The best cultural heritage books

11 authors have picked their favorite books about cultural heritage and why they recommend each book.

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Book cover of On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

Ocean Vuong’s poetic quality of writing stunned me. His beautiful use of language captured the mutual attraction between two lonely teenage boys who become lovers, coupled with the pain and complexity of their lives. I felt the novel stepped away from the personal torment and anguish often seen in books about teenage same-sex love, though it didn’t refrain from acknowledging the impact of the Vietnam war, abuse, poverty, drugs, and dysfunctional family dynamics. I liked the book because the boys’ love and desire for one another had the power to temporarily circumnavigate their differences, personal torments, and sexual boundaries. The flashbacks Little Dog (the protagonist), had about his family and his mother’s memories of Vietnam were also haunting.

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

By Ocean Vuong,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An instant New York Times Bestseller!

Longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction, the Carnegie Medal in Fiction, the 2019 Aspen Words Literacy Prize, and the PEN/Hemingway Debut Novel Award

Shortlisted for the 2019 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize

Winner of the 2019 New England Book Award for Fiction!

Named one of the most anticipated books of 2019 by Vulture, Entertainment Weekly, Buzzfeed, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Oprah.com, Huffington Post, The A.V. Club, Nylon, The Week, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Guardian, Publishers Weekly, and more.

"A lyrical work of self-discovery that's shockingly intimate and insistently…

Who am I?

I wrote my first novel in a quest to create a story about a girl who loves girls surviving a violent, repressive world. Reading novels pertinent to the life I’ve lived was both affirming and life-saving. After graduate school, I developed a class at UC Berkeley where I focused on novels written by and about women of color, knowing compelling stories gave the students a chance to live in someone else’s universe. I still believe books can change hearts and minds, and reading them propels me to continue seeking well-told stories by authors—particularly writers of color—who have the courage to put their words on the page. 


I wrote...

What Night Brings

By Carla Trujillo,

Book cover of What Night Brings

What is my book about?

Marci Cruz wants two things from God: change her into a boy, and rid her of her father. What Night Brings is the unforgettable story of Marci’s struggle to find and maintain her identity against all odds—a perilous home life, an incomprehensible Church, and a largely indifferent world. Smart, feisty, and funny, 13-year-old Marci prays to become a boy so that she can capture the attention of Raquel, the teenage beauty next door. Marci's fighting spirit, her sense of justice, and her power of observation enable her to find her identity and her freedom.

The Stationery Shop

By Marjan Kamali,

Book cover of The Stationery Shop

The novel takes place in 1953 and before the 1979 Islamic revolution and during the reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah. 1953 was a critical time, which shaped the history of Iran, during which the coup d’état of Dr.Mossadegh was foiled by the United States CIA. Because of Iran’s geographical and strategic importance, such uprisings and meddling by outside forces are constant in Iranian history.

The Stationery Shop is a beautiful and timely exploration of devastating loss, unbreakable family bonds, and the overwhelming power of love.

The Stationery Shop

By Marjan Kamali,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Stationery Shop as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A poignant, heartfelt new novel by the award-nominated author of Together Tea—extolled by the Wall Street Journal as a “moving tale of lost love” and by Shelf Awareness as “a powerful, heartbreaking story”—explores loss, reconciliation, and the quirks of fate.

Roya, a dreamy, idealistic teenager living amid the political upheaval of 1953 Tehran, finds a literary oasis in kindly Mr. Fakhri’s neighborhood stationery shop, stocked with books and pens and bottles of jewel-colored ink.

Then Mr. Fakhri, with a keen instinct for a budding romance, introduces Roya to his other favorite customer—handsome Bahman, who has a burning passion for justice…

Who am I?

