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Places, Cultures & Identities

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The Lost (and Found) Community of Weeksville (04/21)
Greenidge's character Dr. Cathy Sampson in Libertie is based on the real-life story of Dr. Susan McKinney Steward, the first Black woman to become a medical doctor in New York State. The novel's setting, meanwhile, is based on the historical settlement of Weeksville, which was located in what is now the Crown Heights neighborhood in the ...
The Flying African in the Americas (04/21)
The story of the flying African is as old as the history of Africans in the Americas. Thus, it is no surprise that this trope finds its way into Afia Atakora's debut novel, Conjure Women.

The basic notion behind the folktale lies in a secret power, a secret magic known to a select few. This power allows a person to grow wings, or in ...
Feminist Movements in South Korea (03/21)
South Korean society has long been profoundly patriarchal, with traditional expectations that designate men as breadwinners and women as homemakers remaining intact even as more women have entered the workforce. According to a 2017 report, Korea has the highest gender pay gap among all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and ...
The Muisca (03/21)
In Patricia Engel's novel Infinite Country, several of the main characters draw inspiration from their Muisca ancestors and legends. The Muisca, also known as the Chibcha, are an indigenous civilization that thrived in present-day Colombia before Europeans colonized the area. Bogotá, Colombia's capital city, is situated on an ancient...
The Women of ISIS (03/21)
Known for its brutal track record of executions and torture of hostages and civilians (including women and children), some may find it surprising that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) jihadist group attracts a fair number of female recruits. While there are mitigating factors that vary for each woman, for many the appeal seems ...
How Drug Cartels Became a Potent Force in Mexico (03/21)
One of the main areas of focus in Blood Gun Money is the role of drug cartels in criminal activity in Mexico. In particular, two organizations are cited multiple times: Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel. Both are known for the number of enemies they've dispatched and their brutal methods of doing so. As stated in the book, guns, many of ...
Indian Casinos: Who Profits? (02/21)
When most people hear the word 'casino,' they think of slot machines trilling and the tinny crashing of coins. But there is a deeper significance to gambling, especially as it pertains to casinos located on federal Indian reservations. While a fun pastime for many, casinos are the lifeblood for the Native American tribes across the ...
Circassian Ethnic Identity and History (02/21)
In All-American Muslim Girl, Allie Abraham's family is ethnically Circassian, which accounts in part for her fair, reddish blonde hair. As Allie observes, few Americans have ever heard of Circassians, so in the novel she gives a very cursory background that only begins to describe the history and struggles of this group of people. Author ...
The Legacy of Ireland's Curses (02/21)
In Ruth Gilligan's novel The Butchers' Blessing, we meet a small yet devoted group of people who strive to uphold historic, ritualistic methods of cattle slaughter in 1990s Ireland. They do this in accordance with their continued belief in the power of the so-called 'Curse of the Farmer's Widow.' Born of an ancient folktale of unknown ...
Ting Hua: Obedience and Filial Piety in Chinese American Parental Relationships (02/21)
Of all the demands made of Susie Yang's character Ivy in her debut novel White Ivy, few are more pernicious than the constant demand that she be ting hua, or a 'good' girl. For Ivy, to be ting hua means, more than anything else, obscuring her individuality and right to self-determination so that her family can see the version of her they ...
A Brief History of Cienfuegos, Cuba (01/21)
The Black Cathedral by Marcial Gala is set in a run-down neighborhood known as Punta Gotica in the real Cuban city of Cienfuegos, where an architecturally unique cathedral is planned for the Church of the Holy Sacrament. This may be all the more significant considering that Cienfuegos is known for its own particular brand of architecture ...
East Asian Populations in Plano, Texas (01/21)
Simon Han's debut novel Nights When Nothing Happened is set in Plano, Texas, located about 20 miles north of Dallas and 50 miles northeast of Fort Worth. The Chengs, who are Chinese American, have chosen to live in Plano because it is a safe community with good schools, but what's not stated overtly is that the city and surrounding area ...
Megiddo (01/21)
In To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss, a character in the story 'End Days' is an archaeologist working at Tel Megiddo, the site of the ancient Palestinian city of Megiddo, which is situated near present-day Haifa, Israel. 'Tel' refers to the 'mound' on the site in which excavations have uncovered 26 layers of remains of ancient ...
Lamorna Cove (01/21)
Found on the Cornish coast, five miles from the port town of Penzance in Southwestern Britain, Lamorna Cove is a picture-perfect beauty spot. Adored by locals and much admired by visitors from far and wide, its charm has made it a sought-after location for TV and movies, perhaps most notably in the 2013 film Summer in February starring ...
India's Street Children (08/20)
Jayant Kaikini's short story collection, No Presents Please, does some of its best work exploring Mumbai's marginalized communities, including the prominently featured community of the city's street children, many of whom roam the streets alone, neglected, undernourished and with few prospects for the future. Stories like 'A Spare Pair of...
A History of Acapulco and Ongoing Cartel Control (12/20)
Acapulco de Juárez, commonly known as Acapulco, is a city located on the coast of Mexico in the southwestern state of Guerrero. The name 'Acapulco' is believed to come from a word in the Náhuatl (Aztec) language meaning 'place of the reeds.' Once considered a desirable vacation spot and bustling resort town, Acapulco has in ...
The Legend of Pardes (11/20)
In David Hopen's novel, The Orchard, the main action is set in motion by a discussion of the Jewish legend of Pardes. In the tale, four celebrated sages enter the orchard, but only one emerges unscathed by his encounter with the divine.

