The idea behind OurStories is a simple one: we want to make it easy to discover great fiction set around the world. Fiction fosters empathy. It can take you inside the thoughts of another person, and show you around. It can start conversations, and build bridges between cultures. We’re working towards featuring books set in every country in the world, and here’s why.
We’re both avid readers, and always have been. Books seem to us a natural way of learning about life and the world beyond our personal bubbles. So when, last September, we were both set to move abroad for a while – Rhianna to New York and Lewis to Tokyo – we turned to fiction as a way of starting to understand these new places and the lives of the people living in them.
Finding solid book recommendations wasn’t straightforward, though. Goodreads felt overwhelming. The Guardian’s “top-10 books” lists focused mainly on popular capital cities. There were great websites hidden away promoting contemporary international fiction, but they sometimes felt a bit intellectual. There was no obvious place where you could find fiction by location, curated and recommended in an approachable way.
When we were both back from our travels, we decided to put that right. We agreed on three things. 1) We wanted our book recommendations to be warm and personal, about books that individuals have simply loved. 2) We wanted our website to be truly global, not limiting ourselves to one region. And 3) we wanted to organise the books through the setting of the story, rather than the nationality of the author.
We’d have to start building the collection ourselves, so we turned to our bookshelves. Although we’d like to think we read widely, we were shocked to find few books set outside the UK and US. Why had we only ever read one book set in South America – One Hundred Years of Solitude? Why had we never read a book set in Southeast Asia? Where are these books in our local bookshops? In school curriculums?
We began to think about the website differently. It was no longer just about finding books to take with you on holiday, but also about helping people – ourselves included – read more widely in their day-to-day lives.
There has been a lot of discussion over the past year about diversity in media, including the lack of minority voices in literature and publishing. Often the debate focuses on the identities of authors and their protagonists, and these are important conversations to have. But the individual act of reading books about the lives of people in different countries around the world has sometimes been overlooked.
Since starting this project, our reading has taken us to brothels in Indonesia, hospitals in South Korea, reservations in Canada, and haunted rivers in Nigeria. Next up, Rhianna is going to Argentina and Lewis to Angola. We have attended events and met people from all over the world, who have excitedly told us about their favourite books. We have worked with a brilliant illustrator, Andy Carter, who captured OurStories perfectly in his world map made of books.
So far, creating OurStories has been such a fun and thought-provoking experience. We’ve learned that, whatever the setting, it is often the relationships that shine through. Most of the books recommended to us have been stories of people and families simply making their way in the world. At a time when politicians peddle xenophobia, those stories can break down barriers and help us recognise the similarities between us all.