I was born in Israel, but spent my formative years in Iran, a country rich in culture, superstition, and a history that is nothing short of an author’s dream. I also joined a large, colorful family, whose members possessed their own quirks and habits, which my future fictional characters inherited in one or another of my novels. Although the Iran I knew during the reign of the Shah was quite different than the Iran I had to flee at the onset of the Islamic revolution and the arrival of Ayatollah Khomeini, her history remains ever timely, and never ceases to captivate me.


I wrote...

Scent of Butterflies

By Dora Levy Mossanen,

Book cover of Scent of Butterflies

What is my book about?

Amidst a shattering betrayal and a country in turmoil, Soraya flees Iran to make a new life for herself in Los Angeles. The cruel and intimate blow her husband has dealt her awakens an obsessive streak that explodes in the heated world of Southern California, as Soraya plots her revenge against the other woman, her best friend. What she discovers proves far more devastating than anything she had ever imagined, unleashing a whirlwind of events that leave the reader breathless.

Bangkok Wakes to Rain

By Pitchaya Sudbanthad,

Book cover of Bangkok Wakes to Rain

I lived in Bangkok for six years. This is the rare novel that captures the sounds, the smells, the spirit, and spirituality of the place. Bangkok in fact is the main character, with supporting roles by humans who make their lives there, from the nineteenth century to the present and into the not-so-distant future, when water lays permanent claim to a city built more or less at sea level. You can expect lyrical writing and engaging characters, whether human or urban. 

Bangkok Wakes to Rain

By Pitchaya Sudbanthad,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bangkok Wakes to Rain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Recreates the experience of living in Thailand's aqueous climate so viscerally that you can feel the water rising around your ankles." —Ron Charles, Washington Post

"Important, ambitious, and accomplished." —Mohsin Hamid, New York Times bestselling author of Exit West

A missionary doctor pines for his native New England even as he succumbs to the vibrant chaos of nineteenth-century Siam. A post-World War II society woman marries, mothers, and holds court, little suspecting her solitary fate. A jazz pianist in the age of rock, haunted by his own ghosts, is summoned to appease the house's resident spirits. In the present, a…

Who am I?

I first saw Angkor, capital of the Khmer Empire, in 1969 as a teenager and was bowled over by the place. I kept coming back as a journalist and author. They say you should write about things that truly crank your engine, and I found mine—imperial conquest, Hindu and Buddhist spirituality, astounding architecture, and the lives of the millions of people who inhabited and built the place. I’ve now written three non-fiction books and two historical novels set in the civilization’s twelfth-century peak. The novels are an effort to recreate life in the old days. They draw heavily on my years in Southeast Asia, experiencing what life is like in the present day.


I wrote...

A Woman of Angkor

By John Burgess,

Book cover of A Woman of Angkor

What is my book about?

The time is the twelfth century, the place Cambodia, birthplace of the lost Angkor civilization. In a village behind a towering stone temple lives a young woman named Sray, whom neighbors liken to the heroine of a Hindu epic. Hiding a dangerous secret, she is content with quiet obscurity, but one rainy season afternoon is called to a life of prominence in the royal court. There her faith and loyalties are tested by attention from the king. Struggling to keep her devotion is her husband Nol, palace confidante and master of the silk parasols that were symbols of the monarch's rank. The novel evokes the rites and rhythms of the ancient culture that built the temples of Angkor, then abandoned them to nature.

In the Country

By Mia Alvar,

Book cover of In the Country: Stories

Alvar writes about the Filipinx Diasporic community from the Philippines to the U.S. and around the world. Her stories about men and women who must travel to other countries to support their families show the complicated nature of Diaspora, as well as the strains within families as the result of separation, cultural dislocation, and economic exploitation.

In the Country

By Mia Alvar,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In the Country as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In these nine globe-trotting tales, Mia Alvar gives voice to the women and men of the Philippines and its diaspora.

From teachers to housemaids, from mothers to sons, Alvar’s stories explore the universal experiences of loss, displacement, and the longing to connect across borders both real and imagined. In the Country speaks to the heart of everyone who has ever searched for a place to call home—and marks the arrival of a formidable new voice in literature.

