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11 Poems and Stories of Global Cities

A coffee cup on a diner counter in Tokyo. By Osamu Kaneko.

Ian Ross Singleton, a New York City author and English professor, was looking for literature to inspire students in their explorations of the city. Around the same time, our friends at were seeking literature to help students engage with the U.N.’s new global goals, including #11, “Sustainable Cities and Communities.”

In response to these excellent questions, we sought out stories and poems that open windows into global cities and issues. One of our favorites is “The Old Cicada,” a Chinese story in which the natural world co-exists and sometimes clashes with an urban setting. After reading, students might look other examples of the natural world within their own cities; and, perhaps, reflect on ways to preserve nature within urban settings.

Some of our other favorites are below.

The City as Literary Inspiration
  1. A Failed Journey: In Mexico City, a young girl tries to return to the area’s first McDonalds restaurant. Students might use this story (available in both Spanish and English), as inspiration to return to and reflect upon remembered places in their cities.
  2. Things Elude Me: In this Cairo-set poem, a woman stands outside her former apartment, remembering a heartbreak.
  3. Tetsu of the Yamanote Line: Japanese manga that portrays a pickpocket as a sort of urban artist.
  4. Soul, You Are a Street: A beautiful Russian poem about a soul within a city.
  5. Hello? A Russian bus rider contemplates love as he eavesdrop on a cell-phone conversation.
The City as Inspiration to Action
  1. Dreams and Memories of a Common Man: Migrant workers in Mexico City try to build news lives amidst environmental degradation; this story reads like a prose poem.
  2. Sharing: This Chinese work of graphic fiction takes on the desire for inclusion and the pressures of consumerism.
  3. The Slaves of Moscow: Illustrated reportage on a recent case of human trafficking.
  4. On the Moscow Metro and Being Gay: What do closing subway doors have to do with the LGBTQ experience in Russia? Quite a bit, as this essay illustrates.
  5. Memories of Chernobyl: An Egyptian doctor in Ukraine observes a city in the wake of an environmental disaster.
  6. Hunger: From our upcoming Iran unit, a memoir of life as a teenage immigrant in L.A. and New York City. (For ideas about teaching this memoir, see our last newsletter).

To find more world literature set in the city, just search for the keyword “city.”