ago, while I was living aboard in Latvia, a friend turned me on to the idea of reading books set in a similar region. I wasn’t sure how many Latvian classics had been translated into English so I decided to tackle Leo Tolstoy, first Anna Karenina and then War and Peace. Dark, cold, and dreary days might match the mood of many Russian authors, but I found they do little to improve your own.

With age I have learned you don’t need to endure endless days with little sun to enjoy a book about life in Russia. Instead, you can stay home with the comforts of twenty-four-hour supermarkets and overpriced medical care and read about foreigners who have found themselves in Yemen trying to run a newspaper or in Sudan providing aid during a famine.

The countries and context of the books I have chosen vary, but the narration remains true and unapologetic. Some of the best examples use humor to handle tragedy. Most of the authors are female and relatively contemporary, adding a twist on the traditional and enduring narrative of the male abroad. And, all of these books offer the opportunity to learn about other parts of the world within their pages.

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Black Elephants by Karol Nielsen
If you wonder why anyone would move to Israel during wartime, the answer is simple—love, and, of course, youth. Yet Nielsen’s love is not just for an individual but also for a people and a country she yearns to understand. Open to experiencing all aspects of what it means to be Israeli, she studies Hebrew, works on a kibbutz, and learns how to wear a gas mask. Through her everyday experiences as an outsider she offers us an honest glimpse of a people living in a place with a complicated and conflict-ridden past and present.

 

Emma’s War: A True Story by Deborah Scroggins
British relief worker Emma McCune is no longer around to tell the story of how she set off to make a difference in war-torn Sudan and ended up falling in love with a warlord. Luckily, another outsider, American journalist Deborah Scroggins, has told McCune’s story without judgment or apology. In doing so she has captured not just the story of one woman but also the story of a conflict and a country. Scroggins adds depths to the familiar civil war, refugee, and aid worker narratives and provides the background needed to understand the stories of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” and other popular media accounts, as well as modern-day South Sudan.

 

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller
In her memoir, Fuller reminds us families can be dysfunctional in far-off lands as well as in their own homeland. Things just become a bit more complicated when the far-off land happens to be Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the 1970s. With a child’s honesty and innocence she recounts tales of everyday racism, violence, and wild animal encounters. This is a beautiful example of how dark humor can help us survive even darker tragedy.

 

Whatever You Do, Don’t Run: True Tales of a Botswana Safari Guide by Peter Allison
The idea was to stay only a year in Africa, but after being robbed in Malawi Allison finds himself at a game reserve. He takes a job in a bar and then as a safari guide. A self-described nervous suburbanite, Allison is not your typical gun-toting big game adventurer, which makes his accounts of wild animal—and occasional wild tourist—encounters all the more entertaining.

 

Expat: Women’s True Tales of Life Abroad edited by Christina Henry de Tessan
This anthology offers short accounts from more than twenty women living abroad in a variety of locales around the world. From buying a live chicken in China to trying to blend in as a tall and fair outsider in Borneo, these stories offer insight into how merely living while abroad can be an adventure.

 

Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World by Suzy Hansen
Hansen moved to the Middle East after September 11 to learn more about a part of the world that in her native US was being demonized. While living in Turkey and reporting from there and surrounding regions, she discovers as much about her own country as she does about her new home. Hansen offers an exploration of what it means to be an American—and the violent role America plays in the larger world.

 

Bad Times in Buenos Aires by Miranda France
As a reporter, France has an excuse to ask questions about what she doesn’t understand—including why everyone in Buenos Aires seems to be seeing a therapist. Some of France’s best anecdotes, though, come not from the people she interviews but from those she lives alongside, including a neighbor who convinces her to try “effortless exercising.”

 

Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim
There are two foreign worlds Kim infiltrates in this book: the world of North Korea’s elite and the world of the evangelical Christian missionaries who are teaching them. Kim belongs to neither world, which makes her a brilliant commentator on both.

 

Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China by Rachel Dewoskin
Dewoskin doesn’t just move to China, she becomes a character in a Chinese soap opera. Fiction and real life merge in this account of a new and more materialistic China.

 

black and (a)broad: traveling beyond the limitations of identity by Carolyn E. Vines
Accounts of women living abroad may now be more common, but those of women of color living abroad are harder to find. In this memoir, Vines follows her Dutch boyfriend from New Orleans to the Netherlands. She outlines her very real fears about everything from putting her career on hold for a man to how to care for her hair in an honest and enlightening voice.

 

The Woman Who Fell from the Sky: An American Woman’s Adventures in the Oldest City on Earth by Jennifer Steil
In Yemen, Steil finds herself learning about a very different culture while trying to put out a newspaper. Impartial reporting and deadlines take on new meaning when dealing with reporters who respond to requests for updates on whether their stories will be filed on time with “if God is willing.” While editing articles written by local reporters, Steil gets to know their personal stories and starts to understand the country, its people, and herself.

 

And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Kayta’s new memoir, From Chernobyl with Love: Reporting from the Ruins of the Soviet Union, out today from Potomac Books! – Ed.

From Chernobyl with Love: Reporting from the Ruins of the Soviet Union by Katya Cengel
Less than two decades ago, young writers, journalists, and adventurers such as Katya Cengel flocked from the West eastward to cities like Prague and Budapest, seeking out terra nova. Despite the region’s appeal, neither Kyiv in the Ukraine nor Riga in Latvia was the type of place you would expect to find a twenty-two-year-old Californian just out of college. Kyiv was too close to Moscow. Riga was too small to matter—and too cold. But Cengel ended up living and working in both. This book is her remarkable story.


Katya Cengel has written for New York Times Magazine and Washington Post among other publications and teaches journalism at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She is the author of From Chernobyl with Love: Reporting from the Ruins of the Soviet Union (Potomac, 2019); Exiled: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to California and Back (Potomac, 2018); and Bluegrass Baseball: A Year in the Minor League Life (Nebraska, 2012). Cengel has been awarded grants from the International Reporting Project, International Women’s Media Foundation and International Center for Journalists. More from this author →