The best debut novels that subvert the mainstream Western novel

Why am I passionate about this?

Namrata Poddar is an Indian American writer of fiction and nonfiction, literature and writing faculty at UCLA, and Interviews Editor for Kweli where she curates the series, “Race, Power and Storytelling.” Her work has explored ways in which writers from across the world decolonize Literature. Her debut novel, Border Less, was a finalist for Feminist Press’s Louise Meriwether Prize, longlisted for The Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and featured in several media outlets including the “Most Anticipated” 2022 books for The Millions and Ms. Magazine. She holds a PhD in French literature from the University of Pennsylvania, an MFA in Fiction from Bennington College, and a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Transnational Cultures from UCLA. 

I wrote...

Border Less

By Namrata Poddar,

Book cover of Border Less

What is my book about?

Set in Mumbai and Greater Los Angeles, with layovers in the Thar Desert and African islands of the Indian Ocean, Border Less tells the story of Dia Mittal, an airline call center agent in Mumbai who is searching for a better life. As her search takes her to the United States, Dia’s checkered relationship with the American Dream dialogues with the experiences of a global South Asian community—call center agents, immigrant maids, hospitality industry workers, junior and senior artists in Bollywood, single mothers, academics, tourists in the Third World, refugees displaced by military superpowers, Marwari merchants and trade caravans of the Silk Road, among others. With its fragmented form, repetition, and play with English language, Border Less questions the mainstream Western novel and its assumptions of good storytelling.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The House on Mango Street

Namrata Poddar Why did I love this book?

Written in 46 short vignettes, this is a coming-of-age story of Esperanza Cordero, a young girl growing up in a Hispanic neighborhood in Chicago. Yet the novel is anything but one protagonist’s story, as it consistently juxtaposes Esperanza’s story with stories of secondary characters who make a brief appearance in the novel to seldom reappear and tie loose ends of the “sub-plots”: Marin, Louie, Alicia, Geraldo, Rafaela, Minerva, and others. Narrative continuity via a protagonist’s psychological journey that is a key trait of coming-of-age novels, or of mainstream Western or realist novels at large, is repeatedly disrupted here, making the reader wonder, who is the novel’s protagonist?: Esperanza, Mango Street, or its Brown community, or young Latina girls and women in a 20th century USA, alluded by “las Mujeres” to whom the book is dedicated.

By Sandra Cisneros,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The House on Mango Street as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • A coming-of-age classic, acclaimed by critics, beloved by readers of all ages, taught in schools and universities alike, and translated around the world—from the winner of the 2019 PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature.

The House on Mango Street is the remarkable story of Esperanza Cordero, a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, inventing for herself who and what she will become. Told in a series of vignettes-sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous-Sandra Cisneros' masterpiece is a classic story of childhood and self-discovery. Few other books in our time have touched so many readers.

“Cisneros draws…

Book cover of Annie John

Namrata Poddar Why did I love this book?

At 160 pages, here is another coming-of-age novel whose 8 chapters offer a glimpse into a specific year of Annie John’s childhood and teenage years in Antigua before she migrates to England for higher education. Throughout the novel, we learn of Annie’s relationship with her parents, especially her mother’s overbearing influence, and Annie’s stepping into her independence with migration. As sub-plots, we encounter Annie’s relationship to other secondary characters—Gwen and the Red Girl who are her friends, Miss George and Miss Edward who are her teachers—yet they eventually fade away without enough of a resolution to the “sub-plots.” Through unexplained jumps in time that inaugurate each chapter, this fragmented novel set in the Caribbean breaks away from ideas of continuity and wholeness that define the realist novel and mirrors the book’s setting instead with an archipelagic narrative structure.

By Jamaica Kincaid,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Annie John as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An adored only child, Annie has until recently lived a peaceful and content life. She is inseparable from her beautiful mother, a powerful and influential presence, who sits at the very centre of the little girl's existence. Loved and cherished, Annie grows and thrives within her mother's shadow.

When she turns twelve, however, Annie's life changes, in ways that are often mysterious to her. She begins to question the cultural assumptions of her island world; at school she makes rebellious friends and frequently challenges authority; and most frighteningly, her mother, seeing Annie as a 'young lady', ceases to be the…

Book cover of Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits

Namrata Poddar Why did I love this book?

Another powerful debut on border-crossing, this novel begins with a frame-chapter or a prologue of sorts called “The Trip” that shows a group of Moroccans fleeing to Spain for a better life on a ramshackle boat. The following subsections, “Before” and “After,” zoom into the lives of the characters introduced in the opening chapter to highlight the socio-economic reasons leading them to risk their lives by crossing the Mediterranean Sea illegally, and their gritty fate once the boat fails them, as they’re stranded in Spain or deported to Morocco. Some critics have called the novel a collection of interconnected stories, although the book’s “prologue” is hardly a standalone story; it aligns the novel instead with an alternative structural aesthetic, one that recalls the frame narratives of oral storytelling traditions like The Thousand and One Nights, an obvious influence on the book. 

