The best books on cultural assimilation

3 authors have picked their favorite books about cultural assimilation and why they recommend each book.

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Making Refuge

By Catherine Besteman,

Book cover of Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine

Making Refuge focuses on Somali Bantu refugees who were resettled in the town of Lewiston, Maine in the early 2000s. These refugees had been the focus of Besteman’s earlier research in Somalia in the 1980s. About a decade after Somalia plunged into civil war, Somali Bantus were being resettled in the United States, enabling Besteman to physically reconnect with them. One of the strengths of this book is that it provides rich historical context, giving the reader an overview of the different stages of the refugee experience: the events leading to war and displacement, life in refugee camps in Kenya, and resettlement in the United States.

Making Refuge is also one of the few books that gives ethnographic insight into the refugee resettlement process in the United States. Through its focus on the challenges faced by resettled Somali Bantus, who are Black and Muslim, it questions the assumptions underlying the…


Who am I?

I developed an interest in the Middle East after taking a class on the Peoples and Cultures of the Middle East and North Africa as an undergraduate student. I later lived and worked in Kuwait for two years and traveled extensively across the Middle East, including to Syria, a country whose hospitality, history, and cultural richness left an indelible impression on me. During subsequent travel to Syria, I became acquainted with the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, in Damascus. This camp, which physically blended into its surroundings while retaining its Palestinian-ness, ignited my desire to better understand Palestinian refugee identity and the political claims at the heart of this identity. 


I wrote...

The Politics of Suffering: Syria's Palestinian Refugee Camps

By Nell Gabiam,

Book cover of The Politics of Suffering: Syria's Palestinian Refugee Camps

What is my book about?

The Politics of Suffering is based on ethnographic research in Syria and focuses on the Palestinian refugee camps of Neirab and Ein el Tal, which were singled out in the early 2000s by UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) as the sites for experimenting with reforms meant to move away from a humanitarian, relief-based, approach to a more developmental one in Palestinian refugee camps.  

The book argues that the very suffering that the ideology and practice of development seek to eradicate in Palestinian refugee camps paradoxically acts as a political tool for keeping alive Palestinian refugee identity and advocacy of the refugees’ right to return to their Palestinian homes.

Education for Extinction

By David Wallace Adams,

Book cover of Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928

Adams’s book exposed the Indian boarding school agenda and system as genocide for many readers. His book was one of the first publications that I read about Indian boarding schools as it represents a significant historiographical shift and approach to Indigenous experiences in boarding schools since the first writings of Native American boarding school students such as Zitkála-Šá, Charles Eastman, and Luther Standing Bear. The revised edition of his book could not have come at a better time with the announcement of the Federal Indian Boarding School Truth Initiative that followed about a year later in June 2021.


Who am I?

My Diné (Navajo) family stories drew me into history including studies of Indigenous experiences in boarding schools. Two of my uncles were Navajo Code Talkers, and I loved asking them about their life stories. My uncle Albert Smith often spoke about his memories of the war. I was struck by the irony that he was sent to a boarding school as a child where the Navajo language was forbidden, and then he later relied on the language to protect his homelands. I then became interested in all my relatives' boarding school stories, including those of my father, which led me to write my first book The Earth Memory Compass about Diné school experiences. 

I wrote...

The Earth Memory Compass: Diné Landscapes and Education in the Twentieth Century

By Farina King,

Book cover of The Earth Memory Compass: Diné Landscapes and Education in the Twentieth Century

What is my book about?

The Diné, or Navajo, have their own ways of knowing and being in the world, a cultural identity linked to their homelands through ancestral memory. The Earth Memory Compass traces this tradition as it is imparted from generation to generation, and as it has been transformed, and often obscured, by modern modes of education. An autoethnography of sorts, the book follows Farina King’s search for her own Diné identity as she investigates the interconnections among Navajo students, their people, and Diné Bikéyah—or Navajo lands—across the twentieth century.

