This week’s Sapphic Reading Challenge features sapphic books set in a country you don’t live in.
One of the great things about books is that they allow you to “visit” new places, even during a time when you might not be able to travel. For this category, choose a sapphic book that takes place in a country that you don’t currently live in. Depending on where you live, that could mean a book set in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, etc. Maybe pick a book set in a place that you’d like to visit or one that takes place in a country you don’t know much about.
If you can, choose a book that is written by a native of the country in which it’s set or at least someone who has spent considerable time there so you know it’s written in an authentic way.
Read up on the rules of the Sapphic Reading Challenge
If you are only discovering the Sapphic Reading Challenge now, the good news is you can still join! It’s a year-long challenge, so it runs until December 31, 2021. Read up on the rules of the Sapphic Reading Challenge and download your PDF so you can keep track of the books you read this year.
30 sapphic books set in a country you don’t live in
I put together a list of 30 sapphic books that are set in countries all over the world. The list is in alphabetical order, starting with Antarctica, Australia & Bangladesh and ending with Syria, Taiwan & Wales. I hope you find some new favorites!
The Vintage Book of International Lesbian Fiction by Naomi Holoch and Joan Nestle (Stories from 27 different countries)
We follow an Irish woman as she travels through time in search of a wronged maiden, and anticipate the harrowing fate of a married Indian woman who pursues pleasure with her female lover under the shadow of her husbands suspicious rage. We meet a teacher in Barcelona who locks herself up in her grandmother’s house with her young Columbian student, and witness a Slovenian woman’s rendezvous with her long dead lover.
This collection includes the work of familiar writers, as well as a number never before published in English. From the West Indies to Eastern Europe, the Middle East to Southeast Asia, Latin America to South Africa, the distinctive stories found in these pages evoke the diverse political, cultural, emotional, and sexual landscapes of each writer’s life. A groundbreaking volume from the Lamda Award-winning editors Naomi Holoch and Joan Nestle, who also wrote the introduction, this collections evokes the universal urgency of persistent desire.
Rising from Ash by Jax Meyer (Antarctica)
Phoenix Murray has had enough. Enough of her incompetent boss. Enough of her addict father always asking for money. Enough of the struggle to survive. So when her aunt offers her a job as a cook at the South Pole, she jumps at it. Even when she’s asked to avoid casual sex to keep the peace in the tiny community.
Astrophysicist Ashley Bennett can’t wait for her year at the South Pole. Not only will it allow her to focus on her PhD research, it’s a key step in her plan to become a Mars colonist. Avoiding the complications of dating in a society that doesn’t understand asexuality is a bonus.
When Phoenix and Ash meet, they can’t help but push each other’s buttons. Phoenix doesn’t understand that her confident sexuality puts Ash on edge while Ash’s curt formality triggers Phoenix’s insecurities about her upbringing. But living at the bottom of the world means there’s nowhere to run, and as they find common ground, their differences aren’t nearly the hindrance they thought.
Rising From Ash is the first book in the Forged by Fire series, a slow burn contemporary lesbian romance that shows the power of intimacy to form a new life.
A Heart This Big by Cheyenne Blue (Australia)
Australian country girl Nina Pellegrini runs a program for city kids to experience a taste of rural life at Banksia Farm. But when a child is hurt and a lawsuit threatens, Nina is determined to find the best legal assistance to help her save the farm.
Enter high-flying lawyer Leigh Willoughby, whose city world is far from the farm’s chaotic mix of kids and animals. She certainly doesn’t have time for small cases that don’t pay or farm visits that wreck her cool—and her clothes.
Still, the warm-hearted Nina and her challenging, twelve-year-old daughter, Phoebe, are awfully hard to say no to. What on earth has she gotten herself into?
Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam (Bangladesh)
For as long as she can remember, Ella has longed to feel at home. Orphaned as a child after her parents’ murder, and afflicted with hallucinations at dusk, she’s always felt more at ease in nature than with people. She traveled from Bangladesh to Brooklyn to live with the Saleems: her uncle Anwar, aunt Hashi, and their beautiful daughter, Charu, her complete opposite. One summer, when Ella returns home from college, she discovers Charu’s friend Maya—an Islamic cleric’s runaway daughter—asleep in her bedroom.