By Laila Lalami,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“A dream of a debut, by turns troubling and glorious, angry and wise.” —Junot Diaz​

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, the debut of Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist Laila Lalami, evokes the grit and enduring grace that is modern Morocco. The book begins as four Moroccans illegally cross the Strait of Gibraltar in an inflatable boat headed for Spain.What has driven them to risk their lives? And will the rewards prove to be worth the danger?

There’s Murad, a gentle, unemployed man who’s been reduced to hustling tourists around Tangier; Halima, who’s fleeing her drunken husband and the…

Book cover of We the Animals

Namrata Poddar Why did I love this book?

Yet another short, coming-of-age novel with a staccato rhythm, We the Animals is 125 pages long and made of 19 chapters spotlighting different moments in the lives of 3 brothers growing up in a dysfunctional family in Brooklyn, New York. The novel is a dark, lyrical portrayal of boyhood and toxic masculinity as it follows the 3 brothers from boyhood to adolescence through several jumps in time that resist a novel’s evocation of a “vivid and continuous dream,” to echo John Gardner’s famous words. Another subversive narrative choice here is the abrupt switch in narration from a first-person plural to a first-person singular narration toward the end of the book, as the story’s protagonist no longer refers to the inseparable 3 brothers, but to the youngest one who invites the reader to witness the violence his family inflicts on him when they find out he is gay.  

By Justin Torres,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked We the Animals as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 14, 15, 16, and 17.

What is this book about?

Three brothers tear their way through childhood - smashing tomatoes all over each other, building kites from rubbish, hiding when their parents do battle, tiptoeing around the house as their mother sleeps off her graveyard shift. Paps and Ma are from Brooklyn - he's Puerto Rican, she's white. Barely out of childhood themselves, their love is a serious, dangerous thing. Life in this family is fierce and absorbing, full of chaos and heartbreak and the euphoria of belonging completely to one another. From the intense familial unity felt by a child to the profound alienation he endures as he begins…

Book cover of Brown Girls

Namrata Poddar Why did I love this book?

If character-driven fiction is a hallmark of the modern, Western, realist novel, here’s a community-driven novel recounted in the first-person plural narration for all of its 200 pages. As the title suggests, Brown Girls is a coming-of-age story of brown girls, children of immigrants, who grow up in Queens, New York, although the novel’s biggest innovation lies in the way it makes it impossible to nail down the protagonist. The book’s narrator-protagonist, the “we” who continues to talk in the book, refers to a consistently fluid, changing, and inclusive community of straight and queer brown girls from NYC who share a South or Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern, Latinx, biracial or other kinds of mixed-race identity, a narrative feat I haven’t yet encountered in another novel. 

By Daphne Palasi Andreades,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Brown Girls as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORS’ CHOICE • A “boisterous and infectious debut novel” (The Guardian) about a group of friends and their immigrant families from Queens, New York—a tenderly observed, fiercely poetic love letter to a modern generation of brown girls.
“An acute study of those tender moments of becoming, this is an ode to girlhood, inheritance, and the good trouble the body yields.”—Raven Leilani, author of Luster



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Book cover of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

Ethan Chorin Author Of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Story-lover Middle East expert Curious Iconoclast Optimist

Ethan's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Benghazi: A New History is a look back at the enigmatic 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, its long-tail causes, and devastating (and largely unexamined) consequences for US domestic politics and foreign policy. It contains information not found elsewhere, and is backed up by 40 pages of citations and interviews with more than 250 key protagonists, experts, and witnesses.

So far, the book is the main -- and only -- antidote to a slew of early partisan “Benghazi” polemics, and the first to put the attack in its longer term historical, political, and social context. If you want to understand some of the events that have shaped present-day America, from political polarization and the election of Donald Trump, to January 6, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russian expansionism, and the current Israel-Hamas war, I argue, you need to understand some of the twists and turns of America's most infamous "non-scandal, scandal.”

I was in Benghazi well before, during, and after the attack as a US diplomat and co-director of a medical NGO. I have written three books, and have been a contributor to The NYT, Foreign Affairs, Forbes, Salon, The Financial Times, Newsweek, and others.

By Ethan Chorin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On September 11, 2012, Al Qaeda proxies attacked and set fire to the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, killing a US Ambassador and three other Americans.  The attack launched one of the longest and most consequential 'scandals' in US history, only to disappear from public view once its political value was spent. 

Written in a highly engaging narrative style by one of a few Western experts on Libya, and decidely non-partisan, Benghazi!: A New History is the first to provide the full context for an event that divided, incited, and baffled most of America for more than three years, while silently reshaping…

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