Volume 76, Number 47 | April 18 - 24, 2007

Photo by Marion Ettlinger

Gary Shteyngart is one of 21 writers featured in Granta’s new issue, Best of Young American Novelists 2.

The new (and foreign) faces of American Lit

By McKay McFadden

Granta — a British journal of fiction, memoir, reportage, and documentary photography — takes its name from the Granta River that snakes alongside Cambridge University. Started by students in 1889, the literary journal has since become a highly-regarded bastion of original writing from new and familiar voices, probing both intimate topics and global concerns in quarterly issues with themes like Loved Ones, God’s Own Countries, and The View From Africa. “It’s sort of like how the UK pop charts are better than American pop charts,” said Brooklyn writer John Wray. “They’ve just got better taste in everything.”

Wray has a reason to be pleased with Granta’s taste — he is one of the 21 writers featured in their most recent issue, Best of Young American Novelists 2. Other New York writers to make the cut include Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Kraus, Nell Freudenberger, Dara Horn, Rattawut Lapcharoensap, Karen Russell, Akhil Sharma and the Lower East Side’s Gary Shteyngart, who calls Granta “a document of where we are in the world today.” Shteyngart admits that today it’s hard to entice people to read, which he describes as “giving up something of your self to enter other people’s mindsets and realities.” But Granta, claims Shteyngart, is an “uber-intellectual digest” that lures readers “to inhabit other minds. Whether you’re reading its fiction or nonfiction, there’s an aura you’re reading something true.”

In 1996 Granta published its first Best of Young American Novelists issue, which foreshadowed the future agenda of American literature with young writers like Sherman Alexie, Jonathan Franzen and Lorrie Moore. When asked how American writing had changed since then, Wray said that while “the dominant mode is still realism, there’s a difference in the mood” in the two Granta issues. “There was a bleakness in the first one, almost leftover from the legacy of dirty realism that’s been replaced with a certain naiveté.” Wray said that reading from the 1996 issue is “like watching an old TV show, one made with different colors and different aesthetics.”

Several of the featured writers and Granta editor-in-chief Ian Jack will be at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium on April 24 at 8:30 p.m. to read their stories and discuss the state of American literature. The event kicks off the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, which runs in New York from April 24-29, under the theme of “Home & Away.” The festival draws accomplished writers from 45 countries together for discussions, lectures and readings on the notions of home and homelands, including migration and exile in literature. On April 25 at Town Hall, Don DeLillo, Kiran Desai, Salman Rushdie and Nadine Gordimer, among others, will meet for a discussion called “Writing Home.” Other notable events in the festival include a discussion on sex and danger as welcome taboos in literature at the New York Public Library, “Green Thoughts: Writers on the Environment” at Cooper Union, and a conversation on advocacy in literature between Ishmael Beah and Uzodinma Iweala, who both wrote novels about child soldiers in Africa.

Hearing from Granta’s roster of rising American novelists is a fitting opening to the international PEN festival, given the high concentration of immigrants and writers with mixed ethnic heritages: Daniel Alarcón is from Peru, Olga Grushin hails from Moscow, Yiyun Li is from Beijing, Uzodinma Iweala was raised by Nigerian parents and Rattawut Lapcharoensap grew up in Bangkok. Shteyngart, who emigrated from Russia to New York as a child, explains this trend in American literature as a form of escapism. “This country has taken such a sharp, right-hard turn,” he said, “that foreign perspectives now capture many American’s imaginations.”

For more information on the PEN World Voices festival, visit pen.org.

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