Unfortunately, not all of us are Wonder Woman (or Gal Gadot for the matter), so most women, despite comprising 50% of the world’s population, are cursed with having their stories routinely ignored.
Recently, the debate about American Dirt has inspired readers to look up books by #OwnVoices authors. I thought I’d take it a step further and suggest some the most popular books written by women from around the world.
While these books are not the “top” books, which is subjective anyway, they are “popular” books as measured via Goodreads. Most books (with a few exceptions) have a minimum of 3.5 stars from 9,000 ratings or more (as of February 9, 2020).
I chose four female authors hailing from different countries within six of the seven continents (apologies to Antarctica). This is by no means a comprehensive list, but hopefully it will be a good starting point for anyone wishing to read a book by a female #OwnVoices author.
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
4.32 stars from 89,319 ratings
Adichie is an icon in her own right. In Half of a Yellow Sun, she deftly takes readers to a key moment in Nigerian history: Biafra’s struggle for independence. Readers are guided between the lives of three characters: a young houseboy, a beautiful mistress, and a shy Englishman, all of whose loyalties and wits are tested as Nigerian troops advance.
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire
4.32 stars from 12,643 ratings
Shire’s collection of stunning poetry is actually her debut pamphlet in which she works through the female experience as well as the religious experience. Instead of a summary, here’s a two line poem to give you a glimpse into Shire’s heart:
“To my daughter I will say
‘when the men come, set yourself on fire.’”
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
3.73 stars from 16,757 ratings
Bulawayo’s debut novel follows the trek of young Darling from Zimbabwe to America. Darling always dreams of Before. Before her home was destroyed and Before her school closed. Given the chance, she heads to America, only to arrive and realize that her journey has just begun.
Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi
4.05 stars from 9,480 ratings
Originally published in Arabic, Woman at Point Zero is the tragic story of Firdaus, who is on death row for killing a pimp in Cairo. Firdaus tells her story to a female psychiatrist in prison, an account that quickly turns into a tale of how every man she has encountered left a mark on her.
The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
4.16 stars from 27,946 ratings
The Mahabharata is one of India’s greatest epics and a cornerstone of world literature. The story revolves around the deeds of five legendary brothers called the Pandavas. But Divakaruni shifts the perspective to their shared wife, Panchaali, the princess birthed by fire. From civil war to palace intrigue, readers will see the epic from the eyes of the fiery princess and finally get a glimpse into her heart.
Empress Orchid by Anchee Min
3.88 stars from 21,363 ratings
This is the story of Empress Dowager Cixi, a controversial but important figure in Chinese history, who at age 17 competed to be one of the Emperor’s wives. However, she was chosen as a concubine and had to quickly learn the art of seduction in the Forbidden City while all of China collapsed around her.
The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo
3.87 stars from 23,085 ratings
Choo, a fourth generation Malaysian of Chinese descent, transports readers to colonial Malaysia where we meet Ji Lin, an ambitious dancehall girl who dreams of being a doctor, and Ren, an innocent orphan, whose lives are thrown together when one of Ji Lin’s dance partners leaves her with a severed finger…and winds up dead. Unbeknownst to Ji Lin, the finger belongs to Ren’s deceased master, who tasked the boy with finding it in 49 days so his soul can be at peace.
Out by Natsuo Kirino
3.92 stars from 21,876 ratings
What drives some women to commit extreme acts of violence? A young woman from the Tokyo suburbs strangles her deadbeat husband and somehow convinces her coworkers to help cover up the crime. A game of cat and mouse with law enforcement ensues, making readers wonder at the pressures and prejudices faced by women and the strength in their friendships.
The Thorn Birds by Collen McCullough
4.23 stars from 300,154 ratings
The Thorn Birds is a sweeping family saga about the Cleary clan who uproot their lives and move to Drogheda. Spanning decades, the story follows Meggie, the only daughter, and her love for an ambitious priest.
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
4.02 stars from 373,056 ratings
Everyone and their mother has read this book, and for good reason. We travel to 1926 Australia where Tom and Isabel, a childless couple, come across a boat carrying a dead man and a breathing baby. Isabel convinces Tom to claim the baby for their own, which they do and live as a family until the outside world interferes.
Australian Books by Aboriginal Women
These next 2 Australian writers are Aboriginal women with thoughtful stories that haven’t received enough attention. I’m breaking my Goodreads rule here because I was unable to find female Aboriginal authors meeting the criteria, which I believe is a symptom of a larger issue in which Aboriginal stories, and especially those written by women, are ignored.
