Pairings: Maine and Somalis, or: Explaining

Remember way back when, I had this idea that there would be pairings, a book for parents and one for kids on a subject that gave them all this stuff to talk about, but from different perspectives? Along the lines of better late than never, I am reading/recently read two books that make me think about it again, and bring up a host of other questions besides. This:


And this:


(Yes, a better blogger would figure out how to make those the exact same size. Alas.)

Both these books focus on the arrival of Somali immigrants in Maine, and how both communities stagger a bit in the impact. Both books stagger themselves under the weight of conveying the pertinent background information. And this is what concerns me.

I believe, or at least think (there's a difference) that it's right and worthy to try to push outside the comfort zone to address larger issues. If you live in Maine and all of a sudden there are thousands of Somali immigrants, that's an entirely reasonable subject for fiction. Or more than that: it's the world, even—or especially if—it doesn't appear in the world of literature that surrounds us. And to ignore it is cowardly.

But how does one write a novel like this without having to deliver the information? I mean, beyond the whole "Show, don't tell" stuff. If one knows, as these authors do, that the immigrants they're writing about are secondary immigrants coming from another U.S. city, and before that from unimaginable horrors in Africa, how does one convey that without shoving it uncouthly into the mouths of one of the characters? Must one convey it, to talk about these people? How to avoid sounding like one is giving a history lesson, when that is in fact exactly what one is doing?

I mean, can you read Vanity Fair without knowing about the Napoleonic Wars? No doubt it enhances one's understanding, but is it crucial? Can you read Mansfield Park without thinking about the slaves and sugar and plantations, which the master of the house is busy addressing? Well, of course you can read them, but do you get a whole picture? Do you need a whole picture? Is a whole picture of anything in the world even possible?

What book does a good job of this? I think of genre writers, particularly in fantasy and science fiction, who must convey a whole other world with rules and history in every single book. Who does this well? Ursula K. LeGuin does this well. Who does this well in realistic fiction? In literary fiction? How much does a person really need to understand when reading a book? I can read Dante and know nothing about the papal history, but is it a weaker, thinner reading? And whose responsibility is it to know—does the writer have to put the information there? Or can it be there but invisible, some sort of powerful internal structure buttressing the very heart of the novel?

Answers to the above: I don't know, I don't know, I don't know, I don't know.

Do you guys know?

Also, just in case you're wondering, the books noted above, while both flawed, are interesting, particularly when grouped together, and if I had a high schooler with any interest in soccer lying around, and I were an Elizabeth Strout fan generally (as indeed I am, though this is not her best work) I would get the kid Out of Nowhere, I would read The Burgess Boys, and then we would have excellent discussions.

5 thoughts on “Pairings: Maine and Somalis, or: Explaining

  1. I like to learn from my reading so I am usually not bothered by this type of explication in my fiction. (I am much MORE bothered by lengthy descriptions of the color of the light and the outfits of the characters, etc…..stuff that neither moves the plot nor informs you of anything truly important.) I think Barbara Kingsolver does it pretty well (Flight Behavior makes you an expert on monarch butterflies; Prodigal Summer makes you an expert on the importance of maintaining the predators at the top of the food chain in natural systems….)….
    But I agree for sure that some authors have a heavier hand when dealing with this kind of thing than others.


  2. This is such a fascinating question! I don’t think I am anywhere near smart enough to answer. I love Barbara Kingsolver though. I want to reread Prodigal Summer. And, maybe all of her books. It has been too long. And I am old now, so I wonder how the books will change…
    Not to make this about me. Or giddy.


  3. Dave Eggers’ “What Is The What” is a great example of learning about the immigrant experience without having it force-fed.
    We are selling lots of both of these books at the store. I’m looking forward to reading “Burgess Boys” – loved “Olive Kitteridge”.


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