World English

The author of "Gain" and "The Gold Bug Variations" picks five novels from the edge of a new language.


Richard Powers
April 26, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

The last 40 years have witnessed the apotheosis of World English, a phenomenon in many ways without precedent in the planet's history. English literature, too, has been brilliantly enlarged by an explosion of novels that derive neither from the British Isles nor from North America. The de-colonizing of the globe continues to produce colonial revolts that forever change the shape of the mother tongue. (The linguistic determinists tell only half the story: Place reinvents language every bit as much as language reinvents place.)

Englishes proliferate beyond any list's attempt to be representative, but here are a Nigerian, an Indian, an Australian, a South African and a Trinidadian, sharing little but a linguistic genome more fluid than that of Darwin's finches.

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Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (1981)

Rushdie's sprawling epic of Indian history, politics and religion conjoins the coming-of-age tale of two boys to the coming-of-age tale of the entire subcontinent. The tale of Saleem and Shiva -- born on the stroke of Indian independence, a Hindu and Muslim swapped at birth -- becomes a magical allegory examining all the knobby excrescences of nationhood and identity.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958; first U.S. edition, 1969)

Achebe describes, in harrowing detail, the disintegration of an Igbo village and the dissolution of its leader under the onslaught of Western colonial contact. This work, and its sequels that appeared throughout the 1960s, sparked a literary outburst throughout West Africa, writing that in turn retroactively altered the patrimony of the English novel.

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (1988)

Two damaged innocents who share an incurable passion for gambling fall in love and attempt to transport a glass church across the impassable wilds of the Australian interior. Peter Carey's highly wrought style and intricate, neo-Dickensian plot invoke all the mad British enterprise on that island-continent.

A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul (1979)

This novel might be called the darker shadow of "Heart of Darkness." A West Indian of East Indian descent, Naipaul casts one of the coldest eyes imaginable on the horrors of colonization and decolonization. A Muslim Indian businessman, a witch, a Belgian priest, a white intellectual and his high-gloss wife are all drawn into the maelstrom of Mr. Kurtz's -- and Mr. Mobutu's -- Africa.

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (1962)

Anna, Lessing's fiercely self-realized heroine, records her life in a series of differently colored notebooks: blue for a personal diary, yellow for fictional transformation, red for her experiences with Communism, black for a memoir of Africa and golden for her struggle for sanity, where all the other colors come together. Lessing is a novelist of ideas possessed of the greatest passion.


Richard Powers

Richard Powers is the author of eight novels, including "Galatea 2.2," "The Gold Bug Variations," and "Gain." His latest, "The Time of Our Singing," will be published in January by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and a Lannan Literary Award.

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