Read To Win

Five novels from America you must read (because they’re shortlisted for the US National Book Award)

War, immigrants and race make these works of fiction a commentary on our times as well.

A search for oneself, the need to belong, especially in a land alien and hostile, the compulsion to return, the recognition that old stories hold universal truths and can still be told differently: these are the concerns that mark the five shortlisted novels vying for the 2017 US National Book Award. The list is eclectic, comprising two debuts – a novel and a short story collection – two second novels and a novel by a previous National Book Award winner, who won in 2011.

Dark at the Crossing, Elliot Ackerman

Elliot Ackerman spent several years in the American Marine Corps, and has seen active service against the Taliban in Afghanistan. His first novel, Green on Blue (2015), was set in that country, where young Aziz confronts a difficult choice. He must be a part of an American special force to gather intelligence, so as to ensure that his beloved older brother, now critically injured in a bomb attack, recovers in hospital. As with Joydeep Roy Bhattacharya’s The Watch, and Nadeem Aslan’s The Blind Man’s Garden, Ackerman’s first novel, almost in similar vein, tells of the small, barely noticed heroic acts on the part of lone individuals caught in conflict.

Ackerman, now based in Istanbul, has since reported on the Syrian war. As the New York Times review of Ackerman’s second novel, now NBA shortlisted, Dark at the Crossing, noted, “the most vital literary terrain in America’s overseas war is occupied not by journalists but by novelists and even poets”.

In the novel, Haris Abadi, an Arab American who once served in the US military as interpreter, and now has his own conflicts about his past, is on his way toward the Turkish-Syrian border to fight the Assad regime. This obviously means he must throw in his lot with ISIS, despite his own confusion and ignorance about this shadowy and feared terror group. However, a theft thwarts his plans, and he finds refuge with a former Syrian revolutionary and refugee, Amir, and his mysterious wife, Daphne, who nurses her own grief. As the threesome make their journey toward Syria from Antep, the southern town in which much of this novel is set, Ackerman aptly juxtaposes their inner conflicts against the broken-down, violent landscape through which they travel.

The Leavers, Lisa Ko

Lisa Ko’s debut novel won the PEN Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction instituted by the novelist Barbara Kingsolver and awarded bi-annually. Kingsolver described The Leavers as, “courageous, sensitive, and perfectly of this moment”.

The Leavers is told from two viewpoints: those of Deming, who becomes Daniel Wilkinson on adoption, and his mother Polly, an undocumented migrant from China, who, despite that label, eludes pat descriptions. Polly works in a nail salon while 11-year old Deming is a bit of a rebel in school, resulting in frequent detentions. Still, mother and son share a special kind of closeness, the oddness of their conversation during a walk home from his school giving an indication of this:

“He would have her to himself, an ambling walk in the park or along the river, making up stories about who lived in the apartments they saw from the outside- –a family named Smith, five kids, father dead, mother addicted to bagels, he speculated the day they went to the Upper East Side. To bagels, she asked, which flavour bagels? Everything bagels, which made her laugh harder. A joke about New York, a city for everyone and yet a joke shared by only two of them.”

When Polly disappears, unexpectedly and with no warning, Deming is left numb. There are the small ways he remembers her: the bottle of hand lotion to take away the acrid nail salon generated scents, a lone sock, her toothbrush. These make up the memories he is left with as he is moved to foster care with a well-intentioned but lost White professorial couple, the Wilkinsons.

Polly’s narration, which alternates with Deming’s, in The Leavers tells of her initial escape from her old life in Fuzhou, China, to the US, where she wants to live despite the insecurities of being an immigrant without valid papers. The Leavers is a story of the memories and choices the immigrant must make, the fears and dilemmas that she (especially when undocumented) is confronted with – an aspect that has more resonance in the Trump era restrictions on immigration of a certain kind. But it is also a universal story of a son missing a parent, and a woman who cares about her son and is yet restless and ambitious in her own way.

