Authors From One Country Who Set Books in Another Country

It’s of course interesting to read novels set in countries other than where the reader lives. And those books can be written from two main vantage points.

One is for a novel set in a certain nation to be written by an author from that nation. Such a book most likely offers a local protagonist, deep knowledge of the culture, and so on.

The second vantage point involves novels that are set (or partly set) in countries other than where the authors live. That can often (not always) mean a protagonist from the writer’s country, a more superficial knowledge of the other country’s culture, etc. A non-native character who visits or lives in another nation is usually not truly representative of that country, but there’s the potential positive of the sojourning protagonist being sort of a guide or surrogate who helps readers understand the other country from an outsider perspective.

This blog post will focus on the latter scenario, and an excellent example is Mexico — one of the long/heavily researched novels by American author James Michener (pictured), and a book I’m currently reading.

It stars Norman Clay, a journalist born in Mexico to a Mexican mother and American father who has lived in the U.S. for many years before returning to his native country to write a story about a rivalry between two very different bullfighters. We see Mexico, and learn a lot about its present and past, through Norman’s eyes. Several of the novel’s fully Mexican characters are more interesting than Clay, but he is a guide/surrogate that a good number of American readers might relate to most.

Then we have novels in which we see the U.S. through the eyes of English authors and characters — with two examples being Martin Chuzzlewit (Charles Dickens jump-started sagging serial sales by sending Martin across the ocean) and Paradise News (David Lodge’s Bernard protagonist is a fish-out-of-water visiting Hawaii).

France? English author Charlotte Bronte gave her perspective on that country by setting Villette there. And Scottish author Sir Walter Scott did the same in Quentin Durward — though his perspective was on the France of the 1400s, nearly four centuries before Scott’s novel was written.

Plenty of novels have focused on white people traveling to Africa, for better or often for worse. Two American authors who made that happen with from-the-U.S. characters include Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible and Paul Bowles in The Sheltering Sky.

We also have the interesting case of Buchi Emecheta, the Nigerian-born British author whose semi-autobiographical novel Second Class Citizen is about a Nigerian woman who moves to England. The book was published in 1974, when the author was already in England for 12 years, so we had at that time a British author writing about Nigeria (early in Second Class Citizen) and a Nigerian-born author writing about England (later in that novel).

There’s a similar cultural juxtaposition in The Kite Runner by Afghanistan-born U.S. author Khaled Hosseini, whose family left his native country when the future writer was 11. Hosseini’s novel starts in Afghanistan, moves to the U.S., goes back to Afghanistan, and finally returns to the U.S.

Not a novel, but a book that almost reads like one, is Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad. In that travel book, Twain is a highly observant and drop-dead hilarious guide who gave American readers a look at various European and Mideast countries in the 1860s.

Your favorite novels that fit this topic?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which discusses a pretentious, overpriced hotel coming to my town — is here.

53 thoughts on “Authors From One Country Who Set Books in Another Country

  1. Pearl S. Buck was an American writer and novelist , She spend most of her life in China before 1934.
    Her novel” The Good Earth” was the best-selling fiction book in the United States , won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. In 1938, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpiece.
    She continued to write more and became an advocate of minorities and became women’s advocate.
    What a book it is that is a different China in village life, we still don`t know how village life is there still now.
    Buck challenged the American public by raising consciousness on topics such as racism, sex discrimination and the plight of Asian war children.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve only read one Pearl S. Buck – “Pavilion of Women”, but it was very, very good. I think I may have even thought about it for this topic, but it was after I posted my original comment. Interesting that “The Good Earth” was about peasant life, as all the women in “Pavilion” had money. But the protagonist was old and female, so she had her challenges. I should read more of Pearl S. Buck…

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      • Hi Sue, I have not read ” Pavilion of Women “, I should look for it. Good Earth is such an excellent book , I read it when in college. Pearl S. Buck was a deserving Author to win Nobel Prize.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I was very concentrated on one work project for a while, and started to read again this month. Started with you, Dave. There are a lot of very good examples, but some of my favorites are R.M. Remarque in Paris, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in London, or Slavenka Drakulic in London or USA.

    First author is German one, second is Nigerian, and third is Croatian. Every one of them are from the different period, different backgrounds and it is beautiful to see how they express the atmosphere as the immigrants.

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  3. “Under the Volcano” is set in Mexico, its author, Malcolm Lowry English. “October Ferry to Gabriola”, written by Lowry and prepared for publication after his death by his wife, Margerie Bonner, is set in Canada. His first fiction “Ultramarine”, was an account of his time as a seaman– the setting being mostly international waters, and so, tricky yet possibly pertinent as to qualification for inclusion here.

