I really wanted to title this Four must-reads novels for cross-cultural work, but I was concerned that some of you would see the word “novel” and think “Ain’t got time for that!” and move on. But wait! I predominately read nonfiction, but I have found that fiction lets me reflect and process my life in ways that surprise me. Nonfiction lessons seem to enter my head. (The way I prefer lessons to enter.) While fiction sneaks lesson past my head and haunts my heart.
It has been years since I first read the following four books, but their lessons have stayed with me.
Books are a wonderful way to fall into another world and see things in ways we might have missed. Here are four must-reads when it comes to cross-cultural themes. They cover the broad spectrum of cross-cultural experiences: bad, innocent, good, and true.
1. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – Placed in Africa, this story chronicles a family of six moving as missionaries to a village. The story is told through the voices of the wife and daughters with the father prominent in the story. Kingsolver’s ability to capture the uniqueness of each female is some of the best writing ever. Be warned, you may want to scream at times.
2. The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell – While living in the US several years ago I attended a book group that without fail, no matter what they were discussing referred back to “Priests in space.” I knew it was a must read. Russell wrote this in response to Columbus’ 500 year anniversary. Many were critical of Columbus and she wanted to remind us that people of that era came with the best of intentions and did not intend for it to go so poorly!.A group of Jesuit priests go to another planet to observe two species; they took great pains to alter nothing, become involved in nothing, and return home leaving no “footprints.” (Disclaimer: one part is not easy to read because some scenes are disturbing, but that’s true of cross-cultural work too!) Children of God is the follow-up book when the main priest is forced to go back, allowing for many confusions to be answered. It is also disturbing.
3. City of Tranquil Light: A Novel by Bo Caldwell — Will and Katherine moved to Guang Ping Cheng, China in 1904 where they lived for the next 20 years. Burying their only child, living through famine and war, setting up a clinic and school and starting a church — this book is a picture of the dance between seeing amazing things happen among very ordinary and hard times.
4. The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason — Set in the 1880s in Burma (Myanmar), Edgar Drake is commissioned by the London War Office to tune an Erand grand piano, deep in the jungle of Burma. Written in the pace of a different era, Edgar’s journey and learning about the history and culture of the land he came to serve mirrors many of ours. What he thought he would be doing is not exactly what he ended up doing. But more than that, he is changed in ways he never expected, in part because what he was told about Burma before he arrived is not quite what he found.
Bonus book: Fieldwork: A Novel by Mischa Berlinski.
What books would you add to the list?
A version of this post first appeared here.