As the girls have a summer of clandestine adventure and sexual awakenings, Anwar—owner of a popular botanical apothecary—has his own secrets, threatening his thirty-year marriage. But when tragedy strikes, the Saleems find themselves blamed. To keep his family from unraveling, Anwar takes them on a fated trip to Bangladesh, to reckon with the past, their extended family, and each other.
Broken Faith by Lois Cloarec Hart (Canada)
Emotional wounds aren’t always apparent, and those that haunt Marika and Rhiannon are deep and lasting.
On the surface, Marika appears to be a wealthy, successful lawyer, while Rhiannon is a reclusive, maladjusted loner. But Marika, in her own way, is as damaged as the younger Rhiannon. When circumstances throw them together one summer, they begin to reach out, each finding unexpected strengths in the other.
However, even as inner demons are gradually vanquished and old hurts begin to heal, evil in human form reappears. The cruelly enigmatic Cass has used and controlled Marika in the past, and she aims to do so again.
Can Marika find it within herself to break free? Can she save her young friend from Cass’ malevolent web? With the support of remarkable friends, the pair fights to break free—of their crippling pasts and the woman who will own them, or kill them.
A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar (Egypt & Kuwait)
Born in 1970s Boston to an Egyptian-Greek mother and a Palestinian father, the rebellious Nidali—whose name is a feminization of the word “struggle”—soon moves to a very different life in Kuwait. There the family leads a mildly eccentric middle-class existence until the Iraqi invasion drives them first to Egypt and then to Texas.
London Calling by Clare Lydon (England)
Jess Sharp’s life hasn’t exactly gone according to plan. She’s 32, unemployed, and single after a devastating breakup. She’s also left Australia for London to live in her parents’ spare room. Her chaotic life seems to be spiraling until she meets someone who could be a game-changer.
She’s optimistic after a wildly successful first date, but far too much tequila and the ghosts of girlfriends past may drag her far below her lowest point. Can she win the race for romance without tripping?
Fair Play by Tove Jansson (Finland)
Mari is a writer and Jonna is an artist, and they live at opposite ends of a big apartment building, their studios connected by a long attic passageway. They have argued, worked, and laughed together for decades. Yet they’ve never really stopped taking each other by surprise. Fair Play shows us Mari and Jona’s intertwined lives as they watch Fassbinder films and Westerns, critique each other’s work, spend time on a solitary island (recognizable to readers of Jansson’s The Summer Book), travel through the American Southwest, and turn life into nothing less than art.
French Kissing (Season One) by Harper Bliss (France)
Long-time partners Nadia & Juliette are estranged.
Claire hasn’t had a serious girlfriend in years.
And Steph has the hots for a new, but very forbidden high-profile client.
Can four women navigate love and friendship in their beautiful city of Paris?
Paper Love by Jae (Germany)
Susanne Wolff isn’t thrilled when her mother sends her all the way across the country to Freiburg to save her uncle’s stationery store from bankruptcy. Freiburg is too provincial for her taste, and besides, pen and paper are outdated anyway.
Anja Lamm, Paper Love’s only full-time employee, takes an instant dislike to the arrogant, digital-loving snob who’s supposed to be her temporary boss.
But thanks to a meddling cat, a business trip to a stationery fair, and an armada of origami boats, Anja soon starts to see beneath Susanne’s aloof exterior, and Susanne discovers how sexy pens and notebooks can be—at least when Anja handles them.
As the end of Susanne’s three-month stay approaches, will she stick to her plan to leave, or will she open her heart to more than just paper love?
Falling into Place by Sheryn Munir (India)
Romance is not for Tara. Embittered after a college fling, she vows to never fall in love again–especially since she believes there’s no future for same-sex love in her home in urban India. Then, one rain-drenched evening, an insane decision brings the bubbly Sameen into her life and everything changes. Sameen is beautiful, a breath of fresh air…and almost certainly straight. All Tara’s carefully built-up defences start to crumble, one after the other. But is this relationship doomed before it can even start?
