Some suggested novels for International English
What Is the What, Dave Eggers [Sudan/USA: The Lost Boys] 2006
The benefit of choosing this book is that there is an extract from it in the textbook that can help get your students started. This novel makes an intriguing read. It is about “The Lost Boys”, victims of Sudan’s brutal civil war. Many readers find it shocking that this terrible tragedy has received so little attention. The author, Dave Eggers, writes the story of Valentino Achak Deng, who was one of the “lost boys” who were led on a perilous journey through the harsh landscape of Africa to eventually become boy soldiers, if they survived long enough.
One interesting aspect of the novel is that in the opening chapters the story unfolds as the main character, Valentino, thinks back on his experiences while he is being tied up and robbed by black American thieves in the US where he has come as a refugee. This situation opens for many interesting contrasts in itself. A recommended read, but at over 500 pages, it is long.
A Week in December, Sebastian Faulks [Muslims in UK, among many more things] 2009
This is a fun satire on contemporary London life, but also a criticism of such things as the international banking community and the hedge funds that created the financial crisis, literary critics, modern British schools, reality TV, cyber porn, football and more. Most important for international English is that it provides a serious examination of Islam and the reasons for radicalism among young Muslims. One young would-be-radical also has to deal with the fact that his father is preparing for his investiture with the OBE at Buckingham Palace. While the book is to be recommended, it would be most suitable for the strongest students as there are so many things going on in the novel (some critics say too many things) and some might find it long.
Harare North, by Brian Chikwaya [African immigrant in UK] 2009
Brian Chikwaya is a Zimbabwean author who lives in London. This novel is about immigrants living on the margins of society. The characters are living in a desperate life situation. More specifically, the novel is about the challenges in the life of an immigrant who falls prey to the illusion of an easy European lifestyle. The story takes place in a poor and multicultural suburb of London, or “Harare North”, where the protagonist shares a “squat” with four others in an abandoned house. As time passes the protagonist has an identity crisis, which, along with cultural clashes, ultimately plunges him into insanity.
The book is written in the mixed English of the protagonist (e.g.: “Me I don’t mind Sekai too much; I was not expect to be welcomed with open arms.”), which might make this difficult for some students to read.
Children of the Revolution, Dinaw Mengestu [Ethiopian immigrant in USA] 2008
This novel is about the difficulties that a refugee experiences while pursuing the “American dream” and the difficulties of being labelled an immigrant. The story, which takes place in a poor district of Washington DC where not much happens, is about the life of Stephanos, a gloomy and lifeless protagonist who owns a kiosk. With only two friends who are always busy, his life is basically eventless, and he has a hard time making ends meet. When new neighbours, a white woman (Judith) and her bi-racial daughter (Naomi), move in next door, his life takes on new meaning. Naomi comes to visit him at his kiosk every day after school, and he falls in love with Judith. However, soon after the new neighbours move in, the city decides to renovate the neighbourhood. Stephanos’s rent increases and he loses his kiosk. The other neighbours see Judith and Naomi as the catalyst of this change and force them to move. Losing all hope, Stephanos falls into a depression. Dinaw Mengestu’s themes are about the illusion of the American dream, especially for immigrants, and the hardships that come with it. It is also about friendship, hope and finding a reason to live.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie [USA] 2007
Sherman Alexie recounts the trials of a Native American teenager, Arnold “Junior” Spirit, during his first year in high school. Using humour to soften the sometimes difficult and emotional story, Alexie creates a loveable, misfit protagonist whom readers cannot help but root for.
Maps for Lost Lovers, Nadeem Asham [UK] 2004
In an unnamed town in England, Jugnu and Chanda have disappeared, and Chanda's brothers have been arrested for their murder. What follows is an unravelling of all that is sacred to the family, as the pious Kaukab tries desperately to square the traditional justice of her culture with the more personal consequences of their murder. Maps for Lost Lovers opens the heart of a family at the crossroads of culture, community, nationality and religion and expresses their pain and desire in a language that is arrestingly poetic.
The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri [India/USA] 2003
Moving between events in Calcutta, Boston and New York City, the novel examines the nuances involved with being caught between two conflicting cultures with their highly distinct religious, social, and ideological differences. It describes the struggles and hardships of a Bengali couple who immigrate to the United States to form a life outside of everything they are accustomed to. The story begins as Ashoke and Ashima leave Calcutta and settle in Massachusetts. Through a series of errors, their son's nickname, Gogal, becomes his official birth name, an event which will shape many aspects of his life in years to come.
The Buddha of Suburbia, Hanif Kureishi [England/India background] 1991
Karim Amir lives with his English mother and Indian father in the routine comfort of suburban London, enduring his teenage years with good humour, always on the lookout for adventure – and sexual possibilities. Life gets more interesting, however, when his father becomes the Buddha of Suburbia, beguiling a circle of would-be mystics. And when the Buddha falls in love with one of his disciples, the beautiful and brazen Eva, Karim is introduced to a world of renegade theatre directors, punk rock stars, fancy parties, and all the sex a young man could desire. A love story for at least two generations, a high-spirited comedy of sexual manners and social turmoil.
