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There are many popular books outside of the United States that the good old US of A misses. Many of them are published in other languages and even thrive in their respective countries. Many have also developed their own following.
But, in truth, the world of English-language publishing is still quite confined to new York. And as it is still a lot Centered on New York, this centralization creates a ripple effect in the industry as a whole. It is a known fact that the United States is one of the countries that dominates the global publishing industry, and its influence can even extend far beyond its borders. As a foreign-based publisher, our non-US and non-English language books always lose the competition. In fact, when looking at bookstore bestseller lists in the Philippines, those published in the United States are always dominate the lists.
The good news is that this is not always the case in other parts of the world, especially in countries where English does not take hold.
To give the works in the trenches some well-deserved stardom, here’s a list of books that are popular elsewhere, but not necessarily well-known in the United States. From classics and fiction to children’s books, you’ll find plenty. here to add to your reading list. And maybe you can also learn a bit more about other cultures.
The bamboo stem by Saud Alsanousi, translated by Jonathan Wright
Many poor Filipino women travel to the Middle East, among other places, to work as domestic servants, often ending up in abusive workplaces. The bamboo stem, which is a bestseller in Kuwait, addresses this global issue. It was first published in Arabic in 2013 and translated into English in 2015.
Josephine flies to Kuwait to work as a cleaning lady. There he meets Rashid and they marry in secret. But while Josephine comes from a poor family, Rashid comes from a wealthy clan and his family is not in favor of the couple’s marriage. At the time, Josephine is already carrying their child, which angers Rashid’s mother. Rashid has to send Josephine and the child, now 2 months old, back to the Philippines. The child would grow up like José. A few years later, however, he was summoned to Kuwait. Caught between two worlds, José grapples with his identity.
Winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, The bamboo stem is a “famous novel in the Arabic-speaking world. In 2016, it was adapted into a television series but was banned in Kuwait because of its provocative theme.
A Liter of Tears: A Young Girl’s Fight for Life by Aya Kito
This is a diary-turned-memory of Kito, who suffered from a terminal illness called spinocerebellar degeneration. According to MedlinePlus, it is a “condition characterized by progressive problems with movement”. Those who suffer from it “first have problems with coordination and balance”.
In the book, published in 1986 in Japan, Kito shares his daily struggles with the disease. “I write because writing is proof that I’m still alive,” she wrote in one entry. Kito, unfortunately, will die at the age of 25.
Alternatively titled A diary with tearsthe book has sold 1.1 million copies in Japan. It was such a hit that it was even made into a TV series in 2005 – variations of the title include 1 Liter without Namida, A liter of tearsand Ichi Ritoru no Namida – and a movie the same year. The TV series was very popular in Southeast Asia at the time, and having personally watched it, I was moved.
Like water for chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Laura Esquivel is one of the most popular authors in Mexico, but not so much in the United States. His book, Like water for chocolateoriginally published in 1989 as Como agua para chocolate, is one of his most widely read books. It was even adapted to the cinema in 1992.
The story is a roller coaster, set on a ranch in Mexico during the 20th century. It is the romantic but tragic story of Tita and Pedro, who cannot marry because of a family tradition. Being the youngest child in the family, Tita must take care of her violent mother, Mama Elena, until the death of the matriarch. Mama Elena instead asks Pedro to marry Rosaura, Tita’s older sister. And because Pedro doesn’t want to part with Tita, the one he really loves between the two sisters, he accepts Mama Elena’s request.
ABNKKBSNPLAko? by Bob Ong
In the Philippines, Bob Ong is one of the most popular authors. They are well known in the local book industry, and every reader in said country may have heard their name once or twice.
But since Bob Ong released his first album ABNKKBSNPLAko? in the early 2000s, they did not reveal their real identity, which is protected by a pseudonym. When asked why they preferred to be anonymous, even after publishing more than 15 books, they replied that “it was probably just the concept of not embracing the fame that is foreigner to most people.
In ABNKKBSNPLAko?, which actually means “Aba, nakakabasa na pala ako?” or “Wow, can I actually read now?!” in English, the author writes his “autobiography”. It’s their most popular work to date, and it even got a film adaptation in 2014.
Unfortunately, the book is only available in Filipino.
The posthumous memoirs of Brás Cubas by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, translated by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux
Electrical literature describes Machado de Assis as “Brazil’s Best Classical Writer you’ve never heard of,” and the new yorker asked why he is not “most read.” Indeed, Machado de Assis may not be world famous. But in Brazil, it’s a famous writer and is extremely popular.
In The posthumous memoirs of Brás Cubas, the main character, who died at the age of 64 from pneumonia, tells the story of his life from the day of his death. At times I find the book humorous, witty and strange. “Fifteen pages in Memorias Póstumas de Bras Cubaswhen the narrator, delirious and near death, is swept away by a gruff, talking hippopotamus, I remember putting the book down and looking out the window for breath, delighted and taken aback,” the translator writes in Introduction. .
Considered a masterpiece, the book was published in 1881. In 2020, Penguin Classics published a new English translation.
Amos Lee’s Diary: I Sit, I Write, I Flush the Toilet! by Adeline Foo and Stephanie Wong
It’s a popular children’s book in Singapore, and it’s considered a bestseller there.
First published in 2009, Amos Lee’s Diary follows 9-year-old Amos Lee as he navigates everyday life and his relationship with his family. The writing feels quirky, diary-like, and approachable, which likely appealed to a lot of audiences. Due to the popularity of the book, it was even adapted into a TV shows in Singapore.
It’s the first in a series of books, and Foo has continued to publish follow-ups after its success.
Ang Mga Kuwento nor Lola Basyang nor Severino Reyes by Christine Bellen and various artists
The Tales of Lola Basyang, something of an icon of the children’s book scene in the Philippines, was originally written by Filipino writer Severino Reyes. Lola Basyang is a household name in said country; she’s an old lady (lola) who loves telling fantastic stories to children. The character has also appeared in different forms of media such as film and television.
In the mid-2000s, the classic children’s tales of Lola Basyang were retold by Filipino writer Christine Bellen through a set of picture books, and it was reissued again in 2017. They include short stories such as “The Monkey Prince”, “Fearless Pedro”, and “The Palace of the Dwarves”, among others. The picture books are also accompanied by illustrations by various local artists.
Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
This one was hailed as the “great ugandan novel,” according to The Guardian. Although just published in 2014, the book is already considered a modern classic.
Set in 1750, Kintu is a family saga that tells a bit of the history of Uganda. It follows the main character, Kintu, and his descendants as they try to deal with an ancient curse placed on the clan. The book was the author’s doctoral thesis. It won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2014 and the Windham-Campbell Prize in 2018.
Die Känguru-Chroniken by Marc-Uwe Kling
This is the first book in a hugely popular series in Germany called The Kangaroo Chronicles; its audiobook version sold out million copies in 2020. As it is in German, it never made it to the United States, and although it has a English translationit did not make headlines elsewhere. Die Känguru-Chroniken follows a fictional Marc-Uwe who lives with a talking, politically active kangaroo. Yes, I know it sounds weird and intriguing, but it’s meant to be humorous and satirical. The book has also been adapted for theater and film.
July people by Nadine Gordimer
This one was banned in some schools in South Africa in the early 2000s because of his criticism of the apartheid system. But despite being banned in the African country, it has received rave reviews elsewhere.
In July peoplewhich was published in 1981, Gordimer reimagines an alternative future for South Africa – one in which a civil war will end apartheid.
Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.
For a definitive list of books from around the world, here’s recommended reading: “If you can only read one book per country, make it this.”