If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan (Iran)
Seventeen-year-old Sahar has been in love with her best friend, Nasrin, since they were six. They’ve shared stolen kisses and romantic promises. But Iran is a dangerous place for two girls in love–Sahar and Nasrin could be beaten, imprisoned, even executed. So they carry on in secret until Nasrin’s parents suddenly announce that they’ve arranged for her marriage.
Then Sahar discovers what seems like the perfect solution: homosexuality may be a crime, but to be a man trapped in a woman’s body is seen as nature’s mistake, and sex reassignment is legal and accessible. Sahar will never be able to love Nasrin in the body she wants to be loved in without risking their lives, but is saving their love worth sacrificing her true self?
Landing by Emma Donoghue (Ireland & Canada)
Síle is a stylish citizen of the new Dublin, a veteran flight attendant who’s traveled the world. Jude is a twenty-five-year-old archivist, stubbornly attached to Ireland, Ontario, the tiny town in which she was born and raised. When Jude meets Síle on her first transatlantic plane trip, the spark between them is instant.
After a coffee shared at Heathrow Airport, both women return to their lives—but neither can forget their encounter. Over the next year, Jude and Síle connect through emails, phone calls, letters, and the occasional visit. But no matter how passionate, every long-distance relationship comes to a crossroads, because you can’t have a happily ever after when the one you love is a world apart . . .
A Small Country About to Vanish by Victoria Avilan (Israel)
This sweeping novel follows childhood sweethearts Rona and Shelli as they come of age and face impossible choices. Passion and heartbreak come alive in this lyrical exploration of love, friendship, and family in Israel.
A Small Country about to Vanish is Rona and Shelli’s love-hate relationship with an ancient piano, each other and their difficult homeland – a country physically too small and politically too volatile to maintain its own existence.
Wise and compassionate Rona believes in fairness and equality and shows a rare ability to feel empathy for her supposed enemies, while her friends and family want security first. Shelli, an avid reader of Holocaust literature, raises old but relevant questions. Must history repeat itself? How do we know when the political pot of hatred has boiled beneath us, making it necessary to leave our belongings behind and relocate, to save ourselves and our family?
Bliss by Fiona Zedde (Jamaica)
Bliss Sinclair’s life of dull routine and unhappiness makes her imagination the only place she can find fulfillment. Until she meets Regina, a provocative writer who pulls her out of her head and into a sensuously real world alive with flavors and sensations beyond any she’d ever imagined. This real world is exciting and rich with irresistible pleasures, but Sinclair quickly learns these pleasures are not what they seem.
She discovers that lust can simply be another illusion, and passion without love can poison just as easily as it redeems. To cleanse herself of Regina’s poison, she escapes to Jamaica, the place where she was born, in hopes that the sun and ocean breezes will heal both old and new wounds. But among the brilliant flowers and crystal waters of the island, Sinclair finds ghosts from her past as well as strangers who challenge her very understanding of life and love.
From hidden grottos bubbling with desire to dangerous streets where violence is just a breath away, Sinclair must fight for the love she deserves, fight for herself, and for the life of satisfaction that was meant to be hers all along.
My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Nagata Kabi (Japan)
The candid tell-all of a young woman’s struggles with depression and sexuality that has taken the internet by storm!
I Can’t Think Straight by Shamim Sarif (Jordan)
Tala, a London-based Palestinian, is preparing for her elaborate Middle Eastern wedding when she meets Leyla, a young British Indian woman who is dating her best friend. Spirited Christian Tala and shy Muslim Leyla could not be more different from each other, but the attraction is immediate and goes deeper than friendship.
But Tala is not ready to accept the implications of the choice her heart has made for her and escapes back to Jordan, while Leyla tries to move on with her new-found life, to the shock of her tradition-loving parents. As Tala’s wedding day approaches, simmering tensions come to boiling point and the pressure mounts for Tala to be true to herself.
Not Yet Uhuru by Dolar Vasani (Kenya)
A collection of contemporary illustrated lesbian love stories. Unique, empathic, playful and with lots of humour. All stories paint an evocative picture of the search for sexual expression and freedom, highlighting the lived realities of women who love women, crossing the cultural, age and societal boundaries.
