It’s been a year of closed borders, motions to build walls, and referenda fueled by xenophobia. And yet, in the realm of contemporary literature, stories continue to offer readers the opportunity to cross divisions of ethnicity and class. From a story of post-Apartheid race relations in South Africa to reflections on the dizzying new wealth in globalized India, this season’s crop of fiction debuts, in its sheer multitude of perspectives, offers a promising rejoinder to the strain of bigotry creeping into Western politics: ideas, unlike people, cannot be turned away at the gate.
Julie Buntin: The person you never forget
Teenage friendships almost never make sense, which might explain why so many of them fall apart as people get older, and also why fiction writers often turn to them for material. When Julie Buntin was working on Marlena (Holt), her debut novel about the aftermath of an intense friendship between two teenage girls, she was faced with the challenge of making that particular obsession legible to readers. “It’s hard to capture why a character finds someone else magnetic,” Buntin, 29, says. “How can you translate that into something the reader can connect to?”
Marlena centers on two characters, 15-year-old Cat and 17-year-old Marlena, who become pals when Cat moves to the town in northern Michigan where Marlena lives. Buntin, in the words of PW’s starred review, “is particularly sensitive to the misery of adolescent angst,” observing how Cat becomes increasingly enamored of the unstable Marlena, who is “musically talented, beautiful, and doomed to die young.” Claudia Ballard, Buntin’s agent, says the novel brings intelligence to the experience of being put under another person’s spell: “The experience of reading the book makes you relive it all over again, and relive it through her eyes.”
Buntin is an associate editor and the director of the writing program at Catapult, and she's also married to PW deputy reviews editor Gabe Habash. She says she's aware of the subgenres—the female-friendship story, the doomed-girl story—into which her novel might be pigeonholed. But these precedents didn’t weigh much on her mind while she was writing. And, for her, such conventions aren’t simply hallmarks of fiction. “Those tropes about girls aren’t just literary,” she says. “They are a part of how girls have to navigate their identities growing up in American culture. And that’s certainly something I was responding to—the very toxic notion that there’s something to romanticize about being damaged, or fucked up, as a teenage girl.”
Patty Yumi Cottrell: A singular voice navigates a family tragedy
Some writers are marathoners, others sprinters. Patty Yumi Cottrell, author of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace (McSweeney’s), is a bit of both. When she began writing the novel a few years ago, while living in New York, she got a few chapters into the story. But then a move to Los Angeles and a job teaching in a charter school—life, in other words—intervened, and she set the manuscript aside. When she finally did return to the project, during a vacation, she completed most of it in just two weeks. “In some ways it took a couple years to write, but in other ways it came together really quickly,” Cottrell, 35, says.
Even when Cottrell wasn’t putting words into a document, she was writing the book in her head. The narrative sensibility, she says, never left her: “Something about the voice was very immediate for me. Every time I sat down and came back to it, it was right there.”
Sorry to Disrupt the Peace follows 32-year-old Helen, who is called away from her life in New York when her adoptive brother commits suicide. Back at home in Milwaukee, Helen proceeds to “investigate” her brother’s death, but, according to PW’s starred review, “what starts as a detective’s hunt for clues soon becomes Helen’s confrontation of her own place in the world.”
Andi Winnette, Cottrell’s editor, says the novel’s grim material is offset by the intimacy and humor of Helen’s voice. “She doesn’t do anything to lighten it for us, but I think the shock of it, and how impossible it is to navigate, means she takes it one step at a time,” she says. “Helen is a dry comedian in a lot of ways.”
Cottrell describes Helen as “very obsessive.” She adds, “She pays attention to very particular things, but the larger things, she’s not paying attention to. That can lead to trouble for her.”
When Winnette read the manuscript, she was reminded of other obsessive, circuitous writers such as Thomas Bernhard and Sheila Heti. But ultimately, for her, these comparisons don’t do the book justice. “It’s so Patty Yumi Cottrell,” she says. “She’s the only person who’s ever written this way.”
Caite Dolan-Leach: Literary homesickness drives a suspenseful family saga
After Caite Dolan-Leach left her hometown of Ithaca, N.Y., at 17, she spent years living all over the world. She took her undergraduate degree at Trinity College Dublin, did a master’s degree in Paris, and, more recently, has been traveling to such places as Cape Town and Lisbon with her husband, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in comparative literature. But when she decided to embark on Dead Letters (Random House), her debut novel, she felt compelled to go back to her roots. After so much peregrination, Dolan-Leach, 29, says, “a certain version of homesickness starts to creep into your imagination.”
