Reading is the fundamental education of an aspiring writer. During this training, I sifted through Classics like the Odyssey, Victorian authors like Dickens, anti-war novels like Slaughterhouse-Five, and, in sum, every kind of book you’d expect to be assigned in high school or college. And I liked them, too. From Hemingway’s taut prose to Paul Auster’s well-rounded texts to Toni Morrison’s exuberant style.
But I also found my interest flagging during readings I thought I’d enjoy. Heller is as humorous as Vonnegut, but I abandoned Catch 22 after four chapters; where the lilting alliterations of Lolita won me over, the cryptic contrivances of Pale Fire almost lulled me to sleep; while I was spell-bound by the lush descriptions of Sula and Beloved, I couldn’t get past Amazon’s sample of Song of Salomon.
The thing is that stylistic or conceptual accomplishments don’t always translate into hooking readers in. In fact, technical beauty (think Woolf’s stream of consciousness or Cortázar’s arrangement of chapters in Hopscotch) and unputdownableness (think Harry Potter or the latest bestseller of your choice) are quite different things.
These two qualities don’t often appear in combination, but here are some fortunate exceptions which have earned a privileged spot in my Kindle library:
-Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies
With an exquisite prose, Lahiri weaves Bengali culture into stories that are poignant and compelling. Some are a bit hard to get into (e.g., When Mr Pirzada Came to Dine), but all are rewarding in the end. The story that gives this book its title is a perfect example of what I see as the shape of the modern short story. Unlike traditional structures that are quite linear, with well-defined points of tension (e.g., that of The Story of An Hour), the shape of Interpreter of Maladies is intricate and even meandering. Stories of any shape can grab your attention or not, and most of Lahiri’s do in a very satisfying way. A real Durwan features one of the most brilliant character descriptions I have read lately. Here is a very expressive, poetic comparison between the protagonist’s voice and the mundane objects of her story: “In fact, the only thing that appeared three-dimensional about Boori Ma was her voice: brittle with sorrows, as tart as curds, and shrill enough to great meat from a coconut.”
-Chimamanda Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck
It’s not often that I’m moved by literature, at least not anymore. But this book has bucked the trend. Setting the tone with their rawness, “Cell One” and “A Private Experience” are tales of brutal injustices bursting to be told in a part of the world that’s often overlooked.
Aided by superb tension build-up, interesting dialogues, and masterful characterization, the subject matter makes you read on. But this book is so much more. The beautifully crafted language benefits both from translations into English of Nigerian expressions and by Adichie’s virtuosity. You get the impression she could make poetry out of anything,
-Junot Diaz’s Drown
A short story collection that deals with poverty, an absent father, sexual abuse, womanizing, homosexual experimentation, violence and probably more. Written in English but interspersed with Spanish, de una forma que puede descolocar si no sabes español. One of its main virtues is the combination of slang with poetic images. This is no surprise coming from the guy who edited the 2016 Best American Short Stories collection, in whose introduction he comes across as a former gang member turned university professor. The stories are not completely linear, but they still grab your attention because of their mundaneness and true-to-lifeness.
The narratives by all three authors feature the immigrant experience in America as a common thread. To varying degrees, they also incorporate words or expressions from other cultures, which can infuse the English language with new vitality. It’s a bit like what happens with ethnic food. Thanks to cultural diversity, you have choices other than McDonald’s and can spice things up with chicken masala, enjoy a doner kebab or indulge in tacos.
But it’s been 20 years since Jhumpa Lahiri wrote her collection of short stories centered around Bengali characters, and by now writing about immigrant experiences has become a bit of a cliché. Bengali, Nigerian and Dominican cultures are every bit as deserving of attention as hegemonic ones and have played a role in shaping the current US. This might have been one of the biggest motivations Lahiri, Adichie, and Diaz had for writing their works. What really matters to me, though, is that they’ve created literature that is both gripping and poetic.