Today it was back to school after a week off. While some of my colleagues took fortunate students to India and China over the spring break, I stayed home with my family and read a number of excellent books by authors from around the world.
Each year, a group of teachers and I select a number of titles within a given theme for students to read during the months they are not in school. Last year’s summer reading theme was Suspense and Problem Solving, and titles included All the Light We Cannot See, In Cold Blood and Murder on the Orient Express. We built an assembly around a mystery involving a beloved Chemistry teacher’s disappearance and put students into groups to collaborate together to solve the case.
This year’s theme of Global America feels both more challenging and also more important. The books we are considering, many of which I read over the vacation, show a very complex reality for immigrants to America.
Take Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, about a young man named Changez who leaves Pakistan to study at Princeton, finds success at a Wall Street firm and falls in love with a charismatic but ill young woman from New York. As the title suggests, he is a fundamentalist, if a reluctant one, by the end of his sojourn in America. His experience in the US somehow pushes him to extremism, something that he never anticipated or particularly wanted. It’s an unsettling book, particularly in light of current events.
Equally unsettling and engaging is Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory, about a girl raised in Haiti by her grandmother and aunt who goes to live with her mother, a nurse who cares for the elderly, in New York. The reader doesn’t immediately know why Sophie’s mother left her for so many years in Haiti, but eventually we do learn and understand the terrible reason. The book addresses the very real challenges that women can face in both their home country and in ours, and shows an America that both restores and takes life.
After hearing for years of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, I finally sat down and read it cover to cover in a single day. It’s a beautiful book about Indian parents raising children in America, and it’s also a sad book about how difficult it can be to find one’s place in the world and in one’s own life. Gogol Ganguli, named in haste after his father’s favorite Russian author, never feels completely at ease in his own skin. He constantly wants to change his name and moves in and out of relationships seeking a sense of belonging, which he arguably never finds.
I also finally read Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a rollicking story about a Dominican boy with strong passions and unpopular habits living in New Jersey and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant Americanah, about a Nigerian woman living in the US who, like Changez and Gogol, never quite finds her place among Americans.
Like most good books, none of these works is entirely pleasant. It’s arguable that a litmus test for a good book is that it makes us uncomfortable, that it forces us to stop and think. If while reading, we find pity for others or for ourselves, or feel catalyzed to do something to make a difference for someone else, all the better. And if we can feel these things while on school vacation, as a result of going absolutely nowhere outside of a book, then I think it’s safe to say that literature still has a very important role in an increasingly complicated and complex world.