There’s something in this book for all women, gay or straight, young or old, from all backgrounds – the characters are honest and relatable.
Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta (Nigeria)
One day in 1968, at the height of the Biafran civil war, Ijeoma’s father is killed and her world is transformed forever. Separated from her grief-stricken mother, she meets another young lost girl, Amina, and the two become inseparable. Theirs is a relationship that will shake the foundations of Ijeoma’s faith, test her resolve and flood her heart.
In this masterful novel of faith, love and redemption, Okparanta takes us from Ijeoma’s childhood in war torn Biafra, through the perils and pleasures of her blossoming sexuality, her wrong turns, and into the everyday sorrows and joys of marriage and motherhood. As we journey with Ijeoma we are drawn to the question: what is the value of love and what is the cost?
A triumphant love story written with beauty and delicacy, Under the Udala Tree is a hymn to those who’ve lost and a prayer for a more compassionate world. It is a work of extraordinary beauty that will enrich your heart.
Bunny Finds a Friend by Hazel Yeats (Netherlands)
It’s close to Christmas in Amsterdam, and Cara Jong isn’t having the best of days. Her girlfriend has left her, and her new job isn’t nearly as glamorous as she hoped it would be. A run-in with Jude Donovan, who’s playing Santa Claus in a department store, does little to lift her spirits, even though there’s clearly an appealing woman hidden beneath Santa’s beard.
When Cara finds out that Jude is actually a well-known author of children’s books, she’s intrigued and decides to attend Jude’s reading. A bizarre misunderstanding breaks the ice between them, and they share a heated kiss that same night.
As the weeks go by, they begin to fall in love and hope to leave past experiences behind. But Cara doesn’t trust her luck in love and soon breaks things off, leaving Jude baffled and broken-hearted.
Can Cara’s meddling sisters and a hilarious road trip convince Cara to go after her happily-ever-after with the writer?
Changing the Script by Lee Winter (New Zealand)
LA-based English indie filmmaker Alex Levitin reluctantly takes a job in New Zealand to save the “worst movie ever”, Shezan: Mistress of the Forest. Things might go easier for her if she didn’t almost run over the standoffish, beautiful local cop on her first day in town. And it’d really help if her film set wasn’t being mysteriously sabotaged.
When Ika Whenu’s Senior Constable Sam Keegan isn’t trying to stamp out a motorcycle gang drug problem afflicting her town, she’s publicly slamming everything about the exploitative film, Shezan, and the Hollywood blow-ins making it. That includes its nerdy, cute director, Alex, who has woeful driving skills to go with her smart mouth.
Against the stunning scenery and chaotic film-set backdrop, attraction flares between the two warring women as they’re forced to work together to find the set saboteur.
Blind Goddess (Hanne Wilhelmsen #1) by Anne Holt (Norway)
A drug dealer is battered to death in the outskirts of Oslo. A young Dutch student, covered in blood, walks aimlessly through the streets of central Oslo. He is taken into custody, but refuses to speak.
Five days later a shady criminal lawyer called Hans Olsen is murdered. The two deaths don’t seem related, but Detective Inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen is unconvinced. Soon, she uncovers a link between the bodies: Olsen defended the drug dealer.
But there are powerful forces working against Hanne; a conspiracy that reaches far beyond a crooked lawyer and a small-time dealer. The investigation will take her into the offices of the most powerful men in Norway – and even put her own life at risk…
Don’t Tell My Mother by Brigitte Bautista (Philippines)
With an overly zealous mother as her guide, 19-year-old Sam has never had problems navigating through Christian suburbia before. But, all that changes when she befriends and becomes intrigued with Clara, her widowed neighbor and the village’s social outcast. When their friendship grows into the “unnatural”, Sam is forced to examine her upbringing and come to terms with who she really is.
The Others by Seba al-Herz (Saudi Arabia)
A best-selling book when it appeared in Arabic, The Others is a literary tour de force, offering a window into one of the most repressive societies in the world. Seba al-Herz tells the story of a nameless teenager at a girls’ school in the heavily Shi’ite Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Like her classmates, she has no contact with men outside her family.
