11 Books About Outsiders, Weirdos, and Underdogs
Sofija Stefanovic, author of ‘Miss Ex-Yugoslavia,’ celebrates the fishes-out-of-water in literature
I was an immigrant kid who didn’t fit in and I’ve just written a memoir about it called Miss Ex-Yugoslavia. My family traveled between a war-torn Yugoslavia that was falling apart, and Australia. In Australia, we became an ethnic minority, and I struggled with the language and my new dual identity.
I couldn’t control where we lived, I couldn’t fit into the mainstream, and I thought I wasn’t brave enough to be a hero. Like a lot of lonely kids, I found solace in books and identified with characters who are outsiders (like me) who happened to be doing something incredible. Give me a book featuring a fish-out-of water and I’m hooked (sorry). Here are some gems featuring a broad range of outsiders that have captured my imagination over the years.
The Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun by Gabriel De Lavergne & Vicomte De Guilleragues, translated by Guido Waldman
I discovered these love letters when I was an awkward teen who did not have a boyfriend but thought about having one constantly. I identified with the 17th century rebel nun who was in unfulfilled love affair with someone other than Jesus. She penned things such as “my passion increases by the minute.” I too was passionate but chaste. There is debate about whether the letters were really written by a love-lorn Portuguese nun or a work of fiction by a French politician.
Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger
As someone who identifies with the underdog, I’ve always been charmed by the writing of Salinger. For one, I love the mystery surrounding the writer himself — he was a recluse, and as a teen I thought “He has withdrawn from the world because no one understands him (except for me).” For another, I empathised with his characters, who were always flailing about, trying to make sense of a world that seemed foreign and strange. The very first story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” introduces the Seymour Glass, an intellectual scarred by his wartime experiences, who finds himself on a honeymoon where he can’t seem to relax — a (banana)fish out of water if ever there was one.
Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado, translated by Antony Shugaar
This Italian novel starts with a shattering first sentence: “In 2011, the world ended: I killed myself.” Dumped via text by her boyfriend and unwanted by her deadbeat father, Dorotea is an outcast in life as well as in the afterlife, where people who commit suicide are shunned as social pariahs. A ghostly Dorotea lingers on, observing the world and people she left behind but unable to communicate with them. Hollow Heart is a fascinating, bizarre, and darkly humorous glimpse into the afterlife of an introspective, small-town Italian ghost. I met Di Grado at a writers festival last year. She wore black lipstick and writes in a forest where she lives alone, far from the reaches of social media. I wanted to kiss her for being the kind of weirdo artist from the olden days and for being unapologetically strange in life and on the page.
In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi
American Dad, Jewish refugee, photo developer, Hungarian repatriate, and now woman: these are some of the identities inhabited by Susan Faludi’s father. At the age of 76, Faludi’s father has completed sex reassignment surgery, renamed herself Stefánie, and reaches out to her daughter after a prolonged absence. The surprised younger Faludi travels to Hungary to reacquaint herself and study this slippery and complex character, who she spent most of her life resenting. As she tries to come to terms with her father’s new self, Faludi is confronted with more questions causing her to reexamine her notions of identity, gender, family, and war.
Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam
Bright Lines is a coming of age story about three young women finding their identity and navigating sexual awakening against the backdrop of a multicultural Brooklyn.The main character, Ella, is haunted by hallucinations of her parents, who were murdered in Bangladesh when she was a child. Ella is not the only outsider in this narrative, where multiple characters are reckoning with their own identities, secrets and longings. The book is fun, thrilling, and queer featuring a diverse cast of characters, giving us a glimpse into the immigrant communities of Brooklyn.
The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky
When Leah finds out her former boss and friend Judy has died and bequeathed her with a red sports car, she leaves her possessive husband to go and claim her inheritance. A spell is broken when she leaves the east coast and arrives in San Francisco, and Leah’s adventures begins as she rediscovers herself behind the wheel of the flashy red sports-car. In the car haunted by the ghost of her dead friend, Leah embarks on a sexy, funny and tragic grappling with her past. This book is sharply written, the protagonist is strange and delightful, and the atmosphere is magnetic; the pages seem to turn themselves, reminiscent of a car with a mind of its own.
A Separation by Katie Kitamura
Another strange protagonist finds herself in a strange place. The narrator, a young woman, arrives in Greece, to find her missing husband. She has kept the separation from her husband a secret from everyone in her life. While searching for the man she used to love, she is forced to deal with her feelings about their failed relationship. In one scene, the protagonist watches a Greek couple have an argument — she does not understand Greek, searching for clues about the source of their argument through their body language.This feeling of being a foreigner, an onlooker on the periphery of something she can’t quite grasp, permeates the novel. Her search through the remote Greek landscape makes her question what she knew about her relationship and if she really knew the man she is married to.
The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum
Meghan Daum’s essays tackle controversial subjects, like the death of a parent and the decision not to have children, in surprising ways. I found myself chuckling in agreement with Daum, who grapples with “that disconnect between what we think we’re supposed to feel and what we actually feel” — a situation many outsiders find themselves in the world over. Except Daum has a way of expressing herself with so much wit and insight, we can only wish we were as articulate.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Nguyen throws us deep into this exhilarating spy novel framed as an anonymous confession by a nameless narrator. Not only is the main character of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel an outsider because he is a North Vietnamese mole in South Vietnam’s special forces, he then becomes an outsider in the United States when he finds himself living the life of an immigrant. The Sympathizer offers readers a complex tale about the Vietnam War and its aftermath told from a Vietnamese perspective, in contrast to the glossed-over Hollywood movies.
H Is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
The heartbreaking memoir of a grieving author who acquires and tames a hawk to cope with the loss of her beloved father. In studying and training this extraordinary bird of prey, MacDonald sees herself reflected in the feral fierceness of Mabel, the hawk, and slowly begins to heal. Written during the darkest moments of her life, H is for Hawk is a moving, strange, and occasionally funny meditation on life and death from a gutsy memoirist the rest of us can take our hats off to.
The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt
As a Serb, I grew up considering inventor Nikola Tesla our country’s greatest hero. An eccentric man, Tesla was under-appreciated despite inventing alternating current, radio, wireless communication, and remote control and he died a penniless outsider. I was delighted to find this strange and magical novel set in 1943 New York during the later years of Tesla’s life. This work of fiction reimagines the elderly inventor living in a hotel room and spending his days walking to Bryant Park to chat with pigeons. During a blackout in the hotel, the chambermaid Louisa discovers Tesla stealing electricity and a friendship is born.
Sofija Stefanovic is a Serbian-Australian writer and storyteller based in Manhattan. She is the author of the memoir, Miss Ex-Yugoslavia. She hosts the popular literary salon, Women of Letters New York, and This Alien Nation — a monthly celebration of immigration. She’s a regular storyteller with The Moth, and her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Guardian.com, and Elle.com, among others.