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19 books to help you better understand poverty

By Divya Amladi
What we're currently reading at the Oxfam America headquarters. Photo: Divya Amladi/Oxfam

Shopping for the reader in your life? Here are some of the books that inspire and inform our work.

Attention book lovers: We’ve updated our annual book list with our favorite fiction and nonfiction books that illustrate the injustice of poverty. We’ve added some of your recommendations, too. Happy reading!

Nonfiction

We Fed an Island: the True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time, by José Andrés

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, chef José Andrés sprang into action, responding the best way he knew: through food. Andrés and his team of chefs didn’t just feed hundreds of thousands of Americans in a moment of extreme need; they created a movement for change. Read about his experience confronting the roots of inequality on the island.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond

Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond takes us into some of the poorest neighborhoods in Milwaukee to show how the threat of eviction is affecting people who already live on the edge. Interviewing eight families whose fates are in the hands of their landlords, Evicted puts human faces on housing inequality that keeps people stuck in poverty in our own big cities.

My (Underground) American Dream: My True Story as an Undocumented Immigrant Who Became a Wall Street Executive, by Julissa Arce

On the surface, former Wall Street executive Julissa Arce lived the perfect American Dream: She rose up from a modest upbringing in San Antonio, achieved academic success, and landed a six-figure job. But Arce’s story is much deeper than that. As an undocumented immigrant, her very successes risked revealing her secret. Since coming out of the shadows, Arce has become an outspoken advocate for immigrant rights.

Call Me American, by Abdi Iftan

You may remember Abdi Iftin, a Somalian refugee who won the visa lottery and settled in the US in 2014, from Oxfam’s 2017 takeover of Donald Trump’s childhood home. His memoir, released in 2018, recounts his childhood learning English from Michael Jackson songs and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies to his harrowing escape from Somalia during his country's civil war, and his path to becoming a refugee advocate in America.

Not for the Faint of Heart: Lessons in courage, Power, and Persistence, by Wendy Sherman

In her memoir, Wendy Sherman—undersecretary of state for political affairs under President Obama and former Oxfam America board chair—offers us a seat at the negotiating table, a place few people, especially women, are granted access. Sherman’s skills aren’t only useful for high-level negotiations like the Iran nuclear deal. She also offers practical advice for applying these skills to the challenges in our own lives.

Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah

"The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah explores what it was like growing up half-Swiss and half-Xhosa in South Africa at a time when mixed-race unions were punishable by time in prison. Noah manages to weave humor into his stories even while illustrating the effects of institutionalized racism, extreme poverty, and domestic violence on his family.

Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay

This collection of essays from culture critic and prolific Tweeter Roxane Gay calls for a new way of thinking about modern (intersectional) feminism—through a warts-and-all philosophy of embracing the authenticity and vulnerability of women’s experiences. In short, she reminds us that there’s no “right way” to be a feminist.

Some of My Friends Are…: The Daunting Challenges and Untapped Benefits of Cross-Racial Friendships, by Deborah Plummer

Most Americans tend to make and maintain friends within their own racial group. Through research and interviews, psychologist Deborah Plummer examines why we find it so difficult to make friends outside our race, and she offers guidance on how we can overcome those factors to make deeper connections to engage more meaningfully about race.

Factfulness: 10 Reasons We’re Wrong About the World, by Hans Rosling

Physician and statistician Hans Rosling breaks down the 10 very human instincts that distort our perspectives, from the tendency to divide the world into “us” versus “them” to the idea that progress leads to things getting worse. Follow his advice to overcome your biases and look at the world more factfully.

Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo

MIT economists Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo throw economic theories out the window in this book that posits the best way to understand what life is like for poor people in developing countries is to understand context, which they illustrate through observations and randomized trials. Poor Economics shows that creating a world without poverty begins with first comprehending the daily decisions that poor people have to make.

Fiction

The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga

White Tiger follows poor Indian villager Balram Halwai on his ascent from low-class servant to so-called “self-made” Bangalore businessman, all the while offering a skewering take on India’s class structure. Aravind Adiga won the Mann Booker Prize for this tale that manages to break down corruption and inequality without losing its dark sense of humor.

An Orchestra of Minorities, by Chigozie Obioma

This twist on Homer’s Odyssey centers on a young poultry farmer named Chinonso who sells all his possessions so he can attend college and impress the family of his wealthy, educated love Ndali. What happens next is an epic about destiny spanning time and space, written in the Igbo tradition.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

Junior is a young cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington. He leaves the reservation to pursue an education in a better-resourced school in the neighboring town, but finds himself at a high school where the only other Indian is his school’s mascot. The semi-autobiographical novel tracks Junior through his school year as he struggles to find a balance between his identities on and off the reservation.

Into the Beautiful North, by Luis Alberto Urrea

Narrator Nayeli lives in the coastal Mexican town of Tres Camarones while her father—and just about all the working-age men in her village—have migrated north to the US to find work. Tres Camarones is left with a population that is vulnerable to drug traffickers. Inspired by watching the film “The Magnificent Seven,” Nayeli and her friends conspire to cross the border and recruit seven “warriors” to repopulate their town.

A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry

Set in an unidentified city during a State of Internal Emergency, A Fine Balance sees four strangers—a widowed seamstress, a student whose family’s business is failing, and two Untouchable tailors—seeking shelter from the tumult of 1970s India. For the characters, the trick to surviving the swirl of violence and uncertainty surrounding them is maintaining a “fine balance between hope and despair.”

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy

This book illuminates what life is like for hijras—the term for transgender and intersex people in India—through a decades-spanning tale. Our main protagonist, Anjum, was born Aftab in a comfortable yet stifling household. She runs away and creates a home underneath a graveyard in Old Delhi that grows into a refuge not just for other hijras, but societal outcasts and activists on the run.

Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid

When violence escalates in their unnamed country, lovers Nadia and Saeed make the difficult choice to flee their homeland. The key to their exit is a stroke of magical realism—they find a door that transports them to another country. It turns out there are other doors, and the more migrants hear about these doors, they become more difficult to escape through.

Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue

This novel follows two New York City families: the Jongas, immigrants from Cameroon, and Jende Jonga’s employers, the Edwards. Imbolo Mbue emigrated from Cameroon in 1998 and lost her job in the 2008 financial crisis, which led her to realize that the American dream is not accessible to everybody. That plays out in the book as we witness the unequal effects of the financial crisis on Lehman Brother executive Clark Edwards and his family and the Jongas.

Go, Went, Gone, by Jenny Erpenbeck

Written originally in German, Jenny Erpenbeck looks at the European refugee crisis through the eyes of a Berliner confronted with the flight of refugees for the first time in his life. As our narrator, Richard, gets to know the African refugees in his community, he takes on a journey of inner transformation as he comes to realize the asylum seekers are more like him than not.

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