Reading around Asia Book List | The World Bookshelf Project

I spent the last four years reading books written by Muslim writers– practicing, non-practicing, lapsed, what have you– My scholarly focus on the literary representations of Muslimness has given me the opportunity to read my way around the world, but the majority of the books that ended up on my comprehensive exam list and in my dissertation were penned by writers of Muslim origin who live in the U.S.

I’m by no means exaggerating when I say that I loved reading every. single. book that was on my exam list (I am one of the lucky ones, indeed). But this year, I want to shift my focus to books by Asian writers and writers of Asian origin because why not?

I have no more exams to take, nor do I have a dissertation to write–oh, freedom (joking, I’d probably gladly write another dissertation/book on contemporary Asian literature, but my mind needs a break. Seriously).

Another reason I wanted to read around Asia, so to speak, is that I have for years been immersed in western literatures; I studied American culture and literature (yes, it’s a major!) in college, fell in love with Hemingway, moved to the U.S. to study some more American and European literature, and you know how it goes. Strangely enough, it wasn’t until I moved to Missouri to start my PhD, my last stop in America, that I had the realization I hadn’t read a single book in Turkish in years. That epiphany, along with an existential crisis (for another post!), allowed me to get a head start on my work. But I digress.

My ultimate goal here as a voracious reader is to delve right into the literary scene(s) and spaces created by Asian writers–which I’ve been missing out on all these years. Eventually, I’d like to complete a “World Bookshelf Challenge” at the end of which I will have read at least one contemporary text from each country around the world, but let’s see how this particular reading list goes. (I call it the World Bookshelf Challenge not because I will be reading every single book supported by English PEN’s Writers in Translation program, but because 1) it is an inspiring concept and 2) I focus on contemporary literature as well)


Reading around the world challenges abound on the internet, and I admire and adore anyone and everyone who makes the decision to participate in a global reading challenge, no matter what their motivation is. As David Damrosch highlights:

Literature is not a simple mirror reflecting; rather, it refracts the culture from which it comes. But it provides a way to think deeply—it’s a little bit like the slow food movement in a world of fast foods. To read deeply and attentively a rich work of literature gives us a unique way of thinking about ourselves and our place in the world.

While reading (around) the world challenges are a wonderful tool through which we can read outside our comfort zone, the issue with some of these lists is that they, often unintentionally, perpetuate the nationalization of literatures, as well as the fetishization of stereotypes (and sometimes trauma, e.g. genocides, repression, suffering). In addition, male writers are consistently over-represented on these lists–mainly because nationally and internationally-acclaimed texts have usually been, for sociocultural and political reasons, penned by male writers. Then, there’s the problem of disproportionate representations of writers who are part of the global elite and write in English. It is quite difficult to find translations from each country, which brings the issue of global capitalism and its inequalities to the fore within the context of world/global literatures. I will not get into the scholarly debate on the terms “world”, “global”, and “international” literatures, but the links I have provided at the end of this post will offer some insight into the ways in which World Literature is being reconceptualized. What I’d like to underline, however, is how reading around the world lists, like most syllabi reading lists, often reflect hyper-elitism and gender-based disparity that permeate the global publishing market.

As emphasized in the article, “What is Global Literature?” (2013) published on n+1:

Global Literature can’t help but reflect global capitalism, in its triumph, inequalities, and deformations. In the English language, World Literature has its signature writers: Rushdie and Coetzee at the lead, and Kiran Desai, Mohsin Hamid, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie among the younger charges. It has its own economy, consisting of international publishing networks, scouts, and book fairs. It has its prizes: the Nobel, of course, but more powerful and snazzier is the Man Booker, and the Man Booker International. Its political arm is PEN. And it has a social calendar full of literary festivals, which bring global elites into contact with the glittering stars of World Lit. Every year, sections of the dominant class fly from Mexico City to have Julian Barnes sign books in Xalapa, or from Delhi to Jaipur to be seen partying with Mario Vargas Llosa. The Hay Festival, started in Hay-on-Wye in rural Wales, now has outposts in Dhaka, Beirut, Nairobi, and elsewhere. “Hay Festival in Cartagena de Indias” is an accidentally funny phrase — Sí, hay festival — redolent of a strange new intimacy between global north and south.