When the glamorous Dai tries to seduce her, her feelings of guilt are overcome by an overwhelming desire for sexual and emotional intimacy. Dai introduces her to a secret world of lesbian parties, online flirtations, and hotel liaisons—a world in which the thrill of infatuation and the shame of obsession are deeply intertwined. Al-Herz’s erotic, dreamlike story of looming personal crisis is a remarkable portrait of hidden lives.
Defensive Mindset by Wendy Temple (Scotland)
Star footballer and successful businesswoman Jessie Grainger has her life set, and doesn’t need anything getting in the way. That includes rebellious rival player Fran Docherty, a burnt-out barmaid with a past as messed up as her attitude. So when the clashing pair find themselves on the same Edinburgh women’s football team, how will they survive each other, let alone play to win?
The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif (South Africa)
In 1950’s South Africa, a free-spirited café owner falls for a young wife and mother. Their unexpected attraction pushes them to question the cruel rules of a world that divides white from black and women from men, but a world that might just allow an unexpected love to survive.
Once in Sweden by Emma Sterner-Radley (Sweden)
American Aubrey DeValle is currently working as a nurse in London. Once a vibrant and confident world traveller, she is now lonely and both physically and mentally in recovery. Her whole life has been turned upside down and she’s not sure if the controversial decisions she made were the right ones.
Swedish Elina Lindvall is brooding in her small town and about to be whisked away by her best friends to a summer cabin in the south of Sweden, where she knows they will pump her for information about her breakup and why she refuses to talk about what happened.
When we go back in time and find out what paths led each woman to their present, will we find solutions to their problems or merely more issues to overcome? Moreover, does the past hold the key to how they can both dare to love again? And if so, can love beat the greatest obstacle of all?
Cinnamon by Samar Yazbek (Syria)
In the dark of night, Hanan al-Hashimi awakens from a nightmare, confused and shaken. Roaming the house in search of some reassurance, she is drawn towards the streak of light under her husband’s bedroom door. Little does she know that the beckoning glow will turn her life on its head…
Last Words from Montmartre by Qiu Miaojin (Taiwan)
When the pioneering Taiwanese novelist Qiu Miaojin committed suicide in 1995 at age twenty-six, she left behind her unpublished masterpiece, Last Words from Montmartre. Unfolding through a series of letters written by an unnamed narrator, Last Words tells the story of a passionate relationship between two young women—their sexual awakening, their gradual breakup, and the devastating aftermath of their broken love. In a style that veers between extremes, from self-deprecation to pathos, compulsive repetition to rhapsodic musings, reticence to vulnerability, Qiu’s genre-bending novel is at once a psychological thriller, a sublime romance, and the author’s own suicide note.
The letters (which, Qiu tells us, can be read in any order) leap between Paris, Taipei, and Tokyo. They display wrenching insights into what it means to live between cultures, languages, and genders—until the genderless character Zoë appears, and the narrator’s spiritual and physical identity is transformed. As powerfully raw and transcendent as Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, and Theresa Cha’s Dictée, to name but a few, Last Words from Montmartre proves Qiu Miaojin to be one of the finest experimentalists and modernist Chinese-language writers of our generation.
Poppy Jenkins by Clare Ashton (Wales)
Two old friends, one hot summer, a whole load of confusion.
Poppy Jenkins makes everyone smile. She’s the heart of Wells, a beautiful village in mid-Wales, leaving light and laughter in her wake. She has a doting family, an errant dog and a little sister with a nose for mischief. But she’s the only gay in the village and it’s a long time since she kissed a girl: the chance of romance in sleepy Wells is rarer than a barking sheep.
If she doesn’t think too hard, life is cosy, until a smart sports car barrels into town with the last woman Poppy wants to see behind the wheel. Beautiful Rosalyn Thorn was once Poppy’s high school BFF even though she was trouble. Then one day she abandoned Wells and Poppy without explanation. Now the highflier is back and bound to cause fresh havoc in the village and with Poppy’s heart; folk are not happy.
Wells needs to wake up to the 21st century and Rosalyn can help, but old prejudices die hard. If they can be friends it could be the chance to make everyone’s happy ever after. Couldn’t it?
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