The word 'Pardes' comes from the ancient Persian word pairidaeza, which refers to an enclosed garden...
The Spirituality and Symbolism of Buddhist Art (11/20)
In today's world, art therapy has become an increasingly popular option. According to the American Art Therapy Association (AATA), this experiential treatment 'is used to improve cognitive and sensorimotor functions, foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce and ...
Somali Resettlement in the United States (11/20)
Amid ongoing civil war, more than a million Somalis have fled their homeland in recent decades and now live somewhere else. According to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), Kenya is host to the largest number of Somali refugees, with 256,186, followed by Yemen with 250,500 and Ethiopia with 192,082. Many Somali ...
Pre-Columbian Religion in the Americas (11/20)
One of the most spectacular elements of Rebecca Roanhorse's Black Sun is its deep dive into pre-Columbian culture and beliefs. In a stark departure from the usual medieval European landscape used as a foundation in fantasy novels, Roanhorse instead uses the ancient landscape and religions of the Americas as the blueprint for her work. In ...
Café Loup (10/20)
In Zadie Smith's story 'Downtown,' characters mourn the closing of Café Loup. The West Village restaurant and bar, founded in 1977, had become a beloved institution to its loyal patrons when it was suddenly seized in September 2018 for over $100,000 in unpaid taxes. The tributes poured in immediately, as did the accounts of the spot'...
Stolpersteine (10/20)
In Those Who Forget, author Géraldine Schwarz relates a visit her father paid to his parents' former home in Mannheim, Germany, looking for a specific 'Stolperstein' installed outside the apartment.

The word 'Stolperstein' (plural 'Stolpersteine') means 'stumbling stone' or 'stumbling block' in German. These small ...
Mendocino, California (10/20)
Even amidst ghosts; a loving, family-centered farm; and the courageous Mila trying to face horrible memories from her past, Nina LaCour's description of Mendocino, California in Watch Over Me stands out when Mila gets her chance to go there as part of a farmer's market:

Mendocino greeted us with its tiny business district, its ...

Inis Meáin (Inishmaan) (10/20)
Inis Óg, the island home of the Moone family in The Dazzling Truth, might be a fictional location, but exploring the real small coastal islands of Ireland can offer an idea of what it would be like to live where the characters do. Well-known examples include the Aran Islands, three limestone islands known individually as Inis M&#...
Iceland and the Catholic Church (09/20)
One of the main characters in The Sacrament is truly its setting: Iceland. Serving as the emotional nexus for multiple characters in the novel, it stamps the narrative with an authoritative and unyielding presence.