What about the role of the academy in this context?

It is argued that:

The key institution in the creation of World Literature has not been the literary festival, or even the commercial publishing house, but the university.

Every World Lit writer seems to have an appointment. Pamuk teaches at Columbia; Paul Muldoon at Princeton; Junot Díaz at MIT. University-produced postcolonial theory was also part of the education of World Lit. Rushdie had crucial friendships with Edward Said and Homi Bhabha, as did Ngugi with Gayatri Spivak. Increasingly writers from Calcutta and Cape Town attend MFA programs in East Anglia or Syracuse. Universities that celebrate their commitment to diversity — of cultural identity, if not class background — owe it to themselves to hire writers of odes to hybridity.

World Literature today is thus canonized by the academy, and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that it is run like a private club by the global elites. “Today’s World Lit is more like a Davos summit,” it is stated in the article, “where experts, national delegates, and celebrities discuss, calmly and collegially, between sips of bottled water, the terrific problems of a humanity whose predicament they appear to have escaped.” This is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discussions on World Literature. I wanted to begin with this brief overview because I kept, what David Damrosch calls, World Lit’s uneven playing field in mind as I was compiling my list. It has been challenging -might I add- to take a more mindful approach that refrains from over-representating globally and traditionally acclaimed male writers. So, this is by no means a perfect reading list.

Despite the challenges, however, I’m pleased with my reading around Asia list (which is and will be work in progress). The meticulously curated reading list down below is mainly (not entirely) comprised of contemporary literary works (published post-2005) by female and queer writers of Asian origin. I must add that I still need help finding queer and/or female Central Asian voices. Due to repression and censorship, publishing in the post-soviet countries such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is evidently an arduous process, but if you know of immigrant writers from Central Asia, or if you are one (self-publishing perhaps?), please let me know–I will keep updating my list as I’m introduced to more writers who are writing from “the periphery.”

So, how will I do this?

No strict rules, really.

My goal is to read one or two books from each Asian country–as defined by UNSD— and to write about them. It would be ideal to finish reading all the listed books in a year, but with a full-time job, it may not be possible, and that is okay. I’d like to take my time, savor each text, and read them deeply, if you will.

Either way, the book I’m currently reading will be highlighted like so.

And the ones read will be highlighted in this color.

For instance, I’m currently reading an advanced copy of Folklorn by Korean American writer Angela Mi Young Hur, which will be released in April 2021, and I already read Hala Alyan’s The Arsonists’ City, which is coming out soon. I won’t be reading the books in a particular order and may add new titles for each country throughout the year.

By reading these books, I hope to start a conversation about the texts, the countries, the writers, yes, but I also aim to explore the various ways in which national borders are transgressed in these works. Some of the questions I will be considering are as follows: What makes a “national writer”? How is a national (literary) identity formed? How can we read/understand these texts from different countries as a whole? How do these works contribute to our understanding of world literatures?

Feel free to read with me, or pick a book from the list and read it in your own time– and please let me know if you have any suggestions and recommendations.

Happy reading!

P.S.: Thank you to everyone who recommended books to me as I was compiling my list–you’ve been a great help!


Reading Around Asia List

The World Bookshelf Challenge, 2021

Armenia: Bringing Ararat by Armand Inezian, 2010

Azerbaijan: Uçan Giden Bir Kus (A Bird That Flies Away) by Feriba Vefi, originally pub. in 2002, translated into Turkish by Lale Javanshir in 2016

Afghanistan: Sparks Like Stars by Nadia Hashimi, March 2021

Bahrain: Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen by Amru- al Kadhi, 2019

Bangladesh: Shameless by Taslima Nasreen, 2020

Bhutan: Folktales of Bhutan by Kunzang Coden, 2016

Brunei: Written in Black by K.H. Lim, 2015

Cambodia: In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner, 2012

China: The Chilly Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge, originally pub. in 2013, translated by Nicki Harman, 2018

Cyprus: This Way Back by Joanna Eleftheriou, 2020

Georgia: Madrabaz Kvaci (Kvachi in English) by Mikheil Javakhishvili, 1925, translated into Turkish by Parna-Beka Cilasvili, 2017

Indonesia: The Original Dream by Nukila Amal, originally pub. in 2003, translated by Linda Owens, 2017

Iran: The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali, 2019

Iraq: Revolt Against the Sun by Nazik al-Malaʾika, originally pub. in 2020, translated by Emily Drumsta, Feb. 2021.

