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Synopsis

A powerful, funny, richly observed tour de force by one of America’s most acclaimed young writers: a story of love and marriage, secrets and betrayals, that takes us from the backyards of America to the back alleys and villages of Bangladesh.
In The Newlyweds, we follow the story of Amina Mazid, who at age twenty-four moves from Bangladesh to Rochester, New York, for love. A hundred years ago, Amina would have been called a mail-order bride. But this is an arranged marriage for the twenty-first century: Amina is wooed by—and woos—George Stillman online. 
For Amina, George offers a chance for a new life and a different kind of happiness than she might find back home. For George, Amina is a woman who doesn’t play games. But each of them is hiding something: someone from the past they thought they could leave behind. It is only when they put an ocean between them—and Amina returns to Bangladesh—that she and George find out if their secrets will tear them apart, or if they can build a future together.
The Newlyweds is a surprising, suspenseful story about the exhilarations—and real-life complications—of getting, and staying, married. It stretches across continents, generations, and plains of emotion. What has always set Nell Freudenberger apart is the sly, gimlet eye she turns on collisions of all kinds—sexual, cultural, familial. With The Newlyweds, she has found her perfect subject for that vision, and characters to match. She reveals Amina’s heart and mind, capturing both her new American reality and the home she cannot forget, with seamless authenticity, empathy, and grace. At once revelatory and affecting, The Newlyweds is a stunning achievement.

Excerpt

1

She hadn’t heard the mailman, but Amina decided to go out and check. Just in case. If anyone saw her, they would know that there was someone in the house now during the day while George was at work. They would watch Amina hurrying coatless to the mailbox, still wearing her bedroom slippers, and would conclude that this was her home. She had come to stay.

The mailbox was new. She had ordered it herself with George’s credit card, from mailboxes.com, and she had not chosen the cheapest one. George had said that they needed something sturdy, and so Amina had turned off the Deshi part of her brain and ordered the heavy-­duty rural model, in glossy black, for $90. She had not done the conversion into taka, and when it arrived, wrapped in plastic, surrounded by Styrofoam chips, and carefully tucked into its corrugated cardboard box—­a box that most Americans would simply throw away but that Amina could not help storing in the basement, in a growing pile behind George’s Bowflex—­she had taken pleasure in its size and solidity. She showed George the detachable red flag that you could move up or down to indicate whether you had letters for collection.

“That wasn’t even in the picture,” she told him. “It just came with it, free.”

The old mailbox had been bashed in by thugs. The first time had been right after Amina arrived from Bangladesh, one Thursday night in March. George had left for work on Friday morning, but he hadn’t gotten even as far as his car when he came back through the kitchen door, uncharacteristically furious.

“Goddamn thugs. Potheads. Smoking weed and destroying private property. And the police don’t do a fucking thing.”

“Thugs are here? In Pittsford?” She couldn’t understand it, and that made him angrier.

“Thugs! Vandals. Hooligans—­whatever you want to call them. Uneducated pieces of human garbage.” Then he went down to the basement to get his tools, because you had to take the mailbox off its post and repair the damage right away. If the thugs saw that you hadn’t fixed it, that was an invitation.

The flag was still raised, and when she double-­checked, sticking her hand all the way into its black depths, there was only the stack of bills George had left on his way to work. The thugs did not actually steal the mail, and so her green card, which was supposed to arrive this month, would have been safe even if she could have forgotten to check. “Thugs” had a different meaning in America, and that was why she’d been confused. George had been talking about kids, troublemakers from East Rochester High, while Amina had been thinking of dacoits: bandits who haunted the highways and made it unsafe to take the bus. She had lived in Rochester six months now—­long enough to know that there were no bandits on Pittsford roads at night.

American English was different from the language she’d learned at Maple Leaf International in Dhaka, but she was lucky because George corrected her and kept her from making embarrassing mistakes. Americans always went to the bathroom, never the loo. They did not live in flats or stow anything in the boot of the car, and under no circumstances did they ever pop outside to smoke a fag.

Maple Leaf was where she first learned to use the computer, and the computer was how she met George, a thirty-­four-­year-old SWM who was looking for a wife. George had explained to her that he had always wanted to get married. He had dated women in Rochester, but often found them silly, and had such a strong aversion to perfume that he couldn’t sit across the table from a woman who was wearing it. George’s cousin Kim had called him “picky,” and had suggested that he might have better luck on the Internet, where he could clarify his requirements from the beginning.

