Before I could travel, I would read about travel. I always wanted to go places and do things.
My favourite books weren’t necessarily traditional travel books which I usually found a little tedious; lots of I went here and I ate this and I did that.
I preferred biographies and memoirs that talked about women’s lives in interesting places; books about pioneering female foreign correspondents like Martha Gelhorn or explorers and diplomats like Gertude Bell.
Reading biographical books about women like this made me truly believe that I could do the same thing. That’s why the books that really made an impact on me and made me want to travel weren’t actually what you would label as travel books.
There are many wonderful, inspirational books I’ve read down through the years but these are the ones that I’ve read again and again, the ones I continuously turn to for inspiration and reassurance.
Memoirs, novels and collections of journalism, they are all about strong women, exotic places, difficult lives and carving your own path in the world.
The Place at the End of the World, Janine Di Giovanni
This evocative part memoir/part collection of journalism begins with the Chinese proverb ‘It is better to light a single candle than curse the darkness’ before leading us into the world of a female foreign correspondent; from London to West Africa, Tunisia to Chechnya; Iraq to Palestine. Janine Di Giovanni writes beautifully and honestly about the things she’s seen and the places she’s been. Most affecting is the chapters where she recounts her time covering the siege of Sarajevo as a young reporter in her twenties.
The Country Under My Skin, Gioconda Belli
Belli’s memoir/autobiography tells the story of a member of Nicaragua’s privileged minority gaining political awareness and joining the Sandinista movement. Belli’s life story, working clandestinely for the Sandinsta’s before fleeing to Mexico and Panama, returning only once the Revolution has taken power, is compelling enough but her brutally honest writing about her love life is truly impressive. She writes incredibly well about her awareness of being a woman and all it entails, about sex and politics and power. This is a great book about women, Central America and socialism.
Tales of a Female Nomad, Rita Golden Gelman
I read this at 15, when my California based aunt Tricia returned to Ireland for a summer visit and passed it on to me. I still have the same copy and have read it many times since. Golden-Gelman separates from her husband late in life and with her children raised, decides to do what she’s always wanted to do- take off and truly experience another culture. So begins the start of a truly nomadic life. It’s a fascinating book that follows her to Guateamala, Indonesia, New Zealand and many other places. This book will make you want to pack your bags.
Small Wars Permitting, Christina Lamb
If I could only read one book for the rest of my life, it would be this one. Christina Lamb has been a foreign correspondent for over twenty years based in Africa, South Asia and South America. She always adds a human element to her coverage of conflict which makes her writing engaging and affecting. This book is a collection of journalism and prose about her adventures around the world. I particularly love the pieces about her first forays in journalism in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the ’80s, still only in her early twenties, and her chapters on Portugal, Zanzibar and Afghanistan.
When I lived in Modern Times, Linda Grant
The only novel among the bunch, I truly love this book. It tells the story of a young Jewish woman raised in Soho by her single mother who leaves for Tel Aviv in the early 1930s. Grant is a brilliant writer who sets the scene wonderfully, writing about the clothes, the food, the smells that evoke places and people. Set against a backdrop of politics and conflict, this is a great compromise between a historical novel and a novel about a young woman making her own way in the world.