It’s of course interesting to read novels set in countries other than where the reader lives. And those books can be written from two main vantage points.
One is for a novel set in a certain nation to be written by an author from that nation. Such a book most likely offers a local protagonist, deep knowledge of the culture, and so on.
The second vantage point involves novels that are set (or partly set) in countries other than where the authors live. That can often (not always) mean a protagonist from the writer’s country, a more superficial knowledge of the other country’s culture, etc. A non-native character who visits or lives in another nation is usually not truly representative of that country, but there’s the potential positive of the sojourning protagonist being sort of a guide or surrogate who helps readers understand the other country from an outsider perspective.
This blog post will focus on the latter scenario, and an excellent example is Mexico — one of the long/heavily researched novels by American author James Michener (pictured), and a book I’m currently reading.
It stars Norman Clay, a journalist born in Mexico to a Mexican mother and American father who has lived in the U.S. for many years before returning to his native country to write a story about a rivalry between two very different bullfighters. We see Mexico, and learn a lot about its present and past, through Norman’s eyes. Several of the novel’s fully Mexican characters are more interesting than Clay, but he is a guide/surrogate that a good number of American readers might relate to most.
Then we have novels in which we see the U.S. through the eyes of English authors and characters — with two examples being Martin Chuzzlewit (Charles Dickens jump-started sagging serial sales by sending Martin across the ocean) and Paradise News (David Lodge’s Bernard protagonist is a fish-out-of-water visiting Hawaii).
France? English author Charlotte Bronte gave her perspective on that country by setting Villette there. And Scottish author Sir Walter Scott did the same in Quentin Durward — though his perspective was on the France of the 1400s, nearly four centuries before Scott’s novel was written.
Plenty of novels have focused on white people traveling to Africa, for better or often for worse. Two American authors who made that happen with from-the-U.S. characters include Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible and Paul Bowles in The Sheltering Sky.
We also have the interesting case of Buchi Emecheta, the Nigerian-born British author whose semi-autobiographical novel Second Class Citizen is about a Nigerian woman who moves to England. The book was published in 1974, when the author was already in England for 12 years, so we had at that time a British author writing about Nigeria (early in Second Class Citizen) and a Nigerian-born author writing about England (later in that novel).
There’s a similar cultural juxtaposition in The Kite Runner by Afghanistan-born U.S. author Khaled Hosseini, whose family left his native country when the future writer was 11. Hosseini’s novel starts in Afghanistan, moves to the U.S., goes back to Afghanistan, and finally returns to the U.S.
Not a novel, but a book that almost reads like one, is Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad. In that travel book, Twain is a highly observant and drop-dead hilarious guide who gave American readers a look at various European and Mideast countries in the 1860s.
Your favorite novels that fit this topic?
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which discusses a pretentious, overpriced hotel coming to my town — is here.