Thursday, May 20, 2010

Guest in Progress: A.H. Wald's Favorite Books by Ex-Pats

Here’s another post for writers with wanderlust—writer Annie Wald, who posted last week about what it’s like to be a writer living in a foreign country, today selects her favorite books about expatriates:

Being a writer in a foreign country has its challenges. A lack of English language books ranks high on my list. But perhaps the number one challenge has to do with the old adage “to write what you know.” I’ve been living in this country for ten years, and I've journalled thousands of words about the life and culture, and yet I still know the States infinitely better.

So when I’m asked if I’m writing about this country, I reply that although I’ve written a few short stories that take place here, for the most part I’m still filling my well. I am still absorbing culture and history and nuance and custom. I’m still acquiring the small but telling experiences that will help me create a rich fictional world.

And in the future when I write a novel that takes place here, I suspect it will be more about ex-pats than locals, because that’s the life I’m living. To create authentic fiction requires a depth of knowledge that comes from being completely drenched in the situation. I think that’s why in most novels written by ex-pats, the round characters [as E.M. Forster calls them] are usually ex-pats and the thin characters are locals, and the focus is usually on the ex-pat experience. By contrast, novels by nationals are where you’ll discover the daily life of family and class and culture about a place. For example, the "Alexandria Quartet" by Lawrence Durrell and the "Cairo Trilogy" by Naguib Mahfouz present two very different experiences of life in Egypt, just as Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, and Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Corruption present two perspectives on Morocco.

Having said that, I’ve enjoyed reading dozens of novels written by ex-pats, and here are seven of my favorites.

1. Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski: an American journalist investigates the murder of an American missionary by an American anthropologist in northern Thailand.

2. A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul: an Indian shopkeeper during the breakdown of a country in Central Africa

3. Prague by Arthur Phillips: five Americans living in Budapest in the early 90s.

4. The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard: an English war hero falls in love with a young Australian in post-war Japan.

5. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida: an American woman travels to Lapland to search for her real father.

My last two recommendations are British authors who managed to write ex-pat novels about more than one country.

6. E.M. Forster
Room with a View: British tourists in Florence,
Passage to India: two British women want to experience the real India


7. Graham Greene who takes the ex-pat prize with novels set in at least 8 different countries. Here are the ones I’ve read [and recommend].

The Heart of the Matter: a British intelligence officer and his dying marriage in Sierra Leone
A Burnt Out Case: a famous architect takes refuge in a leper colony in Congo
The Quiet American: a British journalist meets an American idealist in Vietnam,
Travels with My Aunt: a retired bank manager and his aunt travel across Europe to Istanbul
The Power and the Glory: a priest flees government persecution in Mexico

And as a bonus-read about coming back to one’s home country, try Ignorance by Milan Kundera which tells the story a Czech ex-pat who returns home after twenty years and meets an old lover. ~~A.H. Wald

About: A.H. Wald’s work has appeared in many literary journals and anthologies, including The Southern Review, North American Review and 580 Split. She is working on a novel that takes place in the US where she grew up. For the last ten years, she has lived in a foreign country which will be the subject of her next novel.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.