The best contemporary books that reimagine BIPOC history

The Books I Picked & Why

The Nickel Boys

By Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys

Why this book?

“The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.” I’ve always found these words by E.L. Doctorow a compelling argument for the unique power of fiction to enliven the past. Yet when thinking about the lives of people of color, you can’t count on everyone knowing the history much less caring about what it felt like for them to live it. Fortunately, we’re living in a golden age of historical fiction, a time when some of the most imaginative and intellectually challenging books are reimagining stories that have been lost—or that have never been told—about people and communities of color.

Colson Whitehead’s latest novel is a powerful example of this kind of fiction. In 2016 Whitehead came across a news story about some archaeology students trying to identify the remains of young men who had been tortured, raped, and mutilated, then buried in a secret graveyard, at a state-run reform school for boys in Florida. This novel itself is an excavation—an excavation of truth from history through the imagination. Taut and riveting, it pinned me in place and didn’t let me go until the last page.


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The Buddha in the Attic

By Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic

Why this book?

The Buddha in the Attic is a novel about early 20th century Japanese “picture brides,” women who came to the United States to be united with husbands they’d never met. Otsuka writes their story in the first-person plural, which you couldn’t imagine would work, but it does—and beautifully. There’s a choral quality here, a sense of a shared history that transcends any one life. Like her (also extraordinary) first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, it’s written with an almost pointillist perfection. Every word feels chosen, radiant, radical.


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How Much of These Hills Is Gold

By C. Pam Zhang

How Much of These Hills Is Gold

Why this book?

“Silver and water could seal a spirit for a time, keep it from tarnish,” C. Pam Zhang writes in How Much of These Hills Is Gold. “But it was home that kept the spirit safe-settled. Home that kept it from wandering back, restless, returning time and again like some migrant bird.” 

This is a story of America told through the eyes of two orphaned Chinese American siblings trying to find a home during the Gold Rush era. What does it mean for immigrants and children of immigrants to be or become American? What do we do with the legacies handed to us by our families and our cultures? It is possible to outrun the traumas of the past and find a true home? These are questions that we’re still asking ourselves today, and C. Pam Zhang handles them boldly and with a poet’s attention to language and symbolism. This book is as timeless as it is timely; a book that speaks to the moment, but feels written for the ages.


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The Book of Salt

By Monique Truong

The Book of Salt

Why this book?

I love novels that pluck figures from the sidelines of history and place them up-front-and-center. In this case, the figure is the real-life Vietnamese-born man who served as Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’ cook in Paris. Full of atmospheric detail, the writing in this novel is absolutely exquisite. I felt immersed in 1930s Paris, a world that’s long entranced me, but I was seeing it from an entirely new perspective. Truong offers tantalizing glimpses of Bihn’s life in the Stein-Toklas household, but the most memorable scenes happen when he’s alone, walking through the streets of Paris, on his way to meeting a lover, or regaling us with stories of his childhood in Vietnam and his fraught but tender love for his father. It’s a beautiful tale of exile and homecoming.


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Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals

By Saidiya V. Hartman

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals

Why this book?

“Critical fabulation”—that’s what literary scholar Saidiya Hartmann calls this book’s weave of personal, experiential, imagined, and archival elements. The form springs from the impossibility of ever fully recovering the stories of African American women through archival records. For Hartman the archive is as much about what it doesn’t contain as what it does.“Critical fabulation” is a response to those absences, a way of telling stories that concede the limits of the known and uses the imagination as a kind of restorative justice. The focus here is on young women living in Harlem in the first decades of the 20th century. I’m especially fascinated by the way Hartmann renders their interior lives in a way a novelist might.


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