Kelly Strom | A Big Read invitation

Kelly Strom | A Big Read invitation

In cooperation with the National Endowment for the Arts, the Spurlock Museum and several other local agencies, the Champaign Public Library has been participating in culturing programming with The Big Read.

A national program, The Big Read chooses a title, then invites community members from all over to read the book, discuss it and join in various affiliated activities and events.

This year, The Big Read selection is "The Namesake" by Jhumpa Lahiri, a story of one Indian family's trek to start a new life in America. With lots of notes on cultural norms, this book has been an excellent starting point for discussion groups, music programs, cooking presentations and guest lectures.

Reading a fictional novel about a culture different from their own helps people better understand and respect the wide range of customs and stories that people all over the world can share.

Lahiri was born in London and is of Bengali Indian descent. When she was 3 years old, her parents immigrated to America. Because of this, Lahiri writes the story of Gogol Ganguli with an intimate knowledge of much of what he would have gone through in his efforts to assimilate into American culture. The story of Gogol and his parents is one that most people can relate to on varying levels.

After their marriage in India, Ashima and Ashoke move to the Boston area, where Ashoke has a position with a local university as an engineering professor. Although he is enthusiastic about his new journey, Ashima longs for the friends and family that she left behind.

Soon pregnant with her first child, she is determined to raise her son according to Bengali culture. The first thing to do is give the boy two names. One is a pet name that only family calls him. The other is considered the "good" name for legal documents, schooling and other official correspondence.

In following her family's custom, she allows her grandmother in India to name the child. Ashima anxiously awaits the letter that is to announce her son's good name. In the meantime, the hospital demands a name to put on the birth certificate. Full of frustration, the parents tell the hospital the child's pet name, Gogol.

After disclosing an affinity for Russian writers, and especially Nikolai Gogol, Ashoke is pleased to bestow the name on his son. When the letter never arrives from India with his "good name," the son is called Gogol by all.

Being a first generation American, Gogol has a happy, although difficult childhood. Being the child of immigrants has come with its own set of trials. Gogol speaks English clearly, although his parents speak Bengali in the home. Gogol yearns to participate in all of the activities that American children do but is held back to fulfill family obligations.

Ashima and Ashoke fill the void of missing family by making new friends in the states, and the network of immigrant Bengali population becomes their new family. Celebrations are spent together, Bengali food is served and Bengali songs are sung.

Growing older, Gogol comes to be embarrassed of his name, and once he turns 18, he changes it to Nikhail. Once that is taken care of, his journey to become a "typical American" is set. He goes to college and dresses more casually in tees and ripped jeans, he goes to campus parties and dates non-Bengali girls.

Against his father's wishes, he decides not to go into engineering or medicine. It's drawing that he loves, especially architecture. Each time he goes home to visit, he is thrown back into his parent's culture.

He feels stifled as he straddles what seems to be two very different worlds. Is this the story of Gogol? Or is the story about the struggle of new immigrant parents? Is the novel about family obligations and restrictions, or is it about the process of growing and changing into someone that is unique and new?

After enjoying "The Namesake," here are several other titles that may sound interesting.

"We Need New Names," by Noviolet Bulawayo, is the story of a Zimbabwe woman who escapes a dangerous regime to stay with an aunt in America.

"The Inheritance of Loss," by Kiran Desai, is about an old judge living in the Himalayas who is tasked to care for his orphaned granddaughter. Once again, cultures collide as some residents of the area wish to escape to America to avoid complications from British imperialism and a Nepalese uprising.

"The Limits of the World," by Jennifer Acker, comes out in April and takes a look at a fictional family from an Indian enclave in Nairobi. They immigrate to the U.S. with varying success. A family secret eventually comes to light and casts doubts on the ways people judge one another.

In "The Golden Son," by Shilpi Somaya Gowda, the reader meets Anil, a first-generation immigrant who travels to America to become a doctor. Ending up in Dallas, Texas, Anil wants to experience all of the opportunities that the U.S. has to offer. Of course, those opportunities come with complications.

Kelly Strom is the collection manager at the Champaign Public Library. She orders books, ebooks, magazines, newspapers, audiobooks and CDs.

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