George told Amina that he had been waiting for a special connection. He was a romantic, and he didn’t want to compromise on just anyone. It wasn’t until his colleague Ed told him that he’d met his wife, Min, on AsianEuro.com that he had thought of trying that particular site. When he had received the first e-­mail from Amina, he said that he’d “had a feeling.” When Amina asked what had given him the feeling, he said that she was “straightforward” and that she did not play games, unlike some women he knew. Which women were those, she had asked, but George said he was talking about women he’d known a long time ago, when he was in college.

She hadn’t been testing him: she had really wanted to know, only because her own experience had been so different. She had been contacted by several men before George, and each time she’d wondered if this was the person she would marry. Once she and George had started e-­mailing each other exclusively, she had wondered the same thing about him, and she’d continued wondering even after he booked the flight to Dhaka in order to meet her. She had wondered that first night when he ate with her parents at the wobbly table covered by the plasticized map of the world—­which her father discreetly steadied by placing his elbow somewhere in the neighborhood of Sudan—­and during the agonizing hours they had spent in the homes of their Dhaka friends and relatives, talking to each other in English while everyone sat around them and watched. It wasn’t until she was actually on the plane to Washington, D.C., wearing the University of Rochester sweatshirt he’d given her, that she had finally become convinced it was going to happen.

It was the first week of September, but the leaves were already starting to turn yellow. George said that the fall was coming early, making up for the fact that last spring had been unusually warm: a gift to Amina from the year 2005—­her first in America. By the time she arrived in March most of the snow was gone, and so she had not yet experienced a real Rochester winter.

In those first weeks she had been pleased to notice that her husband had a large collection of books: biographies (Abraham Lincoln, Anne Frank, Cary Grant, Mary Queen of Scots, John Lennon, and Napoléon) as well as classic novels by Charles Dickens, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway, and Jane Austen. George told Amina that he was a reader but that he couldn’t understand people who waded through all of the garbage they published these days, when it was possible to spend your whole life reading books the greatness of which had already been established.

George did have some books from his childhood, when he’d been interested in fantasy novels, especially retellings of the Arthurian legend and anything to do with dragons. There was also a book his mother had given him, 1001 Facts for Kids, which he claimed had “basically got him through the stupidity of elementary school.” In high school he had put away the 1001 Facts in favor of a game called Dungeons & Dragons, but there were now websites that served the same purpose, and George retained a storehouse of interesting tidbits that he periodically related to Amina.

“Did you know that there is an actual society made up of people who believe the earth is flat?”

“Did you know that one out of twenty people has an extra rib?”

“Did you know that most lipstick contains fish scales?”

For several weeks Amina had answered “No” to each of these questions, until she gradually understood that this was another colloquialism—­perhaps more typical of her new husband than of the English language—­simply a way of introducing a new subject that did not demand an actual response.

“Did you know that seventy percent of men and sixty percent of women admit to having been unfaithful to their spouse, but that eighty percent of men say they would marry the same woman if they had the chance to live their lives over again?”

“What do the women say?” Amina had asked, but George’s website hadn’t cited that statistic.

George had said that they could use the money he’d been “saving for a rainy day” for her to begin studying at Monroe Community College next year, and as soon as her green card arrived, Amina planned to start looking for a job. She wanted to contribute to the cost of her education, even if it was just a small amount. George supported the idea of her continuing her studies, but only once she had a specific goal in mind. It wasn’t the degree that counted but what you did with it; he believed that too many Americans wasted time and money on college simply for the sake of a fancy piece of paper. And so Amina told him that she’d always dreamed of becoming a real teacher. This was not untrue, in the sense that she had hoped her tutoring jobs at home might one day lead to a more sustained and distinguished kind of work. What she didn’t mention to George was how important the U.S. college degree would be to everyone she knew at home—­a tangible symbol of what she had accomplished halfway across the world.

She was standing at the sink, chopping eggplant for dinner, when she saw their neighbor Annie Snyder coming up Skytop Lane, pushing an infant in a stroller and talking to her little boy, Lawson, who was pedaling a low plastic bike. The garish colors and balloon-­like shapes of that toy reminded Amina of a commercial she had seen on TV soon after she’d arrived in Rochester, in which real people were eating breakfast in a cartoon house. Annie had introduced herself when Amina had moved in and invited her out for coffee. Then she’d asked if Amina had any babysitting experience, because she was always looking for someone to watch the kids for an hour or two while she did the shopping or went to the gym.

She asks that because you’re from someplace else, George had said. She sees brown skin and all she can think of is housecleaning or babysitting. He told her she was welcome to go to Starbucks with Annie, but under no circumstances was she to take care of Annie’s children, even for an hour. Amina was desperate to find a job, but secretly she was glad of George’s prohibition. American babies made her nervous, the way they traveled in their padded strollers, wrapped up in blankets like precious goods from UPS.

