When I see articles recommending books about traveling, they’re usually stories about white people traveling to a romantic and/or exotic locale and “finding themselves” by learning that other cultures do, in fact, exist. But when I think about travel literature, I have slightly different parameters in mind. Themes of migration and odyssey, of finding home in a new place or inside oneself inspire me more than another memoir that treats the world as a plot device for one person’s spiritual development (that is not at all a pointed criticism of a certain popular travel memoir).
You might notice some books that are usually very popular on this type of list are not here. That is for the reasons listed above, and also, I hate Jack Kerouac. (“That’s not writing; that’s typing,” said Truman Capote, queen of sick burns) Ok? Moving on, then.
These are my favorite books about making a journey, sometimes between countries and sometimes between synapses.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz
On first glance, this book is a straight-forward migration tale of one family trying to escape the brutal Trujillo regime of the Dominican Republic, and one nerdy, outcast kid trying to get laid. But look closer and you’ll see a story of how to transform and heal yourself from the destructive powers of white supremacy and toxic masculinity.
Pretty much anything by Haruki Murakami
Murakami loves to start his books with a protagonist that must find out why his/her ordinary life has suddenly been jarred into un-reality. He often uses the motif of seemingly ordinary places as portals into alternate realities, which help the protagonist on his/her journey. While many of his novels stay within Tokyo, sometimes his characters venture to Kagawa, Hokkaido, Hawaii, or Greece. But the most important journeys are not to specific places, but states of mind that allow transformations and epiphanies to occur. Start with Wild Sheep Chase or Sputnik Sweetheart, then if you’re still interested try Kafka on the Shore, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84 (which clocks in at over 1,000 pages). Then if you’re as obsessed as I am, read every book he’s ever published. (There are a lot. He’s quite prolific.)
The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
Classic novel of what to do when the whole earth is bulldozed and you’re one of the two humans who managed to get away. Part satirical comedy, part sci-fi inspired space adventure. Renowned for it’s silly answers to life’s serious questions and Adams’ skillfully use of wordplay and playful metaphors. Don’t forget to bring your towel.
Americahnah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
You might know Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from her sampling on Beyonce’s “***Flawless”, and yes, she is just as cool an author as you would expect. This book tells the tale of two Nigerian high school sweethearts and the very different paths their lives take as one migrates to the U.S. and one to the U.K. A fantastic novel about the culture shock of moving somewhere new, but also the culture shock of coming home to a place (or person) radically different from how you left it.
Orlando, Virginia Woolf
If anyone can describe the indescribable yearnings of the human spirit through perfectly crafted metaphors, it’s Virginia Woolf. She explores how roles and expectations for men and women have fared through almost 500 years of English history, as well as what it means to be a woman, a writer, and a poet. Also, there is a brief sojourn to Turkey. You know, if you need to have an exotic locale. Other Virginia Woolf novels I highly recommend: Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.
The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño
In 1975, two aspiring poets, their new friend, and a prostitute run away from Mexico City and head north to the Sonora Desert to find their favorite poet, who mysteriously disappeared from the literary scene decades earlier. Some unspecified number of years later, someone traverses the globe talking to every person these two aspiring poets have come across since 1968. The perfect novel for those who wander without knowing exactly what they’re looking for.
Girl at War, Sara Novic
I read this novel a month ago and was absolutely sucked in. I finished it in about a day, despite the city of Łódź’s best attempts to drain the batteries on all my electronic devices as quickly as possible. Set during the beginning of the Yugoslav Civil War and 2001, we follow Ana Juric’s experience in Croatia in 1991, and how the war has followed her as she moved to the United States. I found it especially powerful as a story of such a recent historical event that is barely understood in the U.S. It’s also great to read a ‘war story’ with a female protagonist instead of the usual tropes of manhood and machismo.
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
I remember hating Steinbeck when I had to read his novels in middle school, but when I read The Grapes of Wrath after college, I was struck by the beauty of Steinbeck’s writing and it’s jarring political views. Chronicling one family’s journey from their tattered homestead in Oklahoma to the retched conditions as migrant farm workers in California, Steinbeck holds nothing back in viscerally describing the plight of poverty during the Great Depression. With historical distance, it’s easy to overlook how harshly Steinbeck is criticizing the ways the rich (and to some extent, the government) let the poor suffer, but the message still resonates with our current economic reality.
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
This book is difficult to explain without giving away too much of what made the story so enjoyable to read, but like all good migration stories, it encompasses the story and struggles of a whole family in one family member. The narrator jumps from the remains of the Ottoman Empire, to suburban Detroit, to San Francisco and then Berlin to tell a story of family history, trying to fit in, and finding one’s own true self all layered within each other. I feel like this explanation is not very good, but I never claimed to be Virginia Woolf. If you want good writing, go read the books I recommended. They might not make you book a ticket to Italy or India or Bali (hem hem), but you’ll definitely take a good journey within yourself.