7 Novels about Americans of Color Living Abroad
"Eat, Pray, Love" is overrated, read these books instead
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Did you know that there’s an entire genre of books dedicated to white people going to Nepal to find themselves? I didn’t either! But it’s not so surprising since the release of Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love, and its 2010 film adaptation, which has caused an uptick in tourism to Asia. Here’s the narrative: a wealthy white woman travels to “exotic” (brown) locales in to “slum” it with other expats in ashrams, only to leave with an Instagram post using local people as props without an actual life-changing epiphany (beyond the whole tired “these people are so happy with so little” white guilt mantra).
Instead of reading these cliched (and boring) narratives of poverty tourism, why not pivot to books relaying the experiences of American people of color going abroad? Let’s take the narratives of people of color and see how their experiences—whether it’s discovering their ancestral homelands or starting afresh in a new country—translate into new perspectives.
Eat, Pray, Love had its moment, but it’s time to move onto these captivating novels about Americans of color traveling and living abroad.
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
This enticing novel about espionage and seduction takes place in 1986 and jumps from New York to Burkina Faso to Martinique. A young black woman who works in the FBI is assigned to a case involving the president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara, whose Marxist agenda is seen as threatening to the American government. With her fearless voice, Wilkinson examines patriotism, nationalism and sacrifice on an intimate level.
Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros
Caramelo follows the Reyes’ family’s annual summer road trip from Chicago to Mexico City through the perspective of the youngest daughter and only girl, Lala. Lala’s problems range from dealing with six, rambunctious older brothers to living between borders, but those become minuscule when she discovers her misunderstanding of her grandmother’s life. Cisneros dissects storytelling, tradition, and family in her seventh book, published almost twenty years after The House on Mango Street.
The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung
A gifted mathematician from the Midwest is scrutinized for her mixed-race background in both her personal and professional lives. She goes on to be one of the few women graduates of MIT in the 1960s and then to complete a fellowship in Bonn, Germany, where she plans on solving the challenging Riemann hypothesis. Math, family, and legacy are beautifully explored in Chung’s most recent novel.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
What happens when a Turkish American freshman at Harvard attempts to flirt with her crush over email in 1995? Quite obviously, she follows her unrequited love all the way to Hungary! The Idiot is a funny, poignant novel about a perceptive, yet sometimes clueless, young woman navigating her way in Cambridge and the tiny Hungarian village where she teaches English for a summer.
Black Deutschland by Darryl Pinckney
Also a story about fleeing Chicago, Black Deutschland follows a young Black man recently released from rehab who is heading to Berlin with the hope of starting afresh and staying sober. Lusting over the queer, dreamy life in Berlin he’s been envisioning, Jed is quickly doused with a splash of reality. While he does indulge in nightlife, sex, and love, he also deals with a city wrought with racism.
Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
Darius the Great Is Not Okay is a candid and tender story about a biracial high school student with depression. Feeling isolated from both his family and white classmates in Portland, Darius expects no different when he goes to Iran for the first time. This changes when he meets Sohrab, the boy next door who integrates him into everyday life in Iran by introducing him to local games and customs and helping him understand real friendship.
The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee
Three American women living in Hong Kong make up the expat community of wealthy people living in the city-state. One of them, a Korean American who’s recently graduated from Columbia, hopes to start anew after a mysterious tragedy. Her life converges with those of a rich housewife and a woman wishing to conceive a child in this novel about grief, identity, and connection.