She had never worried about motherhood before, since she’d always known she would have her own mother to help her. When she and George had become serious, Amina and her parents had decided that she would do everything she could to bring them to America with her. Only once they’d arrived did she want to have her first child. They’d talked their plan through again and again at home, researching the green card and citizenship requirements—­determining that if all went well, it would be three years from the time she arrived before her parents could hope to join her. Just before she left, her cousin Ghaniyah had shown her an article in Femina called “After the Honeymoon,” which said that a couple remained newlyweds for a year and a day after marriage. In her case, Amina thought, the newlywed period would last three times that long, because she wouldn’t feel truly settled until her parents had arrived.

In spite of all the preparation, there was something surprising about actually finding herself in Rochester, waiting for a green card in the mail. The sight of Annie squatting down and retrieving something from the netting underneath the stroller reminded her that she had been here six months already and had not yet found an opportunity to discuss her thoughts about children or her parents’ emigration with George.
Nell Freudenberger

About Nell Freudenberger

Nell Freudenberger - The Newlyweds

Photo © David Jacobs

Nell Freudenberger is the author of the novel The Dissident and the story collection Lucky Girls, winner of the PEN/Malamud Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; both books were New York Times Book Review Notables. A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, and a Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Fellowship from the New York Public Library, she was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists and one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40.” She lives in Brooklyn with her family.
Praise

Praise

“A big, complicated portrait of marriage, culture, family, and love. . . . Every minute I was away from this book I was longing to be back in the world she created.” —Ann Patchett, author of State of Wonder

“Riveting. [The Newlyweds] succeeds based on Freudenberger’s uncanny ability to feel her way inside Amina’s skin.” —Los Angeles Times 

“A delight, one of the easiest book recommendations of the year. . . . The cross-cultural tensions and romance so well drawn here recall the pleasures of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. . . . The Newlyweds offers a reading experience redolent of Janeite charms: gentle touches of social satire, subtly drawn characters and dialogue that expresses far more than its polite surface. . . . On either side of the world, making a marriage work demands casting off not just old lovers, but cherished fantasies about who we are. Whether these two alien lovebirds can—or should—do that is the question Freudenberger poses so beguilingly.” —The Washington Post 

 
“A marvelous book.” —Kiran Desai, author of The Inheritance of Loss
 
“The relationship between reader and writer is always something of an arranged marriage, in the sense that the reader enters a stranger’s sensibility, hoping for the best. Amina and George may have a complicated connection, but Newlyweds is an unambiguous success.” —Meg Wolitzer, More

“A genuinely moving story about a woman trying to negotiate two cultures, balancing her parents’ expectations with her own aspirations, her ambition and cynical practicality with deeper, more romantic yearnings.  . . . Freudenberger demonstrates her assurance as a novelist and her knowledge of the complicated arithmetic of familial love, and the mathematics of romantic passion.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Parts of The Newlyweds might be about the learning curve faced by any freshly married couple. . . . Like writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri and Ha Jin, she deftly shows how strange the rituals of suburban America seem to an observant outsider.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Freudenberger’s central couple are more than well-crafted characters; they shimmer with believability and self-contradicting nuance. . . . Fluid and utterly confident.” —Time Out New York

The Newlyweds is so much more than a ‘lost-in-translation’ romp: There are soulful depths to the sociology. . . . [A] luscious and intelligent novel that will stick with you. . . . Freudenberger keeps the wonderfulness coming.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR

“Freudenberger brings impressive attributes to bear in [The Newlyweds]: a powerful sense of empathy, of being able to imagine what it is to be someone else, to feel what someone else feels; an effective writing style that avoids drawing attention to itself; and an international sensibility, which allows her to write about places outside America not as peripheral—mere playgrounds for American characters—but as central to themselves.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Once in a while, you come across a novel with characters so rich and nuanced, and situations so pitch-perfect, that you forget you're reading fiction. The Newlyweds is that sort of novel. I was floored by it—captivated from beginning to end. And now that I'm done, I can’t stop thinking about it.” —J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Maine

“That Amina and George manage to muddle though the first years of marriage is a testament to the power of love and respect; that we care about them all the way through says as much about Freudenberger’s keen observations and generous heart.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

The Newlyweds crosses continents, cultures and generations. . . . It’s funny, gracefully written and full of loneliness and yearning. It’s also a candid, recognizable story about love—the real-life kind, which is often hard and sustained by hope, kindness, and pure effort.” —USA Today

“Freudenberger draws women's complex lives as brilliantly as Austen or Wharton or Woolf, and, with The Newlyweds, has given a performance of beauty and grace.” —Andrew Sean Greer, author of The Story of a Marriage