    “A Tale of Two Cities” by Englishman Charles Dickens is set in Paris and/or France whenever it isn’t set in London and/or England.

    “Salammbo” is set in ancient Carthage, but written by 19th century Frenchman Gustave Flaubert.

    Englishman Lee Child wrote “The Enemy”, set largely in Paris and the past,featuring American Jack Reacher.

    “Under Western Skies” is set in Russia, then Switzerland and written by Polish emigre Joseph Conrad in English.

    Lew Wallace, who served as a general in the US Army during the Civil War, wrote “Ben Hur”, which is set in Jerusalem and Rome in the time of Christ.

    Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote “Tarzan”, set in the African jungle, and “John Carter of Mars” without visiting either place, or knowing much about them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, jhNY, what a fantastic list! And each so well described/summarized. I’ve read only two of those works — “A Tale of Two Cities” and “The Enemy” — though there are several others I’d like to get to. Especially “Under the Volcano.”

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      • Re “Under The Volcano”–Can’t remember who said it, but they made a great point: the first 70-so pages move slowly, much as the water furthest away from circling the drain does– the rest of the book follows this drain-logic, moving faster and faster till down go most. For my money, Lowry makes the most of what Joyce was pointing toward, stream-of-consciousness-wise, even when consciousness is at risk via alcohol– plenty plenty alcohol.

        Rock trivia dept.:
        Pete Brown, in an homage to the novel, wrote “The Consul at Sunset” lyric for Jack Bruce, former Cream bassist/vocalist, on the occasion of Bruce’s third solo lp, “Harmony Row”. It’s got a loose, Latinish sorta feel, with an undercurrent of impending disaster: perfect!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I know I got a little upset in my response to you on Facebook this morning, but I’m sure you know I’m very fond of this blog and the commenters here, including you. I’ve been re-reading the non-fiction book “Woodswoman,” for probably the 3rd or 4th time. I’m in awe how she built pretty much by herself a log cabin in the Adirondacks, then had to move it back by 13 feet or so with the help of a few carpenters and herself when the powers that be decided she was too close to the lake. A very inspiring book, though I could never do what she did.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not a problem, Kat Lit! Debate is good, and we were both polite. 🙂 I was a bit rushed because I was packing for a (columnist) conference. Now at my airport gate.

      “Woodswoman” sounds like an amazing book! I could never do something like that, either. 🙂

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  5. Hi Dave,

    I’ve not read “The Innocents Abroad”, but it sounds a little like “Tom Sawyer Abroad”. While the latter is definitely fiction, it’s also about visiting exotic locations. Though I don’t recall Tom Sawyer actually landing anywhere? He, Huck Finn, and Jim travel over Africa in what I can only assume is a magical hot air balloon. All three boys have some yuge knowledge gaps, which leads to some pretty funny conversations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sue! I’ve never read “Tom Sawyer Abroad”; it sounds extremely…quirky. 🙂 And funny. And very relevant to this topic, even if it wasn’t one of Twain’s major works!

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  6. Hmmmm…. I’m really having to reach into the memory bank for this one 🙂 That is, outside of the many historians I’ve read who’ve written about the World Wars “over there” while they live in the US 🙂 Same goes for a lot of the historical-fiction I’ve read lately that takes place during the wars. Ruta Sepetys is one such author who comes to mind for this – Born in the US (Michigan I think), she has a very strong Baltic heritage, and she’s done some amazing work with WWII historical-fiction, especially in the lesser known areas of the Eastern Front. Her works are definitely worth a read if you can find some.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.! Yes, war books — whether fiction or nonfiction — often take authors to other places. Willa Cather, Hemingway, Mailer, Remarque, Styron, Vonnegut, Wouk, etc., etc. I appreciate the mention of Ruta Sepetys, who I had never heard of. Curious if my local library will have any of her work — I’m heading there tomorrow or Wednesday. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. HI Dave. Hemingway comes to mind. One of my favorites is “A Moveable Feast” set in France, Paris. I have not read but ‘The Sun Also Rises” applies to Spain. His adventures culinary and otherwise in these countries. He was a newspaper reporter that got his interest in war coverage, travel, new cultures, food, etc..
    Cuba can also add.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Michele! Very relevant Hemingway mention. I have read only some of Hemingway’s work, but I get the impression that he set a higher percentage of his books in countries (Spain, France, etc.) other than his native country (the U.S.) than many other authors. And, yes, he was a journalist, too — before and after he started writing novels.

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  8. Some great books there Dave! Speaking of thrillers set in foreign places, Mark Dawson’s thrillers are often set in exotic locales. “Tempest,” the one I just finished, is set in Hong Kong and Cuba. Not sure if he traveled there or not, but it feels very detailed.

