The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Namesake is a novel about family ties, heritage, and generational divides. The book begins with Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, newlywed Bengali immigrants, attempting to assimilate into their new life in New England. Ashima in particular has a hard time coping with the new way of life, but the couple slowly builds a growing network of Bengali friends over the years. When the couple has a son, Ashoke chooses to name him Gogol, both in reference to his favorite author and the circumstances surrounding a life-changing train accident he experienced as a young man.
Growing up, Gogol Ganguli does everything in his power to distance himself from his name and his heritage. He and his sister are fully Americanized, slowly letting go of their Indian traditions as they get older. Gogol particularly tries to rebel against his parents’ ways. Embarrassed by his name, he even changes it before leaving for college. He spends the rest of his early adulthood in a tug of war with his past, resisting it, then gradually becoming more appreciative of it as he experiences more of life.
The book is different from the film; the film version changes some parts of the story and is a lot tidier in certain regards. I’m a huge fan of Lahiri’s work largely because of her ability to capture grief and loneliness on the page (two things The Namesake is full of). While I love seeing the ways she incorporates Bengali culture into her work, I love a good sad, messy story even more.
Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
Girl in Translation is one of my favorite “reads” so far this year (I listened to it on audiobook). It’s a story about a young girl, Kimberly Chang, who immigrates to the United States with her mother from Hong Kong. The two work in a sweatshop for Kimberly’s aunt and uncle as they struggle to pay the couple back for numerous expenses, such as bringing them to the U.S. Kimberly and her mother wind up living in a roach- and rat-infested apartment in Brooklyn, barely making enough to scrape by. The book follows their hardships over the course of the next several years.
The culture shock and struggles with poverty are palpable throughout the novel. Like many immigrant children, a lot of responsibility falls of Kimberly. She knows a little bit of English, while her mother knows none. As such, it is up to Kimberly to translate everything for her mother. She also must help her mother out at the sweatshop, where they make 1½ cents per completed garment. Additionally, she feels a lot of pressure to succeed in school so that she can go to college and create a better life for her mother.
Kwok is a gifted storyteller. I loved her use of Chinese sayings throughout the book. She also does a great job of conveying the language barriers that someone whose first language was not English might experience. The book is classified as adult fiction, but I can also easily see it being classified as young adult fiction (in fact, if I get a job as a high school English teacher, I would definitely add this to my class bookshelf, because it’s just as much a coming-of-age story as it is a story about the immigrant experience).