10 Multicultural Novels for Book Groups: Recommended Fiction From Around the World

For readers who like to explore diverse cultures through fiction, it has been an excellent decade.

Since 2000, authors from many countries have published award-winning novels in English. The following is a small sample of this rich literary production. Each of these books lends itself to discussion of historical and contemporary social issues and to follow-up activities — ideal for book groups.

Ancestor Stones, by Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leonean)

The author was 11 years old when her dissident father was hanged for treason in Sierra Leone. The novel explores the trauma of that country’s civil war through the life stories of four sisters in the fictional Kholifa family.

Afterward: Read The Devil that Danced on Water, Forna’s memoir of her childhood in Sierra Leone.

Brick Lane, by Monica Ali (Bangladeshi)

At age 18, Nazneen immigrates from her village in Bangladesh to the East End of London to enter into an arranged marriage with an older man. The novel, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, presents a rich though controversial portrait of London’s Bangladeshi community.

Afterward: See the movie Brick Lane (2007), starring Tannishtha Chatterjee.

The Hummingbird’s Daughter, by Luis Alberto Urrea (Mexican American)

In 1889, as Mexico is descending into civil war, 16-year-old Teresita arises from her coffin with miraculous healing powers. This epic novel, set in the borderlands of northern Mexico, is inspired by the story of Urrea’s real great-aunt Teresita, who was regarded as a saint.

Afterward: Read the interview with Urrea in which he discusses The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

The Lizard Cage, by Karen Connelly (Canadian)

In a dismal prison in Yangon, Burma, a songwriter named Teza is serving 20 years in solitary confinement for his opposition to the brutal Burmese dictatorship. His friendship with a young orphan who lives in the prison is the core of this haunting political novel.

Afterward: Read Burmese Lessons: A Love Story, Connelly’s memoir of her experiences on the war-torn Thai-Burmese border, where she spent two years among Burmese exiles.

The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri (Indian American)

After their arranged marriage in the late 1960s, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli emigrate from Calcutta to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Years later, their U.S.-born, Yale-educated son Gogol struggles to define himself in both the Bengali cultural world of his parents and the milieu of the American professional elite.

Afterward: See the movie The Namesake (2006), directed by Mira Nair and starring Kal Penn.

The Secret River, by Kate Grenville (Australian)

William Thornhill, convicted of petty theft in late 18th-century London, is exiled with his family to New South Wales, Australia. After gaining his freedom, he erects a homestead on the Hawkesbury River, coming into conflict with the Aboriginal inhabitants of the land.

Afterward: Read Searching for the Secret River, Grenville’s account of her research into her family’s history, which became the basis for the novel.

The Space Between Us, by Thrity Umrigar (Indian)

Set in Mumbai, the novel centers on the complicated relationship between Bhima, a lower-caste Hindu serving woman, and Sera, the educated, well-to-do Parsi woman who employs her.

Afterward: Read interviews with Umrigar on the author’s website.

Star of the Sea, by Joseph O’Connor (Irish)

This historical novel, full of plot twists and intrigue, delves into the intertwined lives and checkered pasts of a shipload of passengers fleeing the Irish potato famine in 1847.

Afterward: Read about the Irish potato famine.

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith (British)

This acclaimed first novel by a young writer paints a picture of immigrant life in multicultural North London. It centers on the friendship between a working-class Englishman, Archibald Jones, and a Bengali Muslim waiter, Samad Iqbal.

Afterward: See the four-part television miniseries White Teeth (2002).

The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany (Egyptian)

At the prestigious Yacoubian Building in downtown Cairo, wealthy residents inhabit the apartments while poor families live in made-over storage sheds on the roof. This novel, a bestseller in the Arab world, is a sharp-edged critique of contemporary Egyptian society.

Afterward: See the movie The Yacoubian Building (2006), starring Egyptian film icon Adel Imam.

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