New Voices in Fiction

There was a healthy dose of excitement in the American literary community recently as The New Yorker, the prestigious social and literary weekly, released “20 Under 40,” a selection of the 20 most promising fiction writers under the age of 40 whom it believes “are, or will be, key to their generation.”

Nine on the roster were born outside the United States, emigrating from Africa, Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe and Canada; one writer, from Yugoslavia, spent her childhood in Cyprus and Egypt. (The list focuses on writers who are from or are based in North America.)

This was the second selection of “20 Under 40” in the history of the magazine, which has been a fixture on the American literary scene for the past 85 years. The first list, published in 1999, included several writers whose works during the past 11 years have won widespread attention, readership and, for the most part, acclaim — such as Jonathan Franzen, Junot Díaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Michael Chabon, Chang-rae Lee, Jeffrey Eugenides and William Vollmann.

Hopes are high, therefore, for the new score of writers, several of whom already have made their marks both domestically and abroad. The 2010 list reveals the magazine editors’ expanded perspective from what it was in 1999. The number of women in the mix of 20 has doubled, from five to 10. And whereas four of the writers in 1999 (Edwidge Danticat, Díaz, Lahiri and Lee) were born outside of North America, the number in 2010 is seven.

The diverse roster includes Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 32, a Nigerian-born author of two novels and a collection of short stories, who already has been named a MacArthur “genius” award recipient. Her fellow African, Ethiopian-born Dinaw Mengestu, 31, won attention for his 2007 debut story collection about the émigré experience, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. Gary Shteyngart, 37, born in Russia, already is known through several novels for his deft satirical voice. David Bezmozgis, an émigré from Latvia to Canada, won acclaim for Natasha and Other Stories, a 2004 New York Times Notable Book; he also is a screenwriter and filmmaker. The youngest on the list, Téa Obreht, 24, is a native of Yugoslavia who spent her childhood in Cyprus and Egypt before coming to the United States in 1997; she is awaiting publication of her first novel, The Tiger’s Wife, in the spring of 2011.

Yiyun Li, 37, explored the aftermath of China’s Cultural Revolution in her novel The Vagrants; a collection of stories set in present-day China that is to be published in September. Daniel Alarcón, 33, a native of Lima, Peru, has brought a particular literary and historical sensibility to his many stories and one novel, Lost City Radio. In addition, two were born in Canada — Rivka Galchen and Wells Tower — but they have lived in the United States most of their lives.

What has happened in literature, broadly speaking, that is reflected in The New Yorker’s list?

“I’ve been totally convinced for the last five years,” says Daniel Menaker, a former editor of The New Yorker and recent editor-in-chief of Random House Publishing, “that with the exception of Franzen and a few others, our garden of literature is being watered by people who have come here from abroad. And I think that’s a fascinating development.”

A number of the American-born writers on the list have cast their literary eyes globally. Nell Freudenberger, 35, is the author of The Dissident, about an émigré Chinese artist and political activist. Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer, 33, explores the European Holocaust through the eyes of a young American in search of his grandfather’s rescuer. Nicole Krauss (who is married to Foer), 35, also explores the Holocaust, weaving together the stories of an elderly survivor. Her forthcoming novel, Great House, has a canvas stretching from Chile to London to Jerusalem. And in his 2008 novel, The End, Salvatore Scibona, 35, depicts the struggles of a first-generation Italian family.

“It is, indeed, a new literary world in the English language,” Menaker said. “In some ways, it mirrors the racial integration of childbearing in this country, the cross-pollinating of American life. This literary trend represents the very end of any sort of isolationism we may have had — the end of the [John] Updike, [Philip] Roth, [Saul] Bellow axis.”

Reflecting on the process of selection, and the choices eventually made, the editors of The New Yorker suggested that the 20 writers came to be noticed in various ways. With some, it was “a freshness of perspective, observation, humor or feeling. In others, we saw a stealthier buildup of thought and linguistic innovation.” What marked them all, besides the use of language and the storytelling, the editors wrote, was “a palpable sense of ambition.”

“These writers are not all iconoclasts; some are purposefully working within existing traditions. But they are all aiming for greatness: fighting to get our attention, and to hold it, in a culture that is flooded with words, sounds and pictures; fighting to surprise, to entertain, to teach and to move not only us but generations of readers to come.”

Here are the “20 Under 40” authors and their signature works:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Thing Around Your Neck

Chris Adrian, A Better Angel

Daniel Alarcón, Lost City Radio

Daniel Bezmozgis, Natasha and Other Stories

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Madeline is Sleeping

Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End; The Unnamed

Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated

Nell Freudenberger, The Dissident

Rivka Galchen, Atmospheric Disturbances

Nicole Krauss, The History of Love

Yiyun Li, The Vagrants

Dinaw Mengestu, The Beautiful Thing That Heaven Bears

Philipp Meyer, American Rust

C.E. Morgan, All the Living

Téa Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife (2011)

ZZ Packer, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

Karen Russell, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

Salvatore Scibona, The End

Gary Shteyngart, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook

Wells Tower, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned: Stories

For more on international writers, see the eJournal USA Multicultural Literature in the United States Today.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.)

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One Comment

  1. BroofttUteved says:

    t’s such a great site. imaginary, extraordinarily fascinating!!!


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