In four must-read novels and a story collection, a group of gifted writers explores the invisible borders between culture and identity.

By Leah Greenblatt
July 20, 2021 at 12:00 PM EDT
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We're all citizens of somewhere, but what is it to feel like a permanent stranger in the place you call home? For Edwina, the Malaysian-born protagonist of YZ Chin's Edge Case (Aug. 10), America is both the shining city on a hill and "an ice cube that never melts on my tongue." She and her darker skinned husband, Marlin, have each landed jobs at Manhattan tech start-ups that dangle the promise of their golden tickets: a green card. Like millions before her, though — and so many of the characters in this month's great influx of stories centered on the immigrant experience — she finds the reality far less simple.

An edge case, in the parlance of computer programmers, is any outlier that can lead to inconvenient bugs in the code. And Edwina, no matter how many beta test focus groups and staff cocktail hours she sits through, always seems to find herself on that lonely periphery. Now Marlin, without a note or even a forwarding address, has walked away from their seemingly happy marriage. Though Edge isn't really a mystery — he hasn't gone far, it turns out — Chin (herself a software engineer) writes about both the bright absurdities of modern tech-bro culture and the sharper stings of private heartache and displacement with bristling wit and vulnerability.

Chin also frames it all as a sort of open letter to a therapist we never meet — a device that Nawaaz Ahmed uses to similarly intimate effect in his sweeping family saga Radiant Fugitives (Aug. 3). Here our narrator is the unborn child of the pregnant Seema, a political organizer in San Francisco circa Barack Obama's first presidential campaign. Estranged for years from the family back in India who refused to accept her sexuality, Seema struggles to reconcile her younger sister's hard-line Muslim faith and her mother's terminal illness with her own faltering belief in the U.S. electoral system's shiny assurances of hope and change. That description sounds grim, but Fugitives teems with the beautiful specificity of real lives lived, loved, and fought for — a genuinely radiant debut.

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Credit: Sally Deng

Words are literal currency for the unnamed woman at the center of Katie Kitamura's Intimacies (July 20). With her father recently dead and her mother back in Singapore, she's abandoned New York for an interpreter job in The Hague, where she begins a romance with a handsome Dutchman whose unexpected ease hints at a future contentment she hasn't managed to find in the blur of far-flung cities that came before. But an abrupt reversal, and her creeping disquiet with the deposed warlords and traumatized genocide victims whose horrors she is tasked with telling firsthand, soon sweep that steady ground out from under her. Other players come and go — a garrulous rare-books dealer; a beautiful, imperious not-quite ex — though Kitamura (A Separation) seems less interested in linear plot details than the deeper sense of mood and place her elegant, coolly unadorned prose evokes.

Ashley Nelson Levy's Immediate Family (Aug. 3) picks up the trick of nameless narrators and directly addressing some elusive "you" — in her case, a beloved baby brother on the eve of his wedding. Though she fondly calls him Danny, he was born Boon-Nam Prasongsanti and passed an entire toddlerhood in Thailand before coming to their tidy home in the sleepy golden hills of Northern California's Petaluma. Danny is adored by his found family, but he can't bridge the things they'll never fully understand: the schoolmate who, out of ignorance or plain cruelty, calls him the N-word; the strangers who think it's a kindness to construe his adoptive parents' love as some kind of charity.

You wish Danny had the chance to meet the cast of characters in Anthony Veasna So's Afterparties (Aug. 3), located just a few zip codes over in the Central Valley's sprawling diaspora of Cambodian refugees. The subjects of So's glimmering, loose-limbed collection hardly share his privileges — the college-prep classes and rec-room comforts of a safe suburban life. They're poor and queer and often parentless; they work in strip-mall doughnut shops ("Three Women of Chuck's Donuts") or nursing homes ("Somaly Serey, Serey Somaly"), and the idea of a model-minority Cambo makes them itch. But their close-knit community, even when it's a burden, is also a safety net — and a mirror, too, held up to all the things that the America they live in consigns to the margins, or simply chooses not to see.

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