India: Whereabouts: A Novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, originally pub. in 2018, pub. in English, April 2021

Israel: The Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, 2019.

Japan: An I-Novel by Minae Mizumura, trans. 2021

Jordan: Snow in Amman: An Anthology of Short Stories from Jordan by I. Rida Mahmood  (Translator), Alexander Haddad (Editor), 2015

Kazakhstan: The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov, translated by Andrew Bromfield, 2015

Kyrgyzstan: Jamilia by Chingiz Aitmatov, originally pub. in 1958, translated by James Riordan, 2007

Korea: Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur, April 2021

Kuwait: The Pact We Made, by Layla AlAmmar, 2019

Laos: How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa, 2020

Lebanon: Louder Than Hearts: Poems by Zeina Hashem Beck, 2017

Maldives:  Dhon Hiyala and Ali Fulhu by Abdullah Sadiq, originally pub. in 1978, translated from Dhivehi to English by Fareesha Abdullah and Michael O’Shea, 2004.

Malaysia: We, The Survivors by Tash Aw, 2019

The Rice Mother by Rani Makina, 2002, 2004.

Mongolia: Mongol by Uuganaa Ramsay, 2013

Myanmar: Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig, 2017

Oman: Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs by Adbulaziz Al Farsi, translated by Nancy Roberts, 2013.

Qatar: The Girl Who Fell to Earth by Sophia Al-Maria, 2012

Palestine: Against the Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa, 2020

Pakistan: Threading My Prayer Rug: One Woman’s Journey from Pakistani Muslim to American Muslim by Sabina Rehman, 2016.

Philipines: The Mango Bride by Marvin Soliven Bianco, 2013

Russia: Compartment No. 6 by Rosa Liksom, originally published in 2011, Translated by Lola Rogers, 2016.

  • Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina, translated by Lisa C. Hayden, 2019.

Saudi Arabia: A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena, 2018.

Singapore: The River’s Song by Suchen Christine Lim, 2014.

Sri Lanka: The Boat People by Sharon Bala, 2018

Syria: The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar, 2020

Taiwan: An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King, 2017

Tajikistan: My Neighbourhood Sisters & The City Where Dreams Come True by Gulsifat Shakdi, 2016

Thailand: Arid Dreams by Duanwad Pimwana, originally pub. in 2014, translated by Mui Pooposakul, 2019

Timur-leste***: still looking for a book

Turkey: Women Who Blow on Knots by Ece Temelkuran, originally pub. in 2013, translated by Alexander Dawe, 2017

Turkmenistan: The Tale of Aypi by Ak Welsapar, 2016

United Arab Emirates: Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, 2017 

Uzbekistan: A Collection of Uzbek Short Stories by Mahmuda Saydumarova, 2012

Vietnam: Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai, 2011

Yemen: A Land without Jasmine by Wajdi al-Ahdal,translated by Willian Maynard Hutchins 2012


More on World Literature:

Apter, Emily. The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature. Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2011.

Damrosch, David.  What is world literature? Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press., 2003.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, Soret, Frédéric Jacob, Oxenford, John,Eckermann, Johann Peter. Conversations with Eckermann: being appreciations and criticisms on many subjects. Washington, M.W. Dunne. 1901.

Haen, Theo d’. The Routledge concise history of world literature. London : Routledge, 2012.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty.  Death of a discipline. New York : Columbia University Press, 2003.

n+1, “What is Global Literature?”