Iceland is a Nordic country located in the North Atlantic, an island that is the 18th largest in the world and Europe's ...
The Musée Rodin (09/20)
Several important scenes in Louise Penny's mystery, All the Devils Are Here, take place in the gardens of the Musée Rodin. Located in Paris, just south of the River Seine and about a mile east of the Eiffel Tower, the museum and its grounds boast thousands of Auguste Rodin's sculptures, casts and drawings, as well as thousands of...
The Origins of Islam in Pakistan (09/20)
In Homeland Elegies, author Ayad Akhtar explores Pakistani characters' relationships to Islam. The roots of Islam in the area now known as Pakistan can be traced back almost as far as the birth of the religion itself. As early as the 7th century, Arab armies attempted to spread Islam to the Indian subcontinent, but it took centuries ...
Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Prison (09/20)
At the end of World War II, Germany was divided into four occupation zones governed by France, Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1949, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), also referred to as East Germany, was formed as a communist state in the Soviet territory. The most notorious apparatus of the GDR's repressive...
Venezuelan Cuisine (09/20)
In the novel It Would Be Night in Caracas, protagonist Adelaida endures food scarcity in Venezuela's capital city, Caracas, while recalling favorite foods from happier times. Venezuela—situated along the Caribbean Sea in South America —is home to a vibrant blend of culinary traditions. The country's cuisine has European, ...
Cameroon: Past, Present and Future (09/20)
Located in West-Central Africa, Cameroon is about the size of California, with an estimated population of 25 million. The country's two main cities are Yaoundé, the capital, and Douala, a major industrial port along the Gulf of Guinea in the South Atlantic. It borders many nations: Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Republic of Congo...
The Segregation of St. Louis (09/20)
In Marilynne Robinson's novel Jack, the title character, a white man, meets and falls in love with a Black woman named Della. However, America's racism, segregation and anti-miscegenation laws in the 1950s present a nearly insurmountable obstacle for the couple. One of their specific concerns is how and where they will live together as ...
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) (08/20)
David Joy's novel When These Mountains Burn is set in and around the town of Cherokee, North Carolina, which is situated in the far western corner of the state, abutting Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Cherokee is the capital and cultural center of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) and is located in an area known as The...
A History of the Appalachian Region (08/20)
The Appalachian region of the United States (not to be confused with the entirety of the Appalachian Mountains, which extend into Canada) stretches over 1,000 miles from southern New York to northeastern Mississippi. A mountainous crossroads, the area is defined by disparities and variety in its history, economics and culture. Today, ...
Greene County, Pennsylvania, and Coal (08/20)
Sarah Elaine Smith's Marilou Is Everywhere is set in Greene County, Pennsylvania, in the southwest corner of the state, bordering West Virginia. The novel vividly reflects the economic distress of the struggling communities and families that make up this county. It's a mostly rural area, with just under 39,000 residents in the last census...
Little Haiti (08/20)
Several stories in Edwidge Danticat's Everything Inside take place in Florida's Little Haiti neighborhood, a popular residence for Haitian immigrants and exiles (along with individuals from other Caribbean nations) located in Miami Dade County. The neighborhood has a population of 28,000 people, with 73 percent identifying as Black and 20...
Auschwitz-Birkenau Today (07/20)
The Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp (the setting of Jack Fairweather's riveting history The Volunteer) was liberated by the Soviet Army on January 27, 1945. In 1946, Poland's Ministry of Culture and Art recognized the need to preserve the site of so much horror for memorial and educational purposes, and set to work on a museum. ...
Purim (06/20)
In The Book of V., Lily is a wife and mother living in modern-day Brooklyn and struggling to find her purpose in life. As she works to manage her relational roles, she is also working to understand her Jewish heritage and particularly the story of Esther, a young Jewish woman in ancient Persia who became queen and used her influence ...
Rhinebeck, New York (06/20)
Clapham, the idyllic Hudson Valley town in which Emma Straub sets All Adults Here, is fictional, but the author places it in a very real geographical setting. Her characters mention real places, including Rhinebeck, 'one town north' along the Hudson River, which bears some resemblance to Straub's description of Clapham.

