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Marrying Fiction and Nonfiction

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

So I'm not going back to school this year, as I mentioned in my previous post. Somehow, though, I still find myself reading books that I've had my eye on for my AP® Language class. And they make for some good reading.

I didn't used to be very keen on reading nonfiction, but teaching Language has changed my perspective. Or perhaps my perspective's been changed by my own changing experience. After all, as I said earlier, my sudden increase in travel reading corresponds, not coincidentally, with my own plans for travel this year.

But the fact is, like many English teachers faced with teaching works that are not imaginative literature, when I first started teaching this course, I was a bit stymied as to how to balance my love of literature with the nonfiction demands of the Language curriculum. I've previously written about ways to incorporate poetry, but incorporating novels can be tougher, given the more extensive time commitment required to read and discuss them, and the desire to discuss them as novels. Teaching them in a Language class requires looking at them as arguments and teaching them as such.

One possibility is to pair the novel with thematically related nonfiction reading, and consider the novel as another source for synthesis work — another voice in the discussion of the important ideas we tackle in our study of human views and voices. In most cases, this means finding articles that pick up on material in the novel, but this past month I read a book-length nonfiction work that struck a chord with me in many ways, including being hauntingly reminiscent of an excellent novel I'd read earlier in the year.

I picked up Three Cups of Tea because its subtitle intrigued me: "One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time." It was a very good summer read, though in places I found myself agreeing with some critics of its prose and narrative structure, which many found heavy-handed. Even so, I couldn't help but be moved by the efforts of former mountaineer Greg Mortenson to bring education and thus stability and self-improvement to the remotest parts of Northern Pakistan. The focus on girls' education in particular would probably resonate strongly with students at my own all-girls' school.

What I thought was missing from the account was a bit more insight into the culture that surrounded Mortenson, with a bit more analysis of the differences between American and Pakistani worldviews. Mortenson's self-determined mission is founded on the idea that greater understanding and a balanced education provides a greater platform for peaceful relationships between different peoples, but I felt that I came away from the book with less of an understanding of the Balti and other Pakistani peoples than I could have. Although there were several scenes in which Mortenson's biographer, David Oliver Relin, described the delicate negotiations required to earn the respect and cooperation of local community leaders, government authorities, and mullahs, as well as a host of taxi drivers, construction workers, hotel owners, and other average folk who eventually became part of his team, I never really felt I got their perspective on this revolutionary project — aside from the predictable sound bites praising "Dr. Greg" as nothing short of a minor messiah.

Pondering this shortcoming, I suddenly realized that I had read a novel earlier this year that did shed light on the Pakistani perspective, and although it focused on slightly different circumstances, the connections were unmistakable to me.


The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a short but engrossing 2007 novel by Mohsin Hamid, chronicles in monologue format the experiences of a young Pakistani man who emigrates to the United States with high hopes for a top education and successful career in finance. Try as he might, he cannot quite fit in to modern American society, even though he has what it takes to live the American Dream. Following 9/11, he returns to Pakistan, but finds even then that his exposure to the American way of life has changed him in ultimately complex ways — while he is ashamed of his family's way of life, he cannot truly reconcile his conscience with the American lifestyle. He is caught in the middle, and must decide where his heart and future lie. The book's title sort of gives it away, but sussing his rationale through his monologue makes for a fascinating psychological study of political and philosophical sympathies.

What a pairing! An American brings schooling to remotest areas of Pakistan in the hopes of engendering peace through cultural understanding; a Pakistani goes to America to find education and finds himself embroiled in the modern plague of simmering global culture clash. Even if you simply pulled out the sections in Three Cups of Tea surrounding the events of 9/11 you would have much to discuss, although certainly the earlier parts of the book, which cover events dating back to the early 1990s, provide some significant context. Good reviews of both books would also provide more food for thought, and certainly there is no shortage of related material in periodicals from the past ten to fifteen years.

I've used novels as part of synthesis work in the past, and indeed one synthesis assignment that I have posted online focuses on discussing cultural practices that we in North America might find difficult to wrap our heads around. It was inspired by the female circumcision scene that is a focal point in Camilla Gibb's novel Sweetness in the Belly, which we studied one year when the author came to speak at my school.

What other fiction–nonfiction pairings spring to mind for you?

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