Who am I?

When I was growing up, I longed to see myself and my family represented in ways that were not demeaning. Hollywood movies showed Asian women as passive victims or hypersexualized “dragon ladies.” Depictions of Asian men were even fewer—they were mostly the enemy soldiers in the background of movies about the American war in Vietnam. I became a writer to try to correct these grossly flattened stereotypes. I am now the author of 11 books, and recipient of an American Book Award, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, Asian Pacific American Award for Literature, a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book, and Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman.


I wrote...

Tomorrow in Shanghai: Stories

By May-lee Chai,

Book cover of Tomorrow in Shanghai: Stories

What is my book about?

In a vibrant and illuminating follow-up to her award-winning story collection, Useful Phrases for Immigrants, May-lee Chai’s latest collection Tomorrow in Shanghai explores multicultural complexities through lenses of class, wealth, age, gender, and sexuality—always tracking the nuanced, knotty, and intricate exchanges of interpersonal and institutional power. 

These stories transport the reader, variously: to rural China, where a city doctor harvests organs to fund a wedding and a future for his family; on a vacation to France, where a white mother and her biracial daughter cannot escape their fraught relationship; inside the unexpected romance of two Chinese-American women living abroad in China; and finally, to a future Chinese colony on Mars, where an aging working-class woman lands a job as a nanny. Chai's stories are essential reading for an increasingly globalized world.

Book cover of Falling in Love with Hominids

In this short story collection, SFWA Grand Master Nalo Hopkinson gives us heaps of imagery to roll around in with delight and horror. Calling a snowflake “six-clawed” or relating a tree’s memory of how it “felt to unfurl your leaves to the bright taste of the sun” all add to the mood-heavy stories of a teenager overcome by her desires after swallowing a cherry pit, children who must survive their parents’ frightening transformations, and more. Through all the tales, humanity shines through, our rough edges and our beautiful scars. And the characters themselves play with language to pass the time.

Falling in Love with Hominids

By Nalo Hopkinson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Falling in Love with Hominids as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An alluring new collection from the author of the New York Times Notable Book, Midnight Robber

Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring, The Salt Roads, Sister Mine) is an internationally-beloved storyteller. Hailed by the Los Angeles Times as having "an imagination that most of us would kill for," her Afro-Caribbean, Canadian, and American influences shine in truly unique stories that are filled with striking imagery, unlikely beauty, and delightful strangeness.

In this long-awaited collection, Hopkinson continues to expand the boundaries of culture and imagination. Whether she is retelling The Tempest as a new Caribbean myth, filling a shopping mall…


Who am I?

Born to three generations of poets, I’ve always appreciated a certain quality in the prose I read: lyricism. I want to catch my breath at a beautiful turn of phrase or gasp when I figure out a metaphor’s double meaning. My own writing seeks to reproduce that joy of discovery while preserving the plot-forward conventions of good speculative fiction. The books in this list balance literary style and genre expectations. Snatches of song, poetic prophesies, the perfect comparison—I hope these jewels delight my readers as much as they’ve delighted me in these works.


I wrote...

Wings Unfurled

By Rebecca Gomez Farrell,

Book cover of Wings Unfurled

What is my book about?

Wings Unfurled returns readers to the kingdom of Lansera, picking up six years after the main characters Vesperi, Serra, and Janto first learned they were the embodiment of the prophesied bird of creation. Mythical monsters are rampaging their way through Lansera, and a new horror is brewing from the same land as the invisible claren they once defeated. With the king ailing and the princess missing, they must find the strength to raise the bird again. But will this menace, with the might to drain a moon, devour them first?

