One of my main blog themes centres around books that explore different cultures so this is a topic that I often find myself drawn to (and means I have plenty of recommendations). Most of the culturally diverse books I’ve discovered are from the Bookstagram community and book clubs, particularly my friend Minaal’s book club – most of her picks were books I’d never heard of before and a bunch of them feature on this list.
I can definitely promise plenty of armchair travel – we’ll visit 19 countries in fact, from India, China and Iran, to Australia, Iceland and Jamaica, plus a range of others in between. Get ready to add these best books about different cultures to your overflowing TBR.
For culturally diverse books, my number one recommendation is:
The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Genre: Multi-generational historical fiction | Vietnamese culture
Between Hương and her grandma, The Mountains Sing tells Vietnam’s history like you’ve never heard it before.
From the Land Reform and the Viet Nam War to civil upheaval and corruption, this book brings to light an unspoken past. A one-sided past that most of us have learned from American and western media.
There are some heavy topics explored and some harsh realities revealed, making it a book that everyone should read, just to get a glimpse of the Vietnam most of us have never known about.
I can’t recommend this book enough – not only does it uncover important historical events that we need to be aware of, but it’s also beautifully written and vividly presented.
Other culturally diverse books to broaden your reading
Three Apples Fell from the Sky
by Narine Abgaryan
Genre: Literary fiction | Armenian culture
If you enjoy character-driven stories, remote settings and a touch of magical realism, then this book is one for you. Set in the Armenian mountains, Three Apples Fell From the Sky explores themes of culture, community, and resilience, as the villagers tirelessly fight to survive on their ancestors’ land.
If you’re looking for your next book club read, I recommend Three Apples as there is a lot to discuss and unpick.
A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam
Genre: Literary fiction | Indian and Sri Lankan culture
If you’re a fan of the writing style in Catcher in the Rye (i.e. lots of internal and meandering monologue), then add A Passage North to your TBR (especially if you’re also looking to tick Sri Lanka off your #ReadTheWorld list).
The story is narrated by Krishan who, having returned to Sri Lanka after spending many years in India, learns of the tragic death of his grandmother’s caretaker. He decides to make the long journey to the war-torn north of his home country, reminiscing on his life along the way.
This book is the definition of freeing – one thought sparks a memory for Krishan, which then goes off on a different tangent that he dissects and reflects on. It’s thought-provoking, especially around the theme of feeling present and immersing yourself in daily moments.
The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo
Genre: Historical fantasy fiction | Malaysian and Chinese culture
The Night Tiger is a mesmerizing story brimming with Chinese folklore, superstition, and fate, along with some severed body parts, namely thumbs.
Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia edited by Anita Heiss
Genre: Nonfiction | Australian culture
Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia is a collection of bite-sized anecdotes from Australians who recount stories and feelings related to their Aboriginal culture.
The stories are insightful, educational, and difficult to digest, especially those that recall the stolen generation. I absolutely recommend the audiobook, where you can listen to and absorb each story slowly.
Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena
Genre: Literary fiction | Soviet culture (set in Latvia)
On the surface, Soviet Milk is about an unnamed mother and her daughter who struggle to bond. But dig a little deeper and you’ll understand how the mother was deprived of her specialist career, exiled from her city, and mentally drained from having to live under communist rulings.
It’s a book about identity, endurance, and ultimately, change.
It’s one of those books you’ve never heard of so have low expectations, only to add it to your top ten books of the year after realising how much of a lasting impact the writing and story had on you.
Whether you’re looking for a translated novel, a book set in the Baltics, or just want to read something completely different, Soviet Milk is a highly recommended option.
The Stationery Shop [of Tehran] by Marjan Kamali
Genre: Historical fiction | Iranian culture
The Stationery Shop is, at its core, a love story between Roya and Bahman, Iranian teenagers from very different backgrounds.
Set against the backdrop of Tehran in the midst of political upheaval, the two become separated when Bahman vanishes without a word. More than 60 years later, fate brings them together and questions that have haunted Roya’s life for decades can finally be answered.
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
Genre: Contemporary fiction | Indian culture
This sweeping family saga begins with an Indian couple who emigrate to America. Ashimi struggles to find her place, seeking out other Bengali families who remind her of home. Her son, Gogol, questions his identity, feeling neither Indian nor American, and mostly blaming it on his Russian name. As he grows up, he tries shedding the name in an effort to fit in, until his father finally reveals the true meaning behind the elusive Gogol.
