In Elliott Holt's beautifully subtle debut novel You Are One of Them, the protagonist, an American in her 20s, moves to Moscow shortly after the Cold War. After a few months, she returns to the U.S. a changed woman.
Holt, who is 39, also lived in Moscow where she worked as a copywriter at an advertising agency, as well as in London and New York. Currently, she resides in Washington, D.C., and writes full time.
I asked Holt to make a list of her favorite books about living abroad and then called her to interview her about her choices. We spoke about what it's like to be in your 20s, how Lolita is more than just a surprisingly sympathetic account of a pedophile, and why expat stories are the most classic stories of all.
The first book I wanted to ask you about is Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner [a novel about an American poet in Madrid].
This is a book that I just sort of fell into and read in one sitting and then had to read again. The narrator is on this unnamed fellowship that is basically a Fulbright. He's supposed to be there working on some poetry project but he's overly concerned about how honest he is about everything. But then, the irony is that he's an unreliable narrator. He's obsessed with this idea of being authentic but he's also lying. The book operates on all these subtle levels. It's about an American abroad but it also becomes about making art and the challenge of being authentic in art.
There's a book that's not set in Europe: Mating by Norman Rush [an epic love story between two Americans in Botswana].
Mating is a really big book; it's about 500 pages. It's narrated by an American anthropologist who is finishing her dissertation. She ends up going to stay with this guy, a kind of intellectual who created a strange Utopian society in a remote corner of the Kalahari. They end up getting involved. It's some of the best writing about love I've ever read.
It also has this sense of the way being abroad changes you. The first line of the book is: "In Africa, you want more, I think. People get avid. This shows up differently in different people. ... It can be sudden. I include myself."
Norman Rush lived in Botswana for a long time. He was in the Peace Corps. I've never been to Botswana, but I felt like I could picture it. It's this incredibly nuanced portrait of the place, and it kind of becomes an anthropology of love in a funny way.
One of the questions on the Peace Corps recommendation form is: "Are you aware of any situations or problems the applicant may be trying to avoid by going overseas ... ?" Do you think expat literature is about people attempting to run away?
I do think it's true that lots of expats are running away from something, even if they convince themselves that they're running toward something. Some people get attached to their identity as expatriates because it gives them something to prop themselves up on. You know, you come home for the holidays ...
And people are so impressed that you lived in this random place.
Yeah, you can put aside the fact that you don't know what you want out of life or what you're doing because you have this bolder version of yourself. I definitely think some people are a little bit lost. But when I was abroad in my 20s and all my friends were in the United States — the truth is that we were all exploring and lost in different ways. A large part of that is just being in your 20s. I'm so glad I'm not in my 20s anymore.
Yeah, it gets so much better. Your 30s are so much better. Most people in their 20s are trying to figure out what sort of career they should have, what sort of romantic relationship they should be in, what sort of city or town they belong in. In that sense, living abroad is just a more extreme version of that same search for identity that everyone is going through at that age. Part of the reason I like these expatriate stories is because they become a metaphor for the psychological journeys that all humans take — trying to figure out where you belong.
Is there a book you wish I had asked you about?
Well, part of the reason I wanted to put Lolita on this list is because I think most people — when they think about Lolita — think about it being the surprisingly sympathetic story of a pedophile, but they don't really think about how he is a foreigner or of the book as an example of expatriate fiction. But Humbert Humbert's foreign-ness is so much part of why the book works. And it's amazing to read Nabokov's descriptions of the U.S. Yes, he lived in the states for a long time but he wasn't American. His descriptions are totally spot-on, but like a foreigner looking in. Like de Tocqueville.
You could even put something like the Odyssey on a list like this. You know, this guy traveling, trying to find his way home in foreign lands. It's a classic plot. As a human being, it's this irresistible story of: "OK, I'm in this place that's not familiar and how do my observations change me when I go back?"
So, if I can, should I go abroad?
If you have any urge to, you absolutely should. Everything here is still going to be here when you come back.
Cool, I'll tell my mom you said that.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
Lidia Jean Kott is an editorial assistant at NPR Books.