“Rich, wise, bighearted. . . . Freudenberger works with care and respect, giving a full voice to every Deshi aunt, American cousin, and passing employee at the Starbucks where Amina finds a job. Freudenberger moves gracefully between South Asian fantasies of American life and the realities of bone-cold, snow-prone upstate New York—and turns the coming together of newlyweds Amina and George into a readers’ banquet.” —Entertainment Weekly, Grade: A

“A true triumph.” —The New York Observer

“Captivating. . . . This engaging story, with its page after page of effortless prose, ultimately offers up a deeper narrative.” —The Boston Globe

“Wise, timely, ripe with humor and complexity, The Newlyweds is one of the most believable love stories of our young century.”—Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story

“Amina’s determination, intelligence, and resilience make her a heroine for any culture and any time.” —Marie Claire
 
“Exceptional . . . Here is an honest depiction of life as most people actually live it: Americans and Asians, Christians and Muslims, liberals and conservatives. Freudenberger writes with a cultural fluency that is remarkable and in a prose that is clean, intelligent, and very witty.” —David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World 

Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s exploration of The Newlyweds, Nell Freudenberger’s powerful, funny, richly observed story of love and marriage, secrets and betrayals, that takes us from the backyards of America to the back alleys and villages of Bangladesh.

About the Guide

In The Newlyweds, we follow the story of Amina Mazid, who at age twenty-four moves from Bangladesh to Rochester, New York, for love. A hundred years ago, Amina would have been called a mail-order bride. But this is an arranged marriage for the twenty-first century: Amina is wooed—and woos—George Stillman online.
For Amina, George offers a chance for a new life and a different kind of happiness than she might find back home. For George, Amina is a woman who doesn’t play games. But each of them is hiding something: someone from the past they thought they could leave behind. It is only when they put an ocean between them—and Amina returns to Bangladesh—that she and George find out if their secrets will tear them apart, or if they can build a future together.

The Newlyweds is a surprising, suspenseful story about the exhilarations—and real-life complications—of getting, and staying, married. It stretches across continents, generations, and plains of emotion. What has always set Nell Freudenberger apart is the sly, gimlet eye she turns on collisions of all kinds—sexual, cultural, familial. With The Newlyweds, she has found her perfect subject for that vision, and characters to match. She reveals Amina’s heart and mind, capturing both her new American reality and the home she cannot forget, with seamless authenticity, empathy, and grace.

Delving into unsettling truths about marriage and identity, The Newlyweds is written with humor and a profound understanding of the choices, the luck, and the risks that shape the major decisions of our lives.

About the Author

Nell Freudenberger is the author of the novel The Dissident and the story collection Lucky Girls, winner of the PEN/Malamud Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; both books were New York Times Book Review Notables. A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, and a Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Fellowship from the New York Public Library, she was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists and one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40.” She lives in Brooklyn with her family.

Discussion Guides

1. Amina thinks, “Their courtship had more in common with her grandparents’—which had been arranged through a professional matchmaker in their village—than with her parents’, who’d had a love marriage” (p. 28). Are there fundamental differences between finding a partner on the Internet and traditional matchmaking methods? What might make a traditional arranged marriage or one made online appealing to men and women in the twenty-first century?

2. What does Amina and George’s online correspondence reveal about their respective personalities and expectations? In what ways are they well suited to each other despite their different backgrounds? What do their decisions to seek a spouse online indicate about their approaches to and ideas about marriage? How do their personal motivations influence the information they offer—and hold back?

3. “In spite of all the preparation, there was something surprising about actually finding herself in Rochester, waiting for a green card in the mail” (pp. 7–8). What aspects of Amina’s new life does she find puzzling, pleasing, or difficult to accept?  Consider, for example, the dinner at George’s mother’s house (p. 18); the wedding preparations and ceremony (pp. 38–40); and her various work experiences. What presents the greatest psychological challenges? What compromises does she make and why?

4. Spurred by “Amina’s anxiety about the Muslim ceremony, without which they wouldn’t really be married” (p. 34), the couple searches for an imam to marry them. Why does Amina decide against getting married at the Islamic Center of Rochester? What does the decision reflect about the role religion plays in her life? What does it convey about her complicated attachment to her past? How does she reconcile her decision with the promises she made to her parents?

5. “She struggled to find some connection between the girl she so often imagined at home in her parents’ apartment and this American wife. . . . The task was made more difficult by the fact that there was no one in Rochester who’d known that past-Munni, and no one back at home who knew the present one” (p. 59). How does this passage capture the isolation and sense of displacement that is often part of the immigrant experience? Are there parallels between Amina’s feelings and the feelings of any young wife (or husband) in the early years of marriage?

