Books about bein' a furriner
February 18, 2010 9:08 PM   Subscribe

Is there any modern writer considered to be the "voice of the American expat"? Or any literary movement/place I should be paying attention to if I'd like to read modern literature about living abroad? I'd like to read about living, not traveling, in other places, and what that does to your perspective and sense of self in the internet age.

A friend of mine recommended this book and it got me wondering about current English-language literature re: living and existing abroad as it relates to the modern American identity. I don't know that there's anything like the "Paris Moment" happening, but I'm sure there are lots of books being published all over the world about living in a place that's not your own.

I know here in Beijing that writing "the China book" is kind of a running joke among expats. And I've seen any number of travelogues, and I'm aware that that particular genre, while it certainly has its exemplary works, is not particularly what I'd like to read and learn about. Being a traveler is an entirely different experience from living in another place, right? Beyond that, I know nothing about the "expat genre", or even if such a thing still exists.

And if it doesn't, what should I be reading?
posted by saysthis to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Two possibilities that may interest you:

Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island is perhaps seminal reading for contemporary American expats living in Britain.

And when I was living in Provence, Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence was practically de rigueur reading for all of the US expats.
posted by darkstar at 9:17 PM on February 18, 2010

I should say that Mayle is British, and his book was commonly passed around among all anglophiles, not just Americans.
posted by darkstar at 9:19 PM on February 18, 2010

You're in China, so maybe you've already read River Town, but if you haven't, it's a pretty classic story of what it was like for an expat to live away from the Beijing-Shanghai-Shenzhen 'furriner grid' in China. Things have certainly changed since, but I've never read any mass-market expat book that was more accurate or more well-written.

Also, if you're there now, it seems that Hessler is coming to Beijing for the Beijing Bookworm literary festival.
posted by Valet at 9:22 PM on February 18, 2010

Well then you know about James Fallows?
posted by tintexas at 9:52 PM on February 18, 2010

I'm writing this book. I'll send you a copy if it ever gets published.
posted by clockzero at 10:17 PM on February 18, 2010

You say "American expat author" and I think Paul Bowles. But maybe he's not what you're looking for, which seems to be American writers living abroad who write specifically about living abroad. I don't think Bowles is that author.
posted by lex mercatoria at 10:26 PM on February 18, 2010

Check out William T. Vollman. He has written extensively about being overseas, and arguably he's an expat even in the U.S.
posted by msalt at 11:11 PM on February 18, 2010

Pico Iyer
posted by KokuRyu at 11:41 PM on February 18, 2010

The Undutchables is the standard for English-speaking ex-pats in the Netherlands.
posted by transporter accident amy at 12:44 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I guess Frances Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun meets most of your criteria: a contemporary American writing about about living, not traveling, in other places (in this case, Cortona, Arezzo province, Italy), as it relates to the modern American identity. It is a lightweight and fairly superficial story, but certainly explores the perception of provincial Italian life as experienced and modified (the perception, not the life!) over time by an American intending to settle there and slowly adapting to alien concepts and rhythms. The book is interspersed with "authentic receipies" which would make an Italian's jaw drop in horror, but the author does explore her reaction to a new environment in which she intended to participate.

I'm told the movie was awful, but I haven't seen it. I lived for too long in Cortona to want to see this Hollywood view. There is now a spinoff "Tuscan Sun Festival" held annually in the village, but it's unrelated to the concept which interests you and is merely a moneyspinner piggy-backing on the book's undoubted success.
posted by aqsakal at 1:33 AM on February 19, 2010

place I should be paying attention to

Lots of us are keeping blogs these days...I've been living in Africa for almost 3 years (blog link in profile), but that said I do travel a lot (in Africa, mostly) for work. I have lots of friends / colleagues / contacts-of-other-various-natures over here who I've met who keep much better blogs than mine as well. Memail if that kind of thing would interest you.
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:24 AM on February 19, 2010

duh, Henry Miller. or did you mean 'contemporary'?
posted by sexyrobot at 2:29 AM on February 19, 2010

There's always the newest David Sedaris book. I believe he has lived outside of the U.S. for a large part of his adult life, and he talks about it a lot in that book. There's an entire chapter (the last) devoted to his move to Japan to facilitate his giving up smoking.

I can't say it's an incredible book, but it's fairly fun to read.
posted by nosila at 4:14 AM on February 19, 2010

As an "expat" myself who also blogs about my life in France (I've lived here for 10 years now), I would recommend looking for blogs too. I enjoy them much more than "expat books"... as a matter of fact, I don't own a single expat book, because I inevitably end up putting them back on the bookstore shelf after reading a few paragraphs. That includes Mayle's, and I say that as someone who dated a French (self-identifying Provençal) man for six months, whose family lived in a village near Mayle's. But there are quite a few well-written blogs by people who take their experiences as life experiences rather than as extended tourism stays. Feel free to check out my blog and its list via my MeFi profile, if you'd like. There are two decent directory-type sites as well:
- will introduce you to some real people, so that you can see their views on things.

Side note: I put "expat" in scare quotes because I do not consider myself an expat. First, no company paid my way over here; I came of my own accord, and have built my life here entirely on my own. I'm an immigrant. I've been here for ten years and will very likely stay; I've also applied for French nationality (will keep US nationality too, so I would have dual citizenship). A lot of people who cheerily self-identify as "expats" have an attitude that rubs me the wrong way. They'll speak with a mix of superiority and condescension that can often be subtle, but once you're attuned to it, it's quite distasteful. These are people who will write about "the real China" or "the real France" while living in 1,000-square-foot, furnished hotel rooms that include a cleaning service, in the capital cities. Real Chinese and French people would never be able to afford those places. "Expat privilege", in a sense. But like I said, I know quite a few who are egalitarian and see human beings as human beings, no matter whether they eat frog legs, cows, snails, turkeys, pumpkins; or whether they speak a different language, and so forth. Experiences can be just as special without needing to throw on a layer of "Look At What Natives Experience! Isn't It Quaint!" (because that's the implication in expat books, much of the time)... aaand I'm starting to rant :) Look for people who don't make much noise about being "expats" and you're likely to find the writing you want.
posted by fraula at 4:42 AM on February 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Seconding Pico Iyer; although he's only American in upbringing (born in the UK, writes a lot about not having a set national identity). The Lady and the Monk is about acclimation to Japan (where he now lives); his essay collections Falling off the Map, Tropical Classical, and The Global Soul (in descending order of, um, compelling-ness) deal with dislocation in multiple senses.
posted by kittyprecious at 6:07 AM on February 19, 2010

Not USA-ian, but I recommend The Secret Life of France by Lucy Wadham. A memoir of living in France by a British woman.
posted by bright cold day at 6:54 AM on February 19, 2010

He was the Paris correspondent for the New Yorker from 1995 to about 2000 (dates?)
There's a lot about his family living in Paris and raising his son there, and how he had to think differently about the experiences he was creating for his son compared to a typical American childhood.
posted by CathyG at 7:56 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm halfway through Paris to the Moon as well, and it is so far fantastic.
posted by bunnycup at 7:58 AM on February 19, 2010

Paul Theroux
posted by djb at 8:02 AM on February 19, 2010

Arthur Phillips, Prague. This is a very good novel about ex-pats in Budapest in the 1990s. (The title is a joke on the characters who think maybe everything's cooler in Prague.)
posted by Jasper Fnorde at 1:23 PM on February 19, 2010

Try Michael Fitzgerald's Radiant Days.
posted by tangerine at 9:41 PM on February 20, 2010

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