Critical to this story is how inextricably Indigenous education and experience is intertwined with American dynamics of power and history. As environmental catastrophes and struggles over resources sever the connections among peoplehood, land, and water, King's book holds out hope that the teachings, guidance, and knowledge of an earth memory compass still have the power to bring the people and the earth together.

Across the Shaman's River

By Daniel Lee Henry,

Book cover of Across the Shaman's River: John Muir, the Tlingit Stronghold, and the Opening of the North

In the fall of 1879, when John Muir arrived among Alaska’s Chilkat Tlingits, he charmed them with his stories but also unwittingly acted as an agent of Manifest Destiny and opened the floodgates of the Klondike Gold Rush. This is an important story of first contact and fresh perspectives, thoroughly researched and compellingly told. There’s no other book like it.


Who am I?

Kim Heacox has written 15 books, five of them published by National Geographic. He has twice won the National Outdoor Book Award (for his memoir, The Only Kayak, and his novel, Jimmy Bluefeather), and twice won the Lowell Thomas Award for excellence in travel journalism. He’s featured on Ken Burns’ film, The National Parks, America's Best Idea, and he’s spoken about John Muir on Public Radio International’s Living on Earth. He lives in Gustavus, Alaska (next to Glacier Bay Nat’l Park), a small town of 500 people reachable only by boat or plane.


I wrote...

John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire: How a Visionary and the Glaciers of Alaska Changed America

By Kim Heacox,

Book cover of John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire: How a Visionary and the Glaciers of Alaska Changed America

What is my book about?

John Muir, America’s foremost wild lands preservationist, lived a large life. He changed the maps of America, and how we see ourselves in the American landscape. Most people associate him with California’s Yosemite. But Muir made seven trips to Alaska over a 20-year period, 1879-99, during which he explored tidewater glaciers by foot and canoe, befriended indigenous Tlingits, and returned home with a renewed commitment to speak and act on behalf of wilderness and beauty – to protect every acre he could. In short, the glaciers of Alaska changed Muir, and Muir in turn changed America.

The Namesake

By Jhumpa Lahiri,

Book cover of The Namesake

The Asian immigrant experience in America has been the topic of many great recent novels. Lahiri examines two generations of an academically gifted family who make both an intellectual and emotional journey to a new land. As a geophysics professor, I taught many students like those in Lahiri’s novel. As a geophysics graduate student, I went to school and became friends with foreign students who eventually settled in the United States. This novel offers me a window into the interior lives of both my former students and current friends.


Who am I?

I’m the child of immigrants and my role in the family was to be my parents’ American expert and translator. I learned my expertise by living, of course, but my understanding of the interior life and thoughts of Americans often came from reading American novels. Immigration-themed novels are catnip to me because they remind me, often with warmth, of my own childhood and parents. 


I wrote...

The Mathematician's Shiva

By Stuart Rojstaczer,

Book cover of The Mathematician's Shiva

What is my book about?

Alexander "Sasha" Karnokovitch and his family would like to mourn the passing of his mother, Rachela, with modesty and dignity. But Rachela, a famous Polish émigré mathematician and professor at the University of Wisconsin, is rumored to have solved the million-dollar, Navier-Stokes Millennium Prize problem. Rumor also has it that she spitefully took the solution to her grave. To Sasha's chagrin, a ragtag group of socially challenged mathematicians arrives in Madison and crashes the shiva, vowing to do whatever it takes to find the solution--even if it means prying up the floorboards for Rachela's notes.

This hilarious and multi-layered novel brims with colorful characters and brilliantly captures humanity's drive not just to survive, but to solve the impossible.

Sally in Three Worlds

By Virginia Kerns,

Book cover of Sally in Three Worlds: An Indian Captive in the House of Brigham Young

Sally is the moving account of the true story of a captive Indian girl who lived in the house of Brigham Young as a servant and cook, a “wild” woman who had been “tamed” by her civilized captors. When she had almost forgotten her own language Sally was sent off to a Mormon village as the wife of a Pahvant Ute chief in order to “civilize” the local surrounding Indians. Sally’s story asks us what these seemingly simple words “wild” and “tame” really mean, and to think about what they can hide.


