By Edward Nawotka
In the United States, foreign-ness is a very subjective state. Having lived overseas for many years, my observation is that if you want to become an American, all you have to do is say “I’m an American,” while the opposite — say, an American wanting to become Dutch, Indian, Chinese or even Irish — is significantly more difficult, if not impossible.
According to the latest census data, there were 40 million foreign-born people living in the United States, with the largest groups coming from China and Mexico. Yet, it is rare that you see a Mexican or Chinese name grace the bestseller lists. Certainly there is a proportionally smaller pool of authors from this group: after all, not all immigrants are as quick to adopt English as Vladimir Nabokov or Alexander Hemon. But perhaps there’s something more subconscious at work, namely the perception that the work of a writer with a foreign name might not be as relevant to one’s life. The spectre of prejudice — or to put it more mildly, presumption — was raised in today’s feature story by W.W. Norton editor Alane Salierno Mason who noted that when publishing international literature, “The biggest challenge is with an author like Diana Abu-Jaber writing a very mainstream, totally American story, set in Miami — yet some readers might see her name and think, ‘oh, I’m not in the mood for some foreign thing.’ How do you get them to realize it is NOT foreign, just because the author has an Arabic name?”
Some author’s circumvent this confusion by making their nationality explicit. One good example of this is Ayad Akhtar’s American Dervish, a soon-to-be-published coming-of-age novel about a Muslim-American boy growing up in Milwaukee. The title has received wide praise and is, if anything, extremely timely and relevant to our current culture. But will it sell and join the ranks of the exceptions, the Jhumpa Lahiris and Khaled Hosseinis of the publishing world. Little, Brown hopes so and has made it one of its lead titles of the new year.
Whether it hits the besteller list remains to be seen, and it it doesn’t, one would be foolhardy to take it as a sign of overt prejudice. But one thing is clear, foreigners may be less begrudging to those people while difficult to pronounced names: Little, Brown reports that rights to the book have already been sold in 21 countries and 20 languages.