Rhinebeck is a ...
The Geography of Iceland (06/20)
As A. Kendra Greene writes in The Museum of Whales You Will Never See, 'Everywhere in Iceland is some kind of remote. It is almost always a word I reach for when describing a place here, though I mean it differently every time.' Greene makes it clear that understanding Iceland requires understanding its geography, which affects not only...
Korčula: Past and Present (05/20)
Korčula is a Croatian island in the Adriatic Sea off the Dalmation coast, and the setting of Karen Russell's story 'Black Corfu' from her story collection Orange World. It's the second most populated island in the Adriatic (after Krk), and it has a long, storied history of being occupied by various superpowers reaching back to the ...
Mayotte: A Community in Crisis (05/20)
An official department of France, Mayotte is a group of islands located in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of southeast Africa. This unique political and geographic setup has led to the development of a complex, fraught national identity for many of its people, with problems related to crime, population density, poverty and poor social ...
The Islands of Maine (05/20)
Sarah Blake's The Guest Book is set predominantly on a private island off the coast of Maine owned by the Milton family. There are roughly 3,000 islands in Maine's territory, some that are popular vacation spots, others that are entirely uninhabited.

Islands like Chebeague, Vinalhaven and Mount Desert are some of the most popular ...
Freya, the Norse Goddess of Love, Fertility, War & Death (05/20)
The Boneless Mercies is based on the classic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, a sweeping tale of heroes, monsters and epic battles influenced by the culture and mythology of sixth-century Scandinavia. While there are no gods or goddesses in Beowulf, there are references to mythological heroes like Sigmund of the Völsunga saga (a Norse epic ...
The Ancient Druids (05/20)
It is likely that when you hear mention of the ancient Druids or Druidism, certain images arise–perhaps there are flowing white robes or oak leaves involved, there are also probably long, bushy beards and maybe a sprig of mistletoe. Over the centuries that separate us from this enigmatic group, we have done a great deal of ...
Greek Influence on the English Language (05/20)
As Mary Norris notes in her travelogue/memoir/historical narrative Greek to Me, many words and terms in the English language are derived from Greek. These range from somewhat arcane medical and scientific terminology, to more commonly used words and phrases. The etymological evolutions are generally divided into three categories: learned ...
"Women Who Survived" from Classical Mythology (05/20)
In Starling Days, Mina mulls over an idea for an academic work that she dubs 'The Women Who Survived.' Her starting point is a list of female characters in classical mythology who survive the stories in which they appear. She observes that most women in Greek and Roman myths are ultimately killed or transformed in some way, and that few ...
Nymphs in Greek Mythology (05/20)
The nature of nymphs, the 'least of the lesser goddesses,' as they are referred to in Circe, is central to the novel. Circe, herself a sorceress or witch nymph, is most famous for turning Odysseus' crew into wild pigs and later becoming the hero's lover and adviser. In Greek mythology, nymphs are female spirits associated with the natural...
The Indigenous People of Kamchatka, Russia (04/20)
The remote Russian peninsula of Kamchatka, where Julia Phillips' debut novel Disappearing Earth takes place, is very isolated. It is located on the far east side of Russia, surrounded by the Sea of Okhotsk, the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean, riddled by volcanic activity from the Pacific tectonic plate, part of Earth's 'Ring of Fire.' ...
The History of Chinese Immigration in the United States (11/19)
Large-scale Chinese immigration to America began in the mid-1800s, partly in response to economic instability in China during the Taiping Rebellion, a civil war that lasted from 1850-1864. Like many others, Chinese immigrants were also drawn by the California Gold Rush.

After the gold rush ended, many Chinese people stayed on in the U...
Brisbane, Australia (04/20)
Brisbane (pronounced 'brizz-binh'), the capital city of Queensland, Australia, is the setting for Trent Dalton's debut novel Boy Swallows Universe. In an essay in the Weekend Australian Magazine, Dalton describes his hometown with his trademark literary flair: 'Brisbane is a bat-sucked mango wedged in your mower blades...Brisbane is all ...
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