The best fiction for recovering erased history

The Books I Picked & Why

Insurrecto

By Gina Apostol

Book cover of Insurrecto

Why this book?

Sometimes I read a book and wish I’d written it. With Insurrecto, I cheered and gave thanks that Gina Apostol did write it. Decades ago, I became obsessed with the US conquest of the Philippines after the Spanish American War and how the people of the islands fought back to liberate their country. I knew Mark Twain protested the occupation. I found military histories of the war against Spain. At that time, I couldn’t find anything from the Filipino perspective. Where were books to challenge the American belief we’ve never had colonies? Apostol brings this lost history brilliantly to life with a contemporary filmmaker and a translator who create dueling narratives while trying to make a movie about a 1901 massacre. Insurrecto is a remarkable work, complex enough to repay rereading.


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The Taste of Sugar

By Marisel Vera

Book cover of The Taste of Sugar

Why this book?

Through friendships with Borinqueñxs and interest in the island, I don’t consider myself wholly ignorant about Puerto Rico. Like the Philippines, Puerto Rico was claimed by the US following the Spanish American War, but once again, when I tried to learn more about that era, I ran into a brick wall. Marisel Vera recovers that history while offering all the pleasures of a traditional family saga. She brings the reader close to the daily lives and loves of a family of coffee farmers who struggle first under Spanish rule and then the system established by the US. Vera also taught me something I’d never heard of: the deceptive recruitment that carried newly impoverished but still hopeful Puerto Ricans off to Hawaii to labor in the sugar fields. 


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I'll Be Right There

By Kyung-Sook Shin, Sora Kim-Russell

Book cover of I'll Be Right There

Why this book?

I fall hard for novels about intense friendships and loyalty. I’ve never been to Korea, but it was easy for me to relate to the protagonist, Jung Yoon, whose personal growth is influenced by her study of European culture, much as my own immersion in Latin American culture continues to inform my life. 

Here again, a gap in most Americans’ knowledge gets filled in. Shin’s haunting and poetic novel offers a bracing account of the student protests in South Korea in the ’80s, with repression, deaths, and disappearances at the hands of the US-supported dictatorship. The politics are eye-opening, but just a backdrop to the characters’ pursuit of love, friendship, intellectual development, and the tender way they must mourn many other losses as they grow up and apart.


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The German Mujahid

By Boualem Sansal, Frank Wynne

Book cover of The German Mujahid

Why this book?

For decades, Holocaust denial was widespread in Arab countries. That’s beginning to change, and Sansal’s harrowing novel – inspired in part by a Nazi officer who escaped to Algeria and became a hero in the war for independence aids in writing that history back into consciousness. We gain extraordinary intimacy with two brothers as they contend in different ways with the challenges of North African immigrant life in France, the massacre by the Algerian military that claims the lives of their parents, and the discovery of their father’s horrific past. Sansal was attacked for comparing Islamist fundamentalism to the Holocaust and for visiting Israel, but I think it’s clear his intent is to condemn any ideology based on an unyielding and violent intolerance of difference.   


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The Office of Historical Corrections: A Novella and Stories

By Danielle Evans

Book cover of The Office of Historical Corrections: A Novella and Stories

Why this book?

I couldn’t possibly leave out Danielle Evans’ story collection when the title novella portrays just the kind of cultural erasure and recuperation I’ve been blathering on about. The protagonist, Cassie, is an obscure federal employee charged with correcting historical inaccuracies and omissions in public places and textbooks. Her mission intersects in Wisconsin with that of an old frenemy as both investigate an arson murder from 1937. Throughout the collection, these stories delight me line by line, with beautifully wrought prose, insight, and wit. Evans tackles fake news and current controversies about race, including fissures within the Black community, while always focusing on the personal dilemmas of her vividly alive characters. I am in awe of her talent. 


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