The following books translate those histories gracefully between characters separated by generational divides (and, sometimes, by death). They also achieve a deep cultural knowledge, conveyed in a thousand microscopic mannerisms and thoughts, which can be so difficult to express to the uninitiated reader and, indeed, so difficult even for the initiated writer to excavate from the familiarity of lived experience.
1. Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam
A vibrant narrative with threads in hip present-day Brooklyn and warring 1970s Bangladesh, Bright Lines centers around two modern young women coming—sometimes awkwardly, sometimes brazenly—into their own. Islam is the founder of the perfumery Hi Wildflower Botanica, and hers is writing imbued with the sensuous. As sisters Charu and Ella learn about the world their parents left behind and the memories they brought with them to the United States, scents and tastes form bridges: wartime rebels feed rescued women juicy watermelons hacked open with machetes, loved ones smell of fried onion or attar of roses, a library of backyard botanicals and an apothecary of aromatic tinctures bond a father and his daughters. The family’s visit to Bangladesh spans the full spectrum of our relationships to our cultures: young to old, beautiful to acerbic, cherished to reluctant.
2. The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang
A prelude to a suicide begins this precisely revealed family saga. The soon-to-be deceased is David Nowak, the wealthy, mentally unstable patriarch of a family flung together by his desires then left to define itself in his absence. Wang masterfully shifts perspectives, including between David’s privileged Polish-American upbringing in Brooklyn and the tough, sharp-tongued youth of his Taiwanese wife, Jia-Hui Chen. She also knows how to push and expose the pressure points of culture clash. Back in America, David replaces the name his “Oriental lamb” was given at birth with the cutesy and ineffectual Daisy. After David’s death, Daisy raises their son and David’s daughter—the product of an affair—according to a Chinese tradition in which families raise adopted girls alongside their future husbands. The gothic fallout of this decision on the Nowaks’ isolated family compound is a quarantined struggle for selfhood and agency when cultural and familial roles are muddled.
3. Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce
The protagonist of Pull Me Under, Chizuru Akitani, is at once an insider and outsider, born in Japan to an American mother (who commits suicide in her daughter’s youth) and a Japanese father (an acclaimed violinist and absentee parent). Chizuru is also a split self: she goes to juvenile detention for fatally attacking a classmate, but upon her court-ordered banishment to America, she renames herself Rio Akitani and starts a new life. When Rio’s father’s death calls her back to Japan, Luce conjures rich supporting characters to guide Rio on a figurative and literal pilgrimage in her mother country (the 88-temple Shikoku pilgrimage, which Rio, an almost-fanatical runner, wants to race through). The setting underscores the power of place: Rio’s mother jumps to her death from the then-new Õnaruto Bridge, which is notable for both the body of water beneath it—the churning whirlpools of the Naruto Strait—and for being the island of Shikoku’s first connection to the mainland. Against these backdrops, Luce beautifully considers the effects our birthplaces have on our psyches, even when we want to forget them, and the way that leaving home can bring both relief and, later, fear for what might have been lost.
4. Dear Fang, With Love by Rufi Thorpe
This is a story about stories—specifically, stories families tell about themselves. Family lore defines both seventeen-year-old Vera, recently diagnosed as bipolar, and her great-grandmother, whose cinematic escape from the Nazi gas chambers Vera’s somewhat-estranged father, Lucas, has heard and told his entire life. After Vera’s diagnosis, Lucas—who feels unable to penetrate the “cellular Russianness” that unite Vera and her mother, Katya—books himself and Vera on a historical tour of Vilnius, Lithuania, his grandmother’s birthplace. The narrative alternates between Lucas’s point-of-view and letters that Vera writes to her boyfriend Fang back home, which provide a full-throated voice for both her veracious intelligence and her mental fragility. At the core of the book’s nuanced heart and well-pitched wit is a knot of philosophical questions about identity, history, and ethnicity that Thorpe approaches with clarity and verve, from Lucas’ well-meaning but floppy attempts at self-reckoning to Vera’s manic, wild-eyed interpretations of the tour of Vilnius, a place so decimated by war and genocide as to be “a city without memory.”
5. Half Wild by Robin MacArthur
This short-story collection, set in the author’s native rural Vermont, alternates between expansive forests and cramped trailers, both feral in their ways. MacArthur’s Vermont is a lifestyle, or perhaps a condition. Its population is divided into natives and interlopers (hippies, developers, “summer people”), its time marked by cans of beer and runs of seasonal work. Her characters—who float between stories, compounding the book’s intimacy—feel the simultaneous push and pull that such a troubled, beautiful place inspires in any of its children who dare to set off on their own. For these reasons, I recognize my Appalachia in MacArthur’s atomically realized rural world. I nodded in agreement when a comfortable professor—returned to care for the family farmhouse where his younger, crippled brother died doing field work he had refused to do—explains “Not everyone feels this way about the place they were born.”