From Sand and Ash

By Amy Harmon,

Book cover of From Sand and Ash

Angelo is a Catholic priest, and Eva is a Jew in Nazi-occupied Italy. It doesn’t get much more forbidden than a Catholic priest falling helplessly in love. So is the case in this beautifully written novel by Amy Harmon. Set in WWII Italy, it’s a gripping and at times brutal read about the persecution of Italian Jews by the Gestapo. This powerful setting gives rise to a butterflies-inducing romance between a young priest and his Jewish friend that he tries so desperately to protect. The scenes in which Eva and Angelo begin to succumb to their feelings will leave you breathless, and there is an “I can’t believe I’m kissing you” scene that you won’t want to end.

"Confession: I am nineteen years old, and I’ve been kissed many times. But I’ve never been kissed like that."

From Sand and Ash

By Amy Harmon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked From Sand and Ash as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Italy, 1943-Germany occupies much of the country, placing the Jewish population in grave danger during World War II.

As children, Eva Rosselli and Angelo Bianco were raised like family but divided by circumstance and religion. As the years go by, the two find themselves falling in love. But the church calls to Angelo and, despite his deep feelings for Eva, he chooses the priesthood.

Now, more than a decade later, Angelo is a Catholic priest and Eva is a woman with nowhere to turn. With the Gestapo closing in, Angelo hides Eva within the walls of a convent, where Eva…

Who am I?

Romeo and Juliet, Lancelot and Guinevere, Antony and Cleopatra—the greatest love stories in human history are awash with forbidden feels. While I shun the icky taboo, I’m easily reeled in by the rush of healthy forbidden attraction, and the higher the stakes, the better. Of course, everything is more fun when it’s not allowed! What attracts me to forbidden romance isn’t only the complicated dynamics, intense storylines, and angsty drama, but the “we can’t have each other but want each other so badly” burn. Give me all the stolen glances, fleeting touches, and breathless kisses. Nothing does sexual tension like forbidden romance.


I wrote...

Emmie and the Tudor King

By Natalie Murray,

Book cover of Emmie and the Tudor King

What is my book about?

Emmie and the Tudor King is book 1 in the Hearts & Crowns trilogy, which follows an American high school graduate to a reimagined sixteenth-century England, where she meets a doomed, but utterly dreamy, Tudor king who is destined for a dreadful fate. This fast-paced time-slip romance series has already received acclaim from Foreword Reviews, YA Books Central, InD'Tale Magazine, and popular YA authors Brigid Kemmerer (A Curse So Dark and Lonely) and CJ Flood (Infinite Sky), among others. 

Exit West

By Mohsin Hamid,

Book cover of Exit West

A moving love story set against a surreal landscape. The spare and inventive prose packs a powerful punch in this novella-length book. 

A subtle and moving examination of how relationships survive against a backdrop of forced migration. It cleverly explores who has the right to be where. The ending to this unconventional love story will stay with you long after reading. This book is perfect for book club discussion groups as it poses so many important questions of our time.

Exit West

By Mohsin Hamid,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Exit West as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A BBC 2 Between the Covers Book Club Pick - Booker Gems

THE NEW YORK TIMES AND SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER
SHORTLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2017
WINNER OF THE ASPEN WORDS LITERARY PRIZE

'Astonishing' Zadie Smith
'Stunning' Spectator
'Extraordinary' TLS

An extraordinary story of love and hope from the bestselling author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist

All over the world, doors are appearing.
They lead to other cities, other countries, other lives.

And in a city gripped by war, Nadia and Saeed are newly in love.
Hardly more than strangers, desperate to survive, they open a door and step through.…


Who am I?

Stories of migration journeys and their knock-on impact through the generations are part of my family history. Like Jacques, the key protagonist in Austerlitz, I too wasn’t told the whole story of my family’s past. Stumbling on stories of colonialism, migration, and racism as an adult has opened up an understanding of a very different world to that of my childhood. The books I have recommended are all excellent examples of migration stories and through the use of beautiful prose pack a punch in a ‘velvet glove’.


I wrote...

