One of the primary challenges of studying abroad is understanding the cultural norms of your host country. These may involve culture, history, food, or even common sayings and phrases. There are things that natives take for granted, but may be confusing and bizarre from the outside. This knowledge is rarely taught past a certain point, leaving international students behind in some ways. This series aims to help students understand things that many Americans take for granted.
What are the best ways to learn about a country? If you’re studying in America, this may seem like a silly question: after all, America’s global media ubiquity might lead you to ask, “How is it possible to avoid learning about America?” But as someone studying abroad, you’re probably curious to go deeper than flashy headlines, which can be misleading one way or the other.
So let’s get a little behind the glitz, and look at a handful of great American writers. America doesn’t have a tremendous literary reputation- it hasn’t won a Nobel Prize for literature since 1993, and is often seen as a literary backwater. But that isn’t a fair assessment. America’s literature is as varied as the country itself, and while you can’t say it has a cohesive literary tradition, that’s part of the excitement. It’s a messy stew of styles, full of writers both native-born and transplants from around the world.
This obviously isn’t a comprehensive list, nor is it the “greatest writers in American history”, but rather five books that might help you understand the country and its people.
Look Homeward, Angel: Thomas Wolfe
I’ll get it out of the way right away: this is a long book, a sprawling and messy family saga, which starts at the end of the Civil War and lasts through the next century (though most of it takes place around the turn of the century). It is considered one of the great novels of the American South, clearly illustrating its passion, grandeur, and faded glory, covering a time period and place that most literature has not. It is far from a perfect novel, but it is very self-consciously attempting to be the great American novel. It is operatic and, at times, amazing and deeply flawed. In its ambition, and the way it doesn’t always meet that ambition, it is the perfect representation of the country it is trying to capture.
The Bluest Eye: Toni Morrison
Morrison is America’s last Nobel Prize winner for literature, and while you can argue that America deserves more, it is hard to argue that she didn’t deserve this honor. Her most famous book is Beloved, but The Bluest Eye might be the most accurate representation of race and the pernicious legacy of racism in America ever penned. In our cultural memory, race relations were in stasis between the Civil War of the 1860s and the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s, but that is just a comfortable myth. Morrison delves into the issue of race in the 1930s, in the north. In getting out of our comfort zone, she shows how much the reverberations from the Civil War and institutional racism affected everyone, in both political and deeply personal ways.
On The Road: Jack Kerouac
This one might be a cliché, but that’s only because so many people have read it. The barely-fictionalized story of Kerouac’s travels across America in the 1940s, this book is a great look at the country at the time, after WWII, as homogeny set in and people began to rebel against what they thought was a stifling culture. This book is both overrated by teenagers who believe they are the new Beat Generation, and underrated by people who think it is simply about driving around, and perhaps don’t recognize the deep sadness and disillusionment inherent in the story. In the end, it is a captivating portrait of an America whose frontier had closed mere decades earlier, and was lurching into its contemporary form.
Studs Lonigan Trilogy: James T. Farrell
Certainly the least-known of these authors, Farrell was a Chicago writer who published from the 1930s until his death in the ’70s. He wrote about the people he grew up with on the South Side- Irish immigrants, their children, and grandchildren, adjusting to life in a city which was becoming crowded, more industrial, more racially diverse, and less neighborhood-oriented. He was one of the first writers to really get into the gritty, non-romantic side of working-class, ill-tempered, and barely-educated urban dwellers, with inarticulate but sincere dreams of getting ahead and no idea how to achieve them. Lead character Lonigan is a street punk, with limited imagination. Farrell never leaves his headspace, and because we can’t get out of there, we feel the suffocating nature of being hemmed in by a city, a family, and your own lack of vision. It isn’t fun, but it is how people live every day, and Farrell captures that like no one before or since.
Lolita: Vladimir Nabokov
OK, this is an odd choice, but bear with me. It is a tragic story of a sick and dangerous man, but Nabokov never wrote anything simple. Past the main plot, it is clear that Lolita is the Russian immigrant’s love letter to his adopted country. He looks at it with a jaundiced, but generous eye- its endless vistas, simple but friendly people, and the freedom it gives to an immigrant to live their own lives. Granted, Humbert’s life is horrible, but that isn’t really the point: in the book, America becomes a place where anything is possible.
These books will almost certainly not be found on your high school reading list. In your classes, you can expect to read classic and wonderful American novels, like To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye. These are also great books, and they both portray important parts of the American experience. But that experience is as varied as the topography. A country as contradictory, joyous, angry, and boisterous as America can’t be contained in a handful of novels or one particular style. So to get to stories that aren’t discussed as much or aren’t as well-covered, you need to dig a little deeper. This list might not comprehensively do that, but it’s a good starting point.
The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.