If you’re lacking the funds or time to make it to another country, grab a good book that will ~transport~ you to another world. Reading novels is one of my favorite ways to learn about history and other cultures. I love a good all-American YA best seller as much as the next girl, but let’s check out some reads that venture a little farther.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
This book y’all. It made me cry, it made me mad, and it made me feel peace. This novel travels through the lineage of two branches of one family: the side of the family that remained in what is now Ghana, and the side of the family that was sold into slavery and became American.
As each chapter tells the story of a different character, the novel explores generational trauma, memory, and identity.
It can be a difficult read at times because of the sexual violence in the first half of the book, but the novel is well worth it if you’re up to it. Homegoing made me think about history, the present, and the future differently.
From a Native Daughter by Haunani-Kay Trask
Trask is a bada$$ native Hawaiian activist, professor, and author. To be honest, I didn’t read this book cover to cover, but even just reading a few chapters is worth your time. It’s so important to educate ourselves and think critically about how our seemingly innocent actions, like traveling, can make us complicit in larger systems of oppression. (Preachy but true.)
She writes what she knows and what she feels and is not worried about protecting anyone’s feelings as she details the ways in which her people and land continue to be exploited, abused, and fetishized. This book is a complicated read that might spark an internal debate. I read one of her pieces while I was in Hawaii with my family. The chapter ends with her advising non-Hawaiians not to come to her home. So was it enough that I went with good intentions and tried to educate myself? Maybe not. But would my not going have had any positive impact? I’m not sure.
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Lahiri’s collection of short stories details the lives and journeys of Bengali characters in Western countries. The stories focus on family life: sibling relationships, parenting, marriage, and love in its many forms. The author also explores identity and the ways in which Americans are able to hold onto their ancestral cultures. Whether you’re a person of color in the United States or Europe, the child of immigrants, or you’ve experienced a culture clash within yourself or within your family, this book will definitely have some relatable content. If you need any more convincing, Unaccustomed Earth was number one on the New York Times Book Review’s “10 Best Books of 2008.”
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
This is one of the only books I’ve ever read twice. If you’re looking to laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time, this is the book for you. The novel goes from New Jersey to the Dominican Republic to tell the story of a “dangerously overweight ghetto nerd” and his discovery of love, identity, and family.
Throw in a little profanity, Spanglish, history lessons, and conspiracy theories and there you have it.
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
I read this book maybe five years ago, but I still think about it from time to time. It’s one of those books that creates a movie in your head, crafting images out of words on pages. The novel begins in Herat, Afghanistan and spans 30 years of the country’s volatile modern history. It tells the beautiful and painful story of two girls whose lives collide after a disaster. The book deals with tragedy, forced marriage, secret romance, and much more. You will definitely get emotionally invested.
Now that’s a lot of pages to get through…so let’s shut up and read!
What book should I read to learn about your home country or culture?