Who am I?

Growing up in Salt Lake City in the 1950s I was very soon aware that I was living in a world of borders, some permeable and negotiable, and some almost impossible to cross. It was a city of Mormons and a city of those who weren’t; a city of immigrants like my grandparents, and about whom my mother wrote (and wrote well); and a Jim Crow town where Black men and women couldn’t get into the ballroom to hear Duke Ellington play. Finally, it was a city haunted by its Indian past in a state keeping living Indians in its many bleak government reservations. What to make of those borders has been a life-long effort.


I wrote...

An American Cakewalk: Ten Syncopators of the Modern World

By Zeese Papanikolas,

Book cover of An American Cakewalk: Ten Syncopators of the Modern World

What is my book about?

An American Cakewalk is about a group of American jazz musicians, poets, writers, philosophers, and yes, cakewalkers, who didn’t crash head on into the borders of racism, poetic tradition, received ideas and economic orthodoxy that surrounded them, but, like the enslaved men and women who watched their masters’ pompous cotillion, glanced off them through satire and sly subversion. I write about Emily Dickinson and Stephen Crane, Scott Joplin and Charles Mingus, Jelly Roll Morton and William and Henry James, Thorstein Veblen and Abraham Cahan – and squeeze in some others too.

Good Chinese Wife

By Susan Blumberg-Kason,

Book cover of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong

Absorbed by Chinese culture while a grad student in Hong Kong, Susan Blumberg-Kason is charmed into marriage with Cai, a PhD student of Taoist music from the Hubei Province backwater. Marital discord arises when the openhearted Midwesterner realizes her function as a wife is to produce a son, turn it over to his (not her) parents for upbringing, and get out of the way so the husband can carry on with his philandering and porn watching. But even as he molts his intellectual shell and his narcissistic monster emerges, Cai can also be sympathetically understood as a product of his culture. Intercultural conflict is what makes this fairy tale so readable and engrossing, with its timeless theme of the loving sweetheart enthralled and entrapped in her dark prince's perverted castle. What moved me most was Blumberg-Kason’s honesty in laying everything bare, at the risk of baring her own flaws.


Who am I?

Having lived in China for almost three decades, I am naturally interested in the expat writing scene. I am a voracious reader of fiction and nonfiction on China, past and present. One constant in this country is change, and that requires keeping up with the latest publications by writers who have lived here and know it well. As an author of three novels, one short story collection, and three essay collections on China myself, I believe I have something of my own to contribute, although I tend to hew to gritty, offbeat themes to capture a contemporary China unknown to the West.


I wrote...

Confucius and Opium: China Book Reviews

By Isham Cook,

Book cover of Confucius and Opium: China Book Reviews

What is my book about?

Have foreigners shaped China’s history to a greater extent than has previously been acknowledged, reaching back possibly millennia? Was Confucius’ most famous book, The Analects, inspired by entheogenic medicines imported from abroad, possession of which in the 1930s brought one before the firing squad in the name of Confucius? In these book review essays by Isham Cook, foreign devils, old China Hands, eccentric expatriates, and a few Chinese tell an offbeat history of China’s last two centuries, with a backward glance at ancient China as told by Western mummies.

Indians in the Family

By Dawn Peterson,

Book cover of Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion

When I give talks about Jackson, audience members often bring up his “adoption” of Lyncoya, a Creek Indian boy, as an argument against his racist and violent treatment of Native Americans. Peterson delves into that episode, and similar events in the lives of Jackson and men like him, to explain what elite white “adoption” of Native children actually meant and how it reflected larger national themes of acquisition and subjugation. 


Who am I?

I became interested in Andrew Jackson as an undergraduate student who worked at his Nashville plantation, The Hermitage. Nearly thirty years later, I am still fascinated by Old Hickory. We wouldn’t be friends, and I wouldn’t vote for him, but I consider him essential to understanding the United States’ development between his ascension as a national hero during the War of 1812 and his death in 1845. That we still argue about Jackson’s role as a symbol both of patriotism and of genocide speaks to his enduring significance to the national conversation about what the United States has represented and continues to represent.  