Pachinko, Min Jin Lee

Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (the term comes from slot machine games popular in Japan) follows her first very well-received novel, Free Food for Millionaires, a decade later. Her first novel tells of the travails of a Korean-American family: parents who struggle to send their two daughters to the best schools and then on to college. However, Casey Han, the older daughter, has a change of heart when she decides not to study law but to follow her own dreams instead.

In Pachinko, Lee takes up the story of Koreans in Japan. Junot Diaz has called the book a “luminous” work, showing up “what immigrants sacrifice to seek a home in the world”. It is a multi-generational saga that moves in the early 20th century from a poor fishing village near Busan (now in South Korea) to the small Korean enclave in Osaka, Japan.

The novel begins when a young girl left pregnant by a charming gangster marries a pastor and moves to join his family in Osaka. Japan and Korea have had historically fraught relations but Min Jin Lee chooses to tell this conflict via a story that focuses on the details of everyday life. In the agony of decisions that must be taken, the shame and humiliation that Koreans in Japan were once subject to, the novel brings up bigger questions of home, identity, and the need to balance tradition with new ways of thinking and being.

Her Body and Other Parties: Stories, Carmen Maria Machado

The work of Carmen Maria Machado has been described as “fabulistic” and “weird”. One of the aims of her writing is to subvert, to show up the underlying violence in many well-loved fairy tales. In interviews, Machado has revealed her admiration of writers like Angela Carter, Kelly Link and Helen Oyeyemi.

In Machado’s writing, the body is a strange thing, exhibiting its own resistance – the marks on it, even ornamentations, indicating not merely acceptance and the scars of time, but also holding unexpected secrets. And her stories can hold several different truths.

In the story The Husband Stitch, which appeared first in Granta, a dutiful, accepting wife, has just one condition she has set her husband. His disregard of that condition, in the story’s final moments, has uncanny consequences. As Machado writes, “Brides never fare well in stories. Stories can sense happiness and snuff it out like a candle.” The title draws from the horrifying post-birth constructive surgery that women are subjected to in order to please their husbands.

The novella Weird Fiction draws on seasons of the police crime drama, Law and Order, with the lead detectives, Benson and Stadler, haunted and followed by their own doppelgangers, Abler and Henson (twists on the original names) and the appearance of ghosts and the undead – among them young women who have been raped and killed and whose murders remain unresolved. A version of this appeared before in The American Reader, where it was hailed for being “funny”, “inventive”, and vividly experimental.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

When Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones won the National Book Award in 2011, it stunned many people. It was a surprise, welcome in many ways, but then several prestigious publications had not even reviewed the book. The book was set in Ward’s hometown, Delisle in Mississippi, and followed a family in the time of the Hurricane Katrina (2005) disaster.

In 2013, Ward wrote a memoir, Men We Reaped, about her brother and four other young black men (like her brother) whose lives had been tragically cut short; a book that tells how such lives are “pinioned beneath history, poverty and racism”.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, her newest novel, which could win Ward a second NBA award, is both a road novel and a story of lost histories, about those whom the past has rendered voiceless. It begins with a simple, declaratory statement from 13-year-old Jojo: “I like to think I know what death is.” These are words that also reveal his terrible vulnerability. Jojo, born of an interracial relationship, accompanies his mother, Leonie, who nurses a cocaine addiction, to prison where Michael, Jojo’s father, is soon to be released.

But the journey soon has another traveller – the ghostly Richie who becomes the novel’s other narrator. He is a young boy whom Jojo’s grandfather, Pop, had once known during his own time, in the 1940s, at the dreaded Parchman Penitentiary, a “prison farm” in the Mississippi Delta that had seen black people incarcerated for long terms, sometimes on the flimsiest of charges. Richie was one of its many tragic young victims. Resurrecting lost, forgotten voices is one of the themes of Sing Unburied Sing, as are issues of poverty and racism. As critics have noted, of late there have been many ghosts in novels, for instance, in Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad; a reflection that in history, there remain questions, persistent and unanswered.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.