Dead Letters tells of a young woman, Ava, who is called away from Paris to her central New York hometown after the death of her twin sister, Zelda. In the words of PW’s starred review, Ava becomes “suspicious of her townie sister’s supposed demise in a barn fire, and it isn’t long before she begins to receive email messages from Zelda, who claims to have faked her own death.”
For Dolan-Leach, the decision to set the novel, and the protagonist’s family’s ailing vineyard, in the Finger Lakes region was motivated by more than her familiarity with the setting. “This part of the world is so strange,” she says. On the one hand it’s “extremely cultivated,” with multiple universities and a community of international students and academics. On the other hand it’s “very country,” and in many parts mired in economic stagnation. “That tension fascinates me,” Dolan-Leach says. “I find it peculiar that more books and movies aren’t set here.”
For Kara Cesare, Dolan-Leach’s editor, who grew up in Scranton, a university town in Pennsylvania with similar contrasts, reading the novel felt “like coming home.” The “stark beauty” of the central New York landscape, she says, complements the novel’s theme of isolation. “The setting—while very authentic, because that’s where Caite grew up—is also perfect for the characters.”
Emily Fridlund: Bringing the gothic to contemporary rural America
When agent Nicole Aragi first opened the manuscript of History of Wolves (Atlantic Monthly), Emily Fridlund’s debut novel, she had what she calls “one of those perfect reading experiences.” She was staying at a friend’s remote guest house in Portland, Ore., and “the mood, the quiet time of day, the closeness of nature (huge glass window, pitch black outside)” all resonated with the gloomy atmosphere of the novel. Immediately Aragi knew she wanted to represent Fridlund. “Simple as that,” she says.
History of Wolves tells of an isolated 14-year-old girl living in northern Minnesota named Linda, who, after she begins babysitting for a neighboring family, “realizes something is amiss,” stated PW’s starred review. The story, with its barren setting, has shades of the gothic; and indeed, Fridlund, 37, studied novels associated with that genre, such as Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw, while pursuing a doctorate in literature and creative writing at USC. “I started thinking about the babysitter as a contemporary equivalent of the governess,” Fridlund says. Both, she argues, occupy a “weird, in-between” role in families—“essential and peripheral at the same time. Able to see a lot in a family structure, but also an outsider. It’s a fascinating position, I thought, to tell a story from.”
Elizabeth Schmitz, Fridlund’s editor, says the book’s setting contributes to its eerie feel. “A huge character is northern Minnesota—the freezing cold iciness of the world Linda is growing up in,” she says. “Nature has brought her up.”
For Fridlund, who grew up in the Twin Cities, the voice of the narrator is inseparable from the landscape of Minnesota. “It was interesting thinking about Linda’s isolation being amplified” by living in a remote region, she says. “That place came to me really vividly.”
Ayelet Gundar-Goshen: A "moral thriller" dramatizes an immigration crisis in Israel
Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s novel Waking Lions (Little, Brown), her first book to be published in the U.S., has the type of seductive plot twists—a hit-and-run, a blackmailing scheme, a crime that threatens to rend a marriage—that, seemingly, only a fiction writer could concoct. But in fact, the 34-year-old writer, who lives in Israel, borrowed much of the premise of the story from real life.
More than a decade ago, while traveling in the Himalayas, Gundar-Goshen met a man who told her that, a few days earlier, he had accidentally hit someone with his vehicle and fled the scene. “The thing is, he didn’t look like a bad man,” she says. She asked herself if she would have acted differently had she been in his situation. “Would I have called the local police, or is there a place within me that would also panic, think only of the consequences, and escape? Moreover, was it easier for this young tourist (or for me) to do this because the victim was homeless?”
In Waking Lions, Gundar-Goshen transposes the story to Israel. The driver is an Israeli doctor, the victim an Eritrean man—one of tens of thousands of Africans who have entered Israel illegally, seeking refuge, in recent years. The repercussions of the doctor’s actions become further complicated when the victim’s wife begins blackmailing him, and when his own wife, a detective from whom he’s kept the event secret, becomes the lead investigator on the case.
When Grainne Fox, Gundar-Goshen’s American agent, pitched the novel to publishers, she billed it as a “moral thriller.” The book, she says, is about what you do “if you think you deserve to get away with something.” Asya Muchnick, Gundar-Goshen’s American editor, adds that, while the novel bears a passing resemblance to conventional thrillers, its suspense lies less in its events than in the philosophical questions those events raise. “It keeps you on the edge of your seat,” she says, wondering “how these characters are going to solve their moral problems.”
