Alone again or do you have any fiction recommendations?
January 3, 2009 2:19 PM   Subscribe

Stories of life abroad w/r/t aloneness and the inscrutability of culture. Any recommendations?

I'm a college junior finishing the first semester of a year abroad. I've been immersed in a foreign language and culture for four months—just enough to feel like I'm no longer a dumb tourist, but also enough to start to realize how hard it is to understand this place and how easy it can be to construct my own bullshit about the things I see around me. I've had an awesome time so far, but there's a definite feeling of aloneness that comes from living in this limbo between transient sightseer and wizened local, along with the more general detachment from friends and family back home that comes with living halfway around the world for a little while.

Surely, some writer out there has felt the same way. Know of any fiction, memoirs, travel writing, essays, criticism, &c. about living abroad, aloneness, and the travails of trying to understand a foreign place?

posted by ecmendenhall to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
"Playing for Pizza" by John Grisham is a nice light read about an NFL football player who winds up playing in Italy. I enjoyed it.
posted by txvtchick at 2:26 PM on January 3, 2009

Holy Cow
posted by nitsuj at 2:32 PM on January 3, 2009

Carnet de Voyage, the author's sketchbook/travel journal during his trip to Europe and Morocco. All his personal thoughts interlaced with beautiful artwork = win.
posted by curagea at 2:39 PM on January 3, 2009

The short story "A Distant Episode" by Paul Bowles is a prime example of this.

A French linguist literally has his work cut out for him in North Africa. This is to say his tongue is cut out and he is transformed into a mute performing novelty.

A chilling, unforgettable story
posted by subatomiczoo at 2:43 PM on January 3, 2009

_My Life in France_ by Julia Child isn't so much about loneliness but rather her infatuation with France, at times contrasted with her parents and fellow ex-pats that do not feel the same as her. I found it to be an incredibly joyful book to read when considering my own experiences overseas, both good and bad. Granted, it focusing on cooking, as you might expect. :)
posted by kcm at 2:50 PM on January 3, 2009

The Inscrutable Americans is a really funny fiction book about an Indian student coming to live in America.

There are many other (more serious) authors and essayists on this topic that I won't begin to list, but a key term that can help you in your searches is "literature of exile."
If you become really interested in it, you can explore this more in grad school, it is a serious field of study in the lit world. See if you like any of this to start.
posted by rmless at 3:26 PM on January 3, 2009

The short story Bush Pigs by Richard Dooling is a great description of the reverse -- the inscrutability of the return home. His novel White Man's Grave is also good, though to my eyes not quite as good as the short story.

Many of Graham Greene's books explore this theme, too, and the best of his writing is really wonderful to read.
posted by Forktine at 4:11 PM on January 3, 2009

Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik, a New Yorker writer, is a fun read that gets at both the excitement of living in another culture, and the struggle of being nonetheless always an outsider.

Some Pico Iyer might fit the bill, though his stuff has never quite grabbed me. Paul Bowles was the other writer I was going to recommend, as others have upthread.

Kafka often felt right to me when I was living in another culture, though his work isn't specifically about geographic alienation.
posted by cocoagirl at 4:25 PM on January 3, 2009

I'm a Stranger Here Myself by Bill Bryson. In this case the subject is about returning home, but I think it contains some of the feelings you're talking about. As a bonus it'll make you laugh.
posted by tejolote at 5:23 PM on January 3, 2009

You might try Kabloona.
posted by gudrun at 5:27 PM on January 3, 2009

Far Afield by Susanna Kaysen is about a university student who gets a Fulbright Fellowship to go to the Faroe Islands, as he goes through exactly what you're describing. It really helped me get through my Fulbright Fellowship in Iceland as I went through that weird culture transition from tourist to realizing I'll never be a native, or even close. I applaud you for reaching out to literature to help you through this period. It's a doozy, and reading how others have handled it is invaluable.
posted by Capri at 5:35 PM on January 3, 2009

The archetypal Daisy Miller by Henry James comes to mind...
posted by workerant at 5:59 PM on January 3, 2009

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler
posted by Rora at 8:48 PM on January 3, 2009

In the vein of Rora's suggestion, there's also Nine Hills to Nambonkaha.

Then, on a completely different tip, there's A Year in the Merde and even, perhaps, A Year in Van Nuys.
posted by HE Amb. T. S. L. DuVal at 11:59 PM on January 3, 2009

The Broker is another excellent John Grisham book about an American having to live in Italy.
posted by JonB at 3:17 AM on January 4, 2009

A little darker and more serious, but Paul Bowles is amazing on this subject. Sheltering Sky is great, or his short stories.
posted by oqrothsc at 6:01 AM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Reportedly, Me talk pretty one day may be touching on that.
posted by ersatz at 12:59 PM on January 4, 2009

Special thanks to subatomiczoo and oqrothsc, and everyone else for the suggestions. Paul Bowles is spot on and beautiful, even though he doesn't offer a lot of comfort. "Sheltering Sky" and "A Distant Incident" perfectly capture what I was after. Thanks!
posted by ecmendenhall at 11:40 AM on January 28, 2009

The graphic novel Persepolis 2 (sequal to the also lovely but less apt Persepolis, about the author's childhood in Iran) tells the story of the author's experience as a young Iranian woman living in Austria, away from her family and culturally isolated. It also follows her as she returns home and struggles to re-adapt to a culture that she's grown apart from. I took it with me as a study-abroad student in India and found it enormously comforting.
posted by bookish at 12:08 PM on February 25, 2009

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