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan [Chinese background in USA] 1989
Sweet Fifteen, Diane Gonzales Bertrand (Mexican-American) 1995
This story explores a family coming to grips with the death of a father and a husband all with the help of a family friend. Everyone must learn to adapt to their new family roles in this novel that centres around the quinceanera, a Hispanic coming of age tradition for girls.
Shadow of the Dragon by Sherry Garland [Vietnamese background in USA] 1993
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisernos [Latino background in USA] 1984
The House on Mango Street is a coming-of-age novel that deals with a young Latina girl, Esperanza Cordero, growing up in Chicago with Chicanos and Puerto Ricans. Esperanza is determined to "say goodbye" to her impoverished Latino neighbourhood. Major themes include her quest for a better life and the importance of her promise to come back for "the ones I left behind."
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou [USA, black traditions] 1969
Black Rock, Amanda Smyth [Jamaican girl coming of age] 2009
The writer is Irish/Trinidadian who has been compared to the writer Jean Rhys. The protagonist, Celia, runs away from Black Rock, in Tobago, but only gets as far as Trinidad where she struggles in a harsh male-ruled world. There she embarks on a dangerous affair with a doctor who had come to her aid when she was taken ill. The setting is colonial 1950s West Indies and the writer effectively captures the sense of tropical heat and light. The protagonist is simultaneously trapped and powerful while the novel portrays the themes of indolence, vengeance and desire. One warning about the book is that it has a fairly graphic rape scene, where the 16-year-old Celia is raped by her aunt’s new husband.
The Long Song, by Andrea Levy [slavery in the Caribbean] 2010
Andrea Levy was born in England to Jamaican parents. She writes about the experiences of black Britons and about her roots to the Caribbean. This novel tells the story of the life of a slave girl living on a plantation in the Caribbean. It captures the attitudes about slavery and blacks at the time.
The novel has a slightly difficult narrative line and some students may find it difficult to get into.
Small Island, Andrea Levy [Jamaican immigrants in England, also a BBC series] 2004
This may be a more interesting read for students than “The Long Song”. Another advantage here is that it has been made into a BBC television series which has been shown on Norwegian television. The novel tells the story of four characters: Hortense, Queenie, Gilbert and Bernard from each their point of view. It is about their moving from Jamaica to England and the difficulties they encounter.
The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz [Central America/USA] 2008
Oscar is a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd who—from the New Jersey home he shares with his old world mother and rebellious sister—dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, finding love. But Oscar may never get what he wants. Blame the fukú—a curse that has haunted Oscar’s family for generations, following them on their epic journey from Santo Domingo to the USA. Encapsulating Dominican-American history, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao opens our eyes to an astonishing vision of the contemporary American experience.
La Linea, Ann Jaramillo [Mexico/USA] 2007
Miguel lives in a small, poor town in Mexico with his grandmother and younger sister. His father and mother crossed the border into California years ago and have been struggling to get settled so they could bring their other two children over. On Miguel’s 15th birthday he is given a letter from his father saying it is time to come over. On the day Miguel is set to leave, Elena, his sister, runs away because she can’t stand the idea of being left behind. Her arrival messes up Miguel’s plans and they must create a new plan so that they can both cross the border together.
The Tiger’s Wife, Téa Obreht [Balkan area, civil war, storytelling] 2009
This can be a difficult read for students, but if you have any students with a Balkan background, they may want to try it. The novel gives an enduring picture of life in an unnamed Balkan country slowly recovering from a civil war. We are never sure which side is which, the focus is more on how things have been destroyed and how people try to go on with life. The ambiguity about the sides helps to make the whole Civil War look ridiculous and pointless. This is also a novel about the power of storytelling and the role it plays in people’s lives. The young author was born in the former Yugoslavia but has also lived in Cyprus, Egypt and the USA. This is a powerful and interesting book, but some students may find it hard to get into the story and may have trouble understanding the point to some of the stories within the story.
The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga [India, Indian society/dysfunction] 2008
This is a book that can be recommended. It has dark humour and looks at the class struggle in India as well as the effects of a globalized world on the Indian underclass. We follow the story of Balram as he moves to Delhi, where he works as a chauffeur to a rich landlord, and then to Bangalore, where he has fled after killing his master and stealing his money. The novel touches on issues of religion, caste, loyalty, corruption and poverty in India.
Last Man in Tower, Aravind Adiga [India] 2011
This novel offers more contrasts of India. This is the story of a housing cooperative whose members are being pressured to sell out their homes so a developer can turn their building into luxury flats for the nouveau riche of Mumbai. The humour is a little less biting than in The White Tiger. It still criticises and pokes fun at India, but also finds affection and despair in the characters. The India depicted here is one suffering under rapid economic expansion that overwhelms many of its inhabitants. While the caste system may be disappearing, the author does not appear to put much faith in the development of a just society.