Boundless Sky

By Amanda Addison, Manuela Adreani (illustrator),

Book cover of Boundless Sky

What is my book about?

This is the story of a bird so small that fits in your hand, flying halfway around the world looking for a place to nest. This is the story of a young girl from northern Africa fleeing halfway around the world looking for a place of peace. This is the story of Bird. This is the story of Leila. This is the story of a chance encounter and a long journey home.

"Beneath the surface, one can find many opportunities for a deep conversation about belonging, welcoming, and freedom from oppression and danger.- Youth Book Review Services,

"A beautiful exploration of friendship, the parallel migrations of Bird and Leila, and the welcome they receive in their new home." - Library Girl and Book Boy

A Replacement Life

By Boris Fishman,

Book cover of A Replacement Life

Boris Fishman made his debut with the story of Salva, a journalist for a long famous magazine asked to forge Holocaust-restitution claims—by and for his grandfather, a Russian immigrant living in South Brooklyn. Soon Salva achieves the American dream—a something from nothing business writing false claims.  It seems there’s a neighborhood full of people who can use his writing services. I loved this novel, a tender and wise study in the meaning of family, loyalty, and justice. Tragedy meets comedy in A Replacement Life.

A Replacement Life

By Boris Fishman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Replacement Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A failing young Russian American journalist's life is unexpectedly transformed when he forges Holocaust restitution claims for his rogue grandfather and his friends

Young Russian immigrant Slava Gelman wants to be a great American writer, but is only a researcher at a New Yorker-style magazine. When his beloved grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, dies, his grandfather corners him with a request: could he forge a few Holocaust restitution claims? Slava resists at first, but eventually his semi-fictional accounts turn out to be the best writing he has ever done. Although he lives in fear of discovery and continues to stumble from…

Who am I?

Children were seen and not heard when I was growing up in Flushing, Queens, where I had one tree in front of my house. I moved to Connecticut as an adult and now I look out on woods and bears sneaking into my garage. The result of my silent childhood is I’m an excellent listener and an even better eavesdropper—superb traits for a writer. I owned a Connecticut advertising agency for most of my adult life then realized I could make less money if I became an author. My first book was published when I turned 63—which is amazing because I'm only 40. 

I wrote...

Crazy to Leave You

By Marilyn Simon Rothstein,

Book cover of Crazy to Leave You

What is my book about?

Forty-one years old, the last of her friends to marry, and down to a size 12, Lauren Leo is in her gown and about to tie the knot. There’s just one thing missing: the groom. With one blindsiding text, Lauren is unceremoniously dumped at the altar. In the aftermath, her mother is an endless well of unsolicited advice. Her sisters only add to the Great Humiliation: one is planted on Lauren’s couch while the other is too perfect.

Picking her heart up off the floor, Lauren turns to her work in advertising as she gathers the courage to move on and plan her next step. With a new way to measure love and success, Lauren chucks her scale―and finds a second chance in the most unexpected place.

Foreign Gods, Inc.

By Okey Ndibe,

Book cover of Foreign Gods, Inc.

I was a religious studies minor in college and love reading about traditional religious practices. When I met Nigerian American author Okey Ndibe at a writing retreat in Kenya, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy of his second novel. This satirical novel gives new life to the meaning of worship. When statue buyer, Ike Uzondu steals an African sculpture from a New York shop and sells it in his ancestral village in Nigeria, the two worlds collide and we witness the cost of modernity to the human spirit

Foreign Gods, Inc.

By Okey Ndibe,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Foreign Gods, Inc. as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From a disciple of the late Chinua Achebe comes a masterful and universally acclaimed novel that is at once a taut, literary thriller and an indictment of greed’s power to subsume all things, including the sacred.

Foreign Gods, Inc., tells the story of Ike, a New York-based Nigerian cab driver who sets out to steal the statue of an ancient war deity from his home village and sell it to a New York gallery.