I wrote...

Andrew Jackson, Southerner

By Mark R. Cheathem,

Book cover of Andrew Jackson, Southerner

What is my book about?

Many Americans view Andrew Jackson as a frontiersman who fought duels, killed Indians, and stole another man's wife. Historians have traditionally presented Jackson as a man who struggled to overcome the obstacles of his backwoods upbringing and helped create a more democratic United States. In his compelling new biography of Jackson, Mark R. Cheathem argues for a reassessment of these long-held views, suggesting that in fact "Old Hickory" lived as an elite southern gentleman.

By emphasizing Jackson's southern identity—characterized by violence, honor, kinship, slavery, and Manifest DestinyCheathem's narrative offers a bold new perspective on one of the nineteenth century's most renowned and controversial presidents.

Native Speaker

By Chang-Rae Lee,

Book cover of Native Speaker

I feel Chang-Rae Lee broke out of the mold of Asian American books that always dealt with immigration or stories set in Old Asia. A young man, Henry Park, is hired to infiltrate the campaign of a Korean American running for mayor in New York City. Yes, this delves into the issues of assimilation and alienation, but the novel is about so much more. It’s lyrical and poignant and universal in its explorations of familial and marital love. 


Who am I?

A Korean American author myself, I published my first book in 2001, and in the ensuing years I’ve been heartened by the number of Korean Americans who have made a splash with their debut novels, as these five writers did. All five have ventured outside of what I’ve called the ethnic literature box, going far beyond the traditional stories expected from Asian Americans. They established a trend that is happily growing. 


I wrote...

The Partition

By Don Lee,

Book cover of The Partition

What is my book about?

Twenty-one years after the publication of my debut collection Yellow, I return to the short story form for my sixth book, The Partition.

The Partition is an updated exploration of Asian American identity, this time with characters who are presumptive model minorities in the arts, academia, and media. Spanning decades, these nine stories traverse an array of cities, from Tokyo to Boston, Honolulu to El Paso, touching upon transient encounters in local bars, restaurants, and hotels. Culminating in a three-story cycle about a Hollywood actor, The Partition examines heartbreak, identity, family, and relationships, the characters searching for answers to universal questions: Where do I belong? How can I find love? What defines an authentic self? 

Five Little Indians

By Michelle Good,

Book cover of Five Little Indians

This is a story of children torn from their homes and forced to live in the horrific conditions of residential schools. Imprisoned and away from the love and protection of families and communities, many were abused for years by people whose words may have preached God’s love but whose actions demonstrated darker intentions. A few children managed to escape while many others were carelessly released to the unforgiving streets of east Vancouver where some managed to navigate their way through life while others succumbed to the demons that haunted them.

Having personally seen the impact this has had on people in my community, including family members, I feel that the characters may be fiction, but the story is a very real example of a shameful time in Canadian history where the effects continue through generations.


Who am I?

I am a Canadian who enjoys travelling and reading historical fiction from around the world. Having had the privilege of living in a variety of areas in Canada from coast to coast since childhood, I can recall listening to the stories of past generations and exploring the locations where some of these events took place. With a passion for Canada’s beauty and the history of its people, I like to research, explore, and incorporate these passions into my own stories.


I wrote...

Freedom Reins

By E.M. Spencer,

Book cover of Freedom Reins

What is my book about?

Charlotte Logan, affectionately called Charlie, spent her adolescent years under the control of the Grey Nuns. Now, her free spirit needs to be set loose. When the confined surroundings challenge her sense of adventure, she uses the art of manipulation to join a small wagon train heading west to the Fraser River in search of gold.

Travelling across untamed land brings new relationships and the discovery of her place in the world. When adventure turns to danger, Charlie finds her source of strength in the middle of gunfights, kidnappers, and a battle for her relationship against the temptress called gold.

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