A World of Literature: David Damrosch’s literary global reach

Henitiuk, Valerie.  The Single, Shared Text? Translation and World Literature. World Literature Today, (86)1, 30-34. 2012

20 replies

  1. Cyprus: This Way Back by Joanna Eleftheriou, 2020 i love your list and your challenge, but is Cyprus part of Asia?
    I love your enthusiasm.. Now that you have finished your phd what work do you do? will you read all these books in English or turkish translation?
    Your wrrting is so interesting – do you not feel the need to write a book yourself?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Basia, I love the question about Cyprus, and all the other questions, really. To answer the four questions:
      1- Cyprus is actually between the Middle East and Europe, like Turkey and is considered part of Asia by UNSD. BUT when I asked the author of This Way Back about her book being part of my list (she’s a good friend of mine), she said “I actually open it by stating the distance of my village from Beirut for the express purpose of destabilizing the idea that we are European because we speak Greek. Plus, I always thought Ancient Cypriot art looked weird until I saw it in an exhibit with art from Central Asia and the “near East”!”

      2- I moved back home to Istanbul after a decade in the U.S. and teach writing at a university here, and I’m loving it!

      3-I will be reading the books in English–with two or three exceptions. Some books from Central Asia have not been translated into English yet so I’m planning to read their Turkish translations.

      4- I appreciate it–I do want to write my own book some day. The problem is I have many ideas for a novel, and I cannot even decide which one I should go for. I may just do a writing workshop somewhere in the summer to get started once the pandemic is over.

      Thanks for your comment 🙂

      Like

  2. Thanks for answering. I appreciate the comment. My stepfather spent some time in Cyprus as a refugee during the second world war and I am afraid in my ignorance I assumed it was more European than otherwise. But I can see the truth. I have only been to Turkey once though I have a cousin who is Polish who lives in Istambul. I went to Antalya about eight years ago, which was fascinating in many ways.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I loved your question because it actually raises another crucial question about the constructed nature of borders and nations. I love these countries/islands like Turkey and Cyprus that are located in a liminal space because they urge us to ask: what makes them European? And what makes them Asian? Do they need to have a single national/continental identity? Whose interest does it serve to categorize these countries as Asian or European? And so forth.

      Antalya is lovely, but you should visit Istanbul 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Antalya was indeed lovely but it was very disconcerting to find that all historical aspects of Christianity had been totally eradicated. I had been to Syria two years previously, and Damascus seemed to have the Islam/Christianity configuration sorted. I was expecting more of the same.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Damascus was life changing for me. We went for a weekend, jsut before the troubles started. I have written about it on my blog. I don’t know how to post a link on here, but I can try and work it out if you like

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This is such a great challenge! I will definitely have to save your list for when I’m done with my own thesis and will hopefully have loads more spare time that I can use for reading 😅

    And I really relate to you having shoved aside Turkish books while you were studying English literature, too. I’ve read so few German books in the past couple of years that I really want to make more of an effort and get back to them this year! And I was also hoping to read some Russian classics in 2021, since I’ve been studying the language for almost two years now and really want to delve more deeply into the culture and Russian history. But hopefully that can serve as a starting point for reading more internationally in the future!

    Liked by 2 people

      • Well, I’m actually writing my thesis in math, so people’s eyes usually glaze over the minute I start telling them what it’s about 😅 But of you want to give it a chance, I am studying hyperelliptic curves of genus 2 that have many points on a rank 1 subgroup of their Jacobian variety, trying to classify the types of curves that can occur. Don’t worry, even most of my math friends don’t understand what I’m doing 😂 It’s pretty much impossible to explain to people who don’t work in this field, so I guess there’s quite some truth to the saying that math is a lonely subject…

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well yes, I didn’t understand a word of that, haha thanks for explaining anyway. It is humbling 🙂

        I’m actually reading this novel, Folklorn (coming out in April) about a physicist who tries to negotiate reality vs. fiction, folktales narratives vs. science narratives— and I’ve been thinking a lot about my attitude towards math and sciences.
        I always used to detest math and sciences in high school and in college. As I got older, I realized how that was because they’d taught it all wrong. Math and physics and sciences can be tools that can help us understand the universe and life itself. If someone , even a single teacher had told me that, my whole perspective on numbers would have shifted. Anyways, rambling over. All that to say, I’m sure your angle is quite interesting 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • I completely agree! I think that the way math enables you to understand the world is a big reason why I’ve always loved it so much! That and how structured and logical it is 😊 Although I do also love the creativity and culture that comes with languages, which is why I went for a degree in both math and English 😅

        And I might have to check out Folklorn! That concept sounds right up my alley!

        Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply to abookowlscorner Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s