The Last Kestrel, Jill McGivering [Female reporter in Afghanistan] 2010
This is a book that can be recommended as it tells the story of the conflict in Afghanistan from both sides. The author has covered the war in Afghanistan as a journalist so the descriptions feel accurate and very real. The story reads like a suspense thriller that will keep the young reader interested. It is about two strong women, one Western, the other Afghani, and we see the issues of the war in Afghanistan from both their perspectives, which reflect both of their cultures. In the story, Ellen Thomas, an experienced war correspondent, returns to Afghanistan's dangerous Helmand Province on assignment, keen to find the murderer of her friend and translator, Jalil. But she uncovers disturbing truths.
One Night @ the Call Center, Chetan Bhagat [India call centre experience effect on culture] 2005
While not a particularly well-written novel, this is still an interesting read for students as it depicts in a very insightful manner the life of call-centre employees, with culture clash and the contrasts of their lives in the centre and at home. The characters change their Indian names into westernized variants to please their callers and deal with many strange callers. The love story between two of the centre workers is not a well-developed part of the story and the novel has some weaknesses, but it gives a good insight into why some people feel these types of job threaten the established society.
Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah [Australia] 2008
Amal, an Australian-Palestinian girl living in Melbourne, decides to “go full time” and wear her hijab, the Muslim head scarf, at all times. This is a very big decision for Amal because post 9/11 there are a lot of mixed feelings about Muslims all around the world. Amal decides that she wants to show her devotion to her religion by wearing her head scarf at all times knowing how difficult it will be. For example, her parents are concerned about how Amal will feel if she gets any negative attention cast toward her. Her prep school principal has trouble with it and doesn’t want to alter the strict dress code. The students at her school are also confused the first time they see Amal wearing her head scarf, but once they feel comfortable enough to ask questions they come to understand why she wants to wear it.
The Roller Birds of Rampur, Indi Rana [UK/India] 1993
Fresh off the Press: New books that we have not read but which sound interesting. Here we use the books’ own blurbs:
The Truth, Michael Palin
Monty Python Palin? Yes. But then we all know that for decades he has made very interesting travel documentaries where he is the exploring Englishman discovering the great world we live in.
But this is not a documentary or travelogue. This is a novel about “Keith Mabbut, 56, once a well-respected environmental journalist, who accepts an assignment to write a biography of inspirational environmentalist and activist Hamish Melville. […] … we are drawn compellingly in his wake to expose corruption. Brilliantly evoking the sounds and smells, excitement and danger of India, both thought provoking and humorous, this is a terrific read!”
While we have not read the book, this sounds like it would cover various areas of the plan, including global challenge (environmental corruption).
The Taliban Cricket Club, Timeri N Murari
“Rukshana, a spirited young journalist living in war-torn Kabul, lives a life of constant fear under the brutal regime. When she discovers that the Taliban is setting up a propagandist cricket tournament, and the winning team is guaranteed coaching abroad, she sees an opportunity. […] A wonderful contemporary love story, where cricket is the true hero. With a gripping storyline that keeps us enthralled right to the exciting climax.”
From a Guardian review [http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/jul/01/taliban-cricket-club-murari-review]:
"There is no place for any act of violence on the field of play," states preamble No 6 in the Laws of Cricket – an epigraph to this topical novel. So what happens when the Taliban form a propagandist cricket club? It is an intriguing question, which the author explores in this vivid novel set in a war-torn Kabul, where citizens are brutally assassinated and a woman has her finger chopped off for wearing nail varnish. The reader is less bowled over by comedy-drama than stumped by harrowing tragedy.
There is, though, a feisty female protagonist who finds a sense of freedom in sport in journalist Rukshana, who has written about Taliban abuses and so fears the worst when she is summoned to the ‘Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice’. But the minister in charge has other plans – a cricket tournament, and his intention to marry her. Through her knowledge of cricket, learnt in Delhi, Rukshana sees a means of escape, for the winner will travel internationally. The plot is far-fetched, but the cinematic descriptions of war, and the joy of cricket, score highly.”
Revolution 2020, Chetan Bhagat [India] 2011
Once upon a time, in small-town India, there lived two intelligent boys. One wanted to use his intelligence to make money. One wanted to use his intelligence to create a revolution.
Welcome to Revolution 2020. A story about childhood friends Gopal, Raghav and Aarti who struggle to find success and love in Varanasi. However, it isn’t easy to achieve this in an unfair society that rewards the corrupt. As Gopal gives in to the system, and Raghav fights it, who will win?
From the bestselling author of Five Point Someone, one night @ the call center, The Three Mistakes of My Life and 2 States, comes another gripping tale from the heartland of India.
My New American Life, Francine Prose [USA] 2011