In Lena Dunham's Girls, the main character (played by Dunham) thinks she may be the voice of her generation, a mantle that's often bestowed upon Dunham herself. Excellent writer though she may be, it's myopic to suggest that Dunham and writers like her — privileged, Caucasian, unlucky-