“There’s a lot of noir in the Israeli reality, so it’s only reasonable for a Hebrew writer to turn to this genre,” Gundar-Goshen says. Unlike in a typical noir story, though, her “protagonist doesn’t seek knowledge. He wishes to return to his safe, ignorant existence.”
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: Looking beyond colonialism
When Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, the author of Kintu (Transit), moved from her native Uganda to England in 2001, when she was 34, to do a creative writing M.A. at Manchester Metropolitan University, she was given a piece of advice that stayed with her. “If you’re not going to bring something new to the table, if you’re going to do what everyone else has been doing, you might as well not write,” Makumbi, 49, recalls.
As a student of literature—after her M.A., she did a Ph.D. in creative writing and the University of Lancaster—Makumbi found that many books about Africa focused almost exclusively on colonialism. “I noticed how the West was obsessed with colonization, at the expense of other African experiences,” she says. When she embarked on her novel, she wanted to something new. “I felt I needed to get colonization out of my novel if I was going to have people look at what happened to Africa before it arrived, and what happened after it left.”
Kintu examines the history of Uganda through the story of a cursed bloodline. Divided into six books, it stretches from the 1750s to the 21st century as the descendants of the affected family seek to liberate themselves from the curse and navigate the differences between the country’s past and present. Notably, it doesn’t take colonialism as a central focus. While Makumbi admits that the West’s involvement in the continent is important, she wanted readers to see “Africans for themselves.”
Kintu was published by a Kenyan press in 2014 and will be published in the U.S. this spring by Transit Books, an upstart publisher focused on international writing founded by husband-and-wife team Adam Z. Levy and Ashley Nelson Levy. Adam says the book, which has struggled to find publishers outside of Africa, “does not provide a mirror in which a Western reader can easily see himself or herself.” But, he adds, “like any good book, it teaches you how to find yourself in it. It’s a book that’s much bigger than the boundaries of Uganda or of Africa.”
Yewande Omotoso: In politically fraught South Africa, rivals mend under one roof
Rare is the novel that features older women as protagonists, rather than as mere supporting characters or props. Rarer still is the novel willing to depict aging women in all their complications, regrets, and swarming hostilities. But that’s precisely what Yewande Omotoso, a Barbados-born South African writer, set out to do her in novel, The Woman Next Door (Picador), her second work of fiction and her first to be published in the U.S.
Omotoso’s novel centers on two wealthy octogenarian neighbors: Hortensia, a black former textile designer, and Marion, a white former architect. For various reasons, they are forced to live together temporarily in Hortensia’s house, which Marion designed, in an upscale community in Cape Town. There, according to PW’s review, the women, formerly nemeses, “create their own kind of crotchety companionship” amid “changing racial relations” in post-Apartheid South Africa.
For Omotoso, who is 37, the characters’ advanced age was central to their interest. She began working on the book around the time her grandfather died, and in spending time with her widowed grandmother she began to wonder, “What’s it like to have your life behind you?”—particularly if that life has been “mean or meager.” “It’s one thing if you have all these great memories,” she says. “It’s a whole other thing if all you can look back and see is mistakes and waste and bitterness.”
Omotoso’s focus on the theme of friendship—or, as she calls the relation between Hortensia and Marion, “hateship”—resonated with Elizabeth Bruce, Omotoso’s American editor. “She doesn’t shy away from the unpleasantries of the dynamic between these two characters,” Bruce says. “But, at the same time, she has an incredible sense of humor.”
For Elise Dilsworth, Omotoso’s agent, the animosity between the characters connects with larger pressures exerted by South Africa’s history. “Yewande has talked about the novel being a story of discomfort,” she says. “She has been able to reflect the considerable legacy of this history through their personal stories.”
“At the end of the book, you might still not like them, which doesn’t bother me,” Omotoso says of her characters. “But you possibly, hopefully, might understand them.”
Julianne Pachico: Giving form to the fever dream of life in Colombia
When Julianne Pachico set out to write her novel-in-stories, The Lucky Ones (Random/Spiegel & Grau), she sought a form that would allow her to get at the truth of life in Colombia. A conventional narrative wouldn’t do.