The Namesake isn’t a book filled with fast-paced plot twists; instead, it’s a story about an ordinary family, trying to adapt to a new life, a new country, and new customs. It’s a story to savour and ponder, dissect and discuss how certain themes resonate with our lives today, even if we don’t share the same cultural identity.
The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea
Genre: Historical and gothic fiction | Icelandic culture
The Glass Woman is a mysterious tale of love and deception; when Jon’s new wife, Rosa arrives in his settlement, she is shunned by the community and haunted by the locked loft in Jon’s croft. As she tries to fit in, she hears strange things about her husband’s first wife, many of which lead her to suspect that Jon’s version of events are not as they seem.
Songbirds by Christy Lefteri
Genre: Historical fiction | Cypriot and Sri Lankan culture
Songbirds is a powerful and insightful novel about a Sri Lankan domestic worker in Cyprus who vanishes from her employer’s home, thus uncovering a string of other disappearances of foreign women that have gone ignored.
Augustown by Kei Miller
Genre: Historical fiction with magical realism | Jamaican culture
It’s impossible to summarise Augustown as there’s so much to it that a brief overview just wouldn’t do it justice. In short, it is a very impactful novel that explores Jamaican history in vivid and entrancing prose that will keep you turning the pages at every opportunity.
The Cat Who Saved Books by Sōsuke Natsukawa
Genre: Fantasy fiction | Japanese culture
In The Cat Who Saved Books Rintaro embarks on three important book-saving missions, along with his feline sidekick. Rintaro’s success will change his whole outlook on life and lead him towards a final mission, but one he must face alone. It’s a heartwarming tale with much food for thought that bookworms will appreciate.
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Genre: Nonfiction memoir | South African culture
Born into a world built on racial identity, Trevor Noah with his white father and a black Xhosa mother (highly illegal at the time) struggled to find his place in both pre and post-Apartheid South Africa. This memoir provides snapshots from his life where he recalls his loneliness, his terror, and his unwavering respect for the fearless woman who raised him.
Noah has a unique way of injecting hilarity into stories that might otherwise be too tough to digest. He lightens the content without it losing impact and meaning. I was utterly engrossed in his tales and couldn’t put the book down. If this list was in order, this would be my second, if not joint-highest recommendation.
An Ordinary Wonder by Buki Papillon
Genre: LGBTQ+ fiction | Nigerian culture
An Ordinary Wonder is a refreshing and diverse coming-of-age story, told from the eyes of Oto; a male pseudohermaphrodite who is shunned by their parents, especially their mother who believes Oto was spawned from the devil. Raised a boy, Oto struggles with their identity, truly believing that they are a girl but unable to express these feelings in fear of further neglect and even, potentially, death.
Even more cultural reads to dive into:
- Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea – contemporary fiction about the hidden lives of women in Saudi Arabia (I didn’t love this one but it certainly gives you a glimpse into a ‘forbidden’ world/culture).
- Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden – cultural Japanese fiction that gives an introduction and insight into the Geisha lifestyle (I wanted to love this one so much more but I found it slow and excessively long).
- The Pearl that Broke its Shell by Nadia Hashimi – cultural fiction set in Afghanistan about a brotherless girl who adopts the ancient custom of bacha posh, allowing her to dress and be treated as a son for extra freedoms.
- The Family Tree by Sairish Hussain – contemporary fiction about a British Muslim family, covering themes around family, culture, and identity.
- Interpretor of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri – a collection of nuanced short stories, that explore traditional Indian cultures across continents and generations.
- A Burning by Megha Majumdar – contemporary novel narrated by three interconnected characters, including Jivan, a Muslim girl who, after posting a rash comment on Facebook is arrested for terrorism and budding actress, Lovely, who plays a key part in Jivan’s story as her only alibi.
- The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah – a raw and tender story that centres around a Muslim school shooting in America; however, while the shooting is a key part of the novel, it by no means defines it.
- A Single Swallow by Ling Zhang – historical fiction predominantly set in China about three men (a missionary, a gunner’s mate and a Chinese soldier) who meet up in the afterlife to share memories of war and a girl that each man loved in his own way.