Ike's plan is fueled by desperation. Despite a degree in economics from a major American college, his strong accent has barred him from the corporate world.…

Who am I?

When I first met Michael Majok Kuch and he asked me if I was interested in writing his life story, I knew nothing about South Sudan. Over the next several years, we met weekly. I’d interview him, write a chapter, research it, and then show it to him for his approval. I read everything I could find on South Sudan and the adjacent countries. In fact, I became so obsessed with Michael's culture that once I read Francis Mading Deng's Dinka Folktales, Mike’s sister arranged a meeting between Francis Mading Deng and me. These books prepared me for writing How Fast Can You Run, helping other “Lost Boys” of Sudan reunite with their mothers.


I wrote...

How Fast Can You Run

By Harriet Levin Millan,

Book cover of How Fast Can You Run

What is my book about?

Set across a backdrop of refugee migration, How Fast Can You Run is the inspiring story of Michael Majok Kuch and his journey to find his mother. In 1988, Majok, as a five-year-old boy, fled his burning village in southern Sudan and trekked through the wilderness in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya to arrive at a series of refugee camps where he would live for the next ten years. When the U.S. brokered an agreement granting approximately 4,000 unaccompanied minors political asylum, Majok, now Michael, was given a new start. Yet his new life was not without trauma. He faced prejudice once again, disrupting the promise of new beginnings. How Fast Can You Run summons the courageous spirit of millions of refugees throughout history and today.

The Orenda

By Joseph Boyden,

Book cover of The Orenda

Grounded in historical fact, The Orenda (The Magic) tells the story of Jesuit missionaries caught up in the war between the Wendats (Hurons) and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) living on the shores of Lake Huron in the mid-1600s. It’s a very dark book, with its depictions of ritual torture not for the squeamish, but it perfectly captures the time and culture of two very different civilizations, grappling to understand one another. Bowden does an excellent job of capturing the thoughts and outlook of the Wendat war chief Bird, and the French missionaries struggling to Christianize his village.

I loved this book because it helped me to understand the Indians’ way of thinking and their outlook on the world.

The Orenda

By Joseph Boyden,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Orenda as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE LIBRIS AWARD — FICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR

In the wilds of seventeenth-century North America, the lives of a Jesuit missionary, a young Iroquois girl, and a great warrior and elder statesman of the Huron Nation become entwined.

The Huron have battled the Iroquois for generations, but now both tribes face a new, more dangerous threat from another land. Uneasy alliances are made and unmade, cultures and beliefs clash in the face of precipitous change, and not everyone will survive the march of history. Joseph Boyden’s magisterial novel tells this story of blood and hope, suspicion and…

Who am I?

I’ve written seven books, all along the theme of adventure in one way or another, but my best-known work is that of my novels of the Ojibwe Indians. As a child, I grew up on a farm where my dad discovered scores of arrowheads and artifacts while plowing the fields. This was a deep revelation for me as to the extent of Indian culture and how little we know of its people. In my books, Windigo Moon and The Wolf and The Willow, I try to bring the world of the 1500s and its Native peoples to life.


I wrote...

The Wolf and The Willow

By Robert Downes,

Book cover of The Wolf and The Willow

What is my book about?

The Wolf and The Willow is a novel of first contact between Native peoples and European explorers. Willow, a house slave of a Moroccan lord, is swept up in the 1528 expedition of conquistador Panfilo Narvaez to the New World. There, she meets Animi-Ma’lingan (He Who Outruns the Wolves), a young trader and storyteller who is on a mission to find a mysterious animal for the shamans of the Ojibwe people. Together, Willow and Wolf must outwit their captors on a journey up the Mississippi River through the heart of many thriving Indian civilizations.

The novel delves into the culture of the Ojibwe, Odawa, Mandan, Dakota Sioux, Caddo, and other tribes, culminating in a showdown at the great pyramid of Cahokia near present-day St. Louis.

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