Carpentaria by Alexis Wright
3.62 stars from 869 reviews
Alexis Wright’s story follows the powerful Phantom family who are leaders of the Westend Pricklebush people and hail from the town of Desperance. The novel explores the disputes between family members and white officials from neighboring towns.
My Place by Sally Morgan
3.89 stars from 4,805 ratings
Morgan’s autobiography spans three generations and tells the story of how and why her family pretended to be Indian instead of what they were: Aboriginal. Once Morgan discovers her true heritage, she embarks on a quest to discover her family’s past and why they were brainwashed into thinking that being Aboriginal “was something to be ashamed of.”
The Moomins and the Great Flood by Tove Jansson
4.03 stars from 11,285 ratings
Meet the moomins, a carefree, adventurous family of trolls who live in Moominvalley. We follow Moominmamma and Moomintroll’s quest to find Moominpappa, who had gone on an adventure of his own and disappeared. You may have guessed that this is a children’s story, which it is. Moomins and the Great Flood is the first of a series of famous children’s books, which were the basis of numerous television series and even a Finnish theme park.
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich
4.43 stars from 28,530 ratings
We have all heard about the disastrous nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl and may have even read some of the reporting on the communications failures. However, we rarely have an account of the people who were forced out of their homes. Alexievich is a journalist who interviewed hundreds of locals affected by the disaster, from firefighters to everyday people, bringing the human story to the forefront.
Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy
4.03 stars from 56,995 ratings
Friendships naturally evolve over time, but no one ever thinks about that in the moment. Binchy has done the thinking in her novel about two best friends who get into their dream school in Dublin. However, as it always goes with college, the duo are thrown together with a new circle of friends who show them freedom and passion.
The Door by Magda Szabó
4.06 stars from 14,502 ratings
Szabó masterfully explores a relationship between a busy writer, Magda, and her enigmatic housekeeper, Emerence, who has a tragic, mysterious past. Over the course of two decades, the women develop a relationship and Magda (and the reader) slowly learn that there’s more to Emerence than meets the eye.
Delirium by Laura Restrepo
3.89 stars from 5,127 ratings
Restrepo’s novel delves into the minds of four people: beautiful Agustina caught up in her own madness; passionate Aguilar, her husband who’s determined to rescue her; Midas, Agustina’s old flame who is now a criminal; and Nicolás, her grandfather. Restrepo weaves their lives together, showing readers how everyday people struggle for sanity in the wake of war and corruption.
Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo
3.96 stars from 454 ratings
A collection of short fiction, Ocampo’s book is magical and slightly terrifying. Stories include everything from doppelgängers to a house made of sugar. To convince you even more to read Thus Were Their Faces, Ocampo was famously denied an Argentinian literary honor because her work was deemed “far too cruel.”
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
4.23 stars from 173,362 ratings
A seminal work in Latin American literature and magical realism, The House of the Spirits follows the Trueba clan through the decades as they face internal struggles of familial relationships and external struggles of revolution.
Blood of the Dawn by Claudia Salazar Jiménez
3.89 stars from 221 ratings
Taking place during a military insurgency in Peru called the Shining Path period, Jiménez relays the tales of three women whose lives are intertwined and then ripped apart during this “time of fear.”
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
3.95 stars from 315,082 ratings
A #1 bestseller in both America and Mexico, Esquivel’s novel relates the story of the De La Garza family. By Mexican tradition Tita, the youngest daughter, has to forgo marriage and take care of her elderly mother. As fate would have it, Tita falls in love with Pedro, who desperately marries her sister to be close to Tita.
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
3.88 stars from 26,240 ratings
“We come from a place, where in one instant, you can lose your father and all your other dreams.” Young Sophie Caco is sent from her village of Croix-des-Rosets in Haiti, where she was raised by her Tante Atie, to New York to be reunited with her mother. But the reunion unearths shameful secrets that Sophie can only reckon with by returning back home to Haiti.
United States of America
Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
3.77 stars from 16,725 ratings
Tayo is a young man who was held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese during World War II. Still reeling from the horrors he was forced to endure, Tayo is eventually able to return home to the Laguna Pueblo reservation, still feeling like a prisoner. But instead of seeking refuge in alcohol and drugs like his comrades, he searches for it in the history and traditions of his people.
Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson
4.03 stars from 4,864 ratings
The homeland of the Haisa people lies 500 miles from Vancouver, where Lisamarie is desperately searching for her lost brother who disappeared from his fishing boat. The novel relays the magic and troubles in her life as she ventures down the Douglas Channel searching for him.
Editor’s Note: This piece was revised to reflect that Svetlana Alexievich is from Belarus, not Russia.