    For a fun foreign take on the US, the Soviet writers Ilf and Petrov describe their journey across the US in the 1920s or maybe early 1930s in “One-Story-High America.”

    And speaking of Americans traveling to Africa in fiction, in the sequels to “The Color Purple” we learn about how Celie’s sister and children travel to Africa to be missionaries there, and about the ambiguous experience of African-Americans in Africa.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Elena!

      Yes, authors may or may not travel to a place they write about, but good novelists can make it work even if they don’t.

      “One-Story-High America” sounds absolutely fascinating. A flip side of that would be Emma Goldman, in her terrific autobiography, describing her 1919-1923 time in the Soviet Union after being deported from the U.S.

      I had no idea Alice Walker wrote sequels to “The Color Purple”! Very interesting.There are quite a few novels about white characters going to Africa; good to hear about African-American characters traveling there, too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have not read Emma Goldman’s book, but it sounds fascinating! As a corollary to that *and* the discussion of white writers writing about Africa, I believe Langston Hughes wrote a book about his trip to the USSR, which I really must read some day.

        Yes, Alice Walker wrote two sequels to “The Color Purple,” “The Temple of My Familiar” and “Possessing the Secret of Joy,” about Celie’s children. They maybe don’t have quite the impact that “The Color Purple” does, but they’re still very much worth reading. They delve quite a bit into their experiences in Africa, both the good and the bad.

        Liked by 2 people

  9. Dave, I definitely agree with you about “The Poisonwood Bible,'” one of my favorite novels. Kingsolver did a lot of research for this book, which shows itself time and again. I’ll have to read “The Sheltering Sky” one of these days, because of my abiding fascination with Africa. Off the top of my head I can’t come up with anything else. Jane Austen never went anywhere outside of England, and Agatha Christie set many of her novels, esp. Hercule Poirot, in other countries, but I doubt that’s what you’re going for. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Kat Lit! It definitely helps when an author does a lot of research when setting a novel in another country (continent), and you’re right that Barbara Kingsolver did plenty for the stupendously good “The Poisonwood Bible.” (Also one of the better book titles.)

      Mystery novels set in other countries can definitely add another level of fascination to things. I’ve enjoyed the few Jack Reacher novels Lee Child set outside of the U.S. (in England, France, and Germany).

      Liked by 1 person

        • Somewhat off-topic, but I’ve read many novels/thrillers/
          suspense/detective books by Linda Fairstein, but have come to recognize that she was the prosecutor of the Five Central Park “Killers” and I don’t have anything left in me to decide she was anywhere close to being right. Especially since Trump wanted them to have the death penalty. I’ll stay by this for a while, and in the meantime will throw out any books by this prosecutor! That’s about all I can do, and I don’t remember anything she ever said to excuse herself for this miscarriage of justice!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Kat Lit, I agree with Elena that “No Middle Name” is an excellent introduction to Jack Reacher. The stories — while not as gripping as most of the novels — are quite good.

            As for Linda Fairstein, I’ve never read her, but I agree that, in the absence of any other way for her to be punished for railroading five innocent young men of color into long prison terms, a boycott of her books is a very good idea. Yes, like Trump, she has never apologized for her “Central Park Five” actions.

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            • Yes, I’d like her say a Mea Culpa but I don’t think she’ll ever do so. I plan to write her publisher about this to see if that hurts her in the pocketbook, especially with the new movie coming out on Netflix about the Central Park Five.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Kat Lit, some people indeed need to learn how to say “I’m sorry.” I hope she’s feeling at least a little internal remorse, but who knows?

                Even if she doesn’t sell another book, I’m sure Linda Fairstein will remain quite affluent. But an excellent idea to write her (former) publisher.

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  10. I think I’ve mentioned “A Single Pebble” by John Hersey a few times. He was an English writer who was born in China to missionary parents who moved back to England when he was 10. His tale of an English engineer traveling up the Yangtse River is an absolutely haunting tale of old China that necessarily will disappear when a dam in built. He wrote this novel in 1958 and it was a portent of things to come. That became a reality in 2012. The project displaced approximately 1.5 million people from land they had known for centuries.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, lulabelle! Great, evocative comment about a novel that definitely fits this topic. Haunting indeed. 😦 I will look for “A Single Pebble” in my local library again. (And I suppose a person can never have enough anonymity sometimes. 🙂 )

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        • John Hershey also wrote “Hiroshima”, an early (1946) account of the bombing, as told through the experiences of six survivors, which first appeared in the New Yorker, and ran nearly the entirety of the issue. Someplace around this repository of yesteryear I call my apartment I’ve got a little hardcover copy, published soon after.

          From the interwebs today I learned Hershey was a driver for Sinclair Lewis in 1937, “but he chafed at his duties.”

          Liked by 1 person

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