Pachico, 31, was born in England but grew up in Cali, Colombia, where her British mother and American father worked as social scientists for an NGO. “As a child, the political situation, the constant undercurrent of violence—it was always there in the background,” she says, “even when it wasn’t affecting our daily lives.” At school, she would hear tell of classmates whose parents had been kidnapped and held for ransom. Pachico, who currently lives in Norwich, England, is pursuing a doctorate in creative critical writing at the University of East Anglia, where she got her M.A. in creative writing. She wanted to write a book that would conjure the country’s incoherences and incongruity. “I didn’t feel that a straightforward depiction of Colombia, in terms of form, would be honest,” she says.
The result of Pachico’s effort is, according to PW’s starred review, “a carefully yet fiercely composed collage of voices that bears witness to the executions, forced disappearances, and other atrocities that took place in Colombia from 1993 to 2013 during the country’s violent civil war.” Its 11 linked stories touch on lives both bolstered and shattered by the country’s conflicts, with occasional flourishes of surrealism—one story is narrated by rabbits—that provide what Cindy Spiegel, Pachico’s editor, calls “a hallucinogenic effect.”
Anna Stein, Pachico’s agent, adds that the book demonstrates fiction’s unique ability to convey “the human side of war.” The book’s occasional departures from realism, she says, accurately reflect the political situation being portrayed. “Surrealism works best when the circumstances of reality have gone off the deep end,” she says.
Vivek Shanbhag: A small novel captures big change in India
When the prolific Indian writer Vivek Shanbhag was composing his novel Ghachar Ghochar (Penguin), his first to be published in the U.S., he had big ideas. He describes the last quarter-century as “a very significant period in India”: the liberalization of the country’s economy, which began in the early 1990s, has ushered in a new era of globalization and, along with it, a disorienting influx of wealth. “It has brought enormous change into people’s lives,” Shanbhag, 48, says. “It has opened up new opportunities, new ways of living, new values.”
Shanbhag’s novel, which follows a Bangalorean family made abruptly rich through the spice business, is a feat of restraint, coming in at just over 100 pages. For Shanbhag, who works as an engineer in Bangalore, the book’s brevity aligns with its intimate focus on family life. “In a very close-knit family there are certain things which are communicated between them in just a word or two, or a small gesture,” he says. “If I had written it elaborately, I would have lost that feeling.” The novel, first published in Kannada, the author’s native South Indian language, in 2012, was described in PW’s starred review as “concise and mesmerizing.”
Anna Stein, Shanbhag’s American agent, says the novel’s length is “subversive,” especially when compared to traditional “Indian family novels” such as Vikram Seth’s 1,300-plus-page novel A Suitable Boy. “It cuts right to the bone,” she says.
In an interview published on the Penguin Random House website, Shanbhag spoke to the importance he places on succinctness. “I like Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory: that most of the story is beneath the surface, like an iceberg,” he says. “That does not mean I am always able to live up to that ideal in my writing. But I try not to say a word more than necessary.”
Kayla Rae Whitaker: Two female artists navigate friendship and success
Kayla Rae Whitaker’s debut novel, The Animators (Random House), tells the story of two driven young women who know exactly what they want to be: artists.
The novel, which Whitaker, 33, worked on while pursuing an M.F.A. at NYU, centers on two divergent personalities: Sharon, a regimented early riser, and Mel, a gay life-of-the-party type. The women team up to create an animated film based on Mel’s upbringing in central Florida, which earns them recognition. PW’s starred review stated, “Whitaker skillfully charts the creative process, its lulls and sudden rushes of perfect inspiration,” as the pair navigates the choppy waters of work, friendship, and fame.
Caitlin McKenna, Whitaker’s editor, says the book struck her as a “refreshing spin on the in-your-20s meandering-struggle-to-figure-out-what-you-want-to-do” narrative, in that it places their work at the forefront. “The art they make is as much a character in the book as they are,” she says.
Whitaker, who grew up in eastern Kentucky and now lives in Louisville, says writing the novel allowed her to explore her lifelong love of animation. “I can’t draw—I’m not an artist—but I’m a huge fangirl,” she says. “Sometimes, when you have an inherent inability to do something, like draw or dance, you’ll have your nose pressed up to the glass a little harder.”
Bonnie Nadell, Whitaker’s agent, agrees, adding that the novel constitutes an important addition to the literature of artistic collaboration. “We’ve seen this so often from male writers, about male characters,” she says. “Looking for truth in art is not something we see a lot in novels about young women.”
Whitaker says that the importance of writing about women and art has only increased for her since the election of Donald Trump, who has frequently been accused of misogyny. “I wanted to write about women who were making things with a lot of passion and a lot of fever,” she says. “It’s something that’s always weighed heavily on my mind, but has been more pressing since November.”
Daniel Lefferts is a writer living in New York.