6. How would you characterize the friendship between Kim and Amina? What does each of them find appealing in the other? Is their relationship built on genuine affection or on false premises and selfish interests?

7. How do Kim’s experiences in India (pp. 122–26) and her life with Ashok in post-9/11 New York (p. 151–55) relate to the themes of the novel? What do their stories reveal about the effects of cultural and religious prejudices on ordinary people? How do their ordeals compare to Amina’s?

8. “She and George didn’t disagree very often, but when they did it was always because of ‘cultural differences’—a phrase so useful in forestalling arguments that she felt sorry for those couples who couldn’t employ it” (p. 66). To what extent are the problems or misunderstandings in their marriage attributable to “cultural differences”? What role do the emotional differences between them play?

9. Is Amina’s search of Kim’s apartment justifiable (pp. 141–42)? Why doesn’t she confront Kim directly? Are the conclusions Amina draws about George’s family as clear-cut as she assumes (p. 143)? Is her observation, made in a moment of bitterness—“You might cheat, steal, lie, but if you confessed, you could be instantly forgiven” (p. 147)—a valid assessment of American behavior?

10. What impact does Amina’s discovery about George’s past have on the dynamics of their marriage? Does his explanation of his deception (pp. 148–49) and his subsequent behavior (pp. 156–57) change your feelings about him? In light of his confession, are Amina’s demands reasonable, or do they amount to emotional blackmail? Consider her own interpretation: “What a strange thing, she thought, to find out one day that you had built your whole life on a mistake, and the next day to discover that this fact would allow you to have your dearest wish. She wondered if this was a unique predicament, something related to the unusual circumstances of her life, or a more general human condition” (p.156). Discuss your responses to this in terms of the novel and your own experiences.

11. When she arrives in Bangladesh, Amina thinks, “You thought you were the permanent part of your own experience, . . . until you discovered that there were many selves, dissolving into one another” (p. 207). Is Amina’s experience unusual, or is this a common reaction to returning home after a long absence?

12. How does Freudenberger bring the atmosphere and social milieu of Bangladesh to life in the narrative? Which details best evoke the emotional pull Amina feels toward her homeland?

13. During a lighthearted flirtation with Nasir, Amina thinks of the past and realizes, “She had the same feelings, sweeter because they’d been dormant for so long, but her wish from that time had been granted: she was a grown woman, with everything she would need to attract a man like Nasir” (pp. 250–51). Why are she and Nasir so drawn to each other? What part does nostalgia, the comfort of the familiar, and the loneliness they experienced—Nasir in London, Amina in America—have in the awakening of their feelings? What do you think would have happened had she chosen to pursue Nasir instead of returning home to George?

14. How do their families’ examples, opinions, and advice shape Amina and George’s relationship? Compare the influences of various family members (Amina’s parents and extended family in Bangladesh; George’s mother, Eileen Stillman, and his aunt Cathy and cousin Jessica). What does the novel show about the qualities, good and bad, shared by families from every culture or country?

15. Freudenberger often moves from a scene in Rochester to a past event or conversation in Dhaka. How does this affect the flow of the plot? What does it contribute to your understanding of Amina and the forces and feelings that have shaped her?

16. “She had escaped a broken country, and George a broken heart; they had chosen each other in spite of warnings from both sides. . . . Even if neither of their motives had been pure, wasn’t it possible that something pure had come of them now?” (pp. 174–75). Does Amina and George’s commitment to each other ever evolve into genuine love? Cite specific moments in the novel to support your point of view.

17. Freudenberger ends the novel with a twist: Amina’s “Reach for the Stars” essay, which has actually been composed by Kim for a writing competition sponsored by Starbucks. As Mohsin Hamid noted in his front-cover review of The Newlyweds in The New York Times Book Review (April 29, 2012), this essay has a certain parallel to Freudenberger’s own role as author—and it poses a larger question about authenticity and storytelling. What pitfalls might Freudenberger have faced, if any, in writing Amina’s story? Do you agree with Hamid’s statement that, for fiction “the question of authenticity  . . . is a red herring: nationalities, ethnicities, genders and even species do not ‘own’ the right to fictional narratives spoken in what purport to be their voices”? To what extent is Amina in her new American life crafting a persona different from the “authentic” self she knew at home?

Suggested Readings

Monica Ali, Brick Lane; Jane Austen, Persuasion; Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Sister of My Heart; Andrew Sean Greer, The Story of a Marriage; Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss; Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady; Gish Jen, The Love Wife; Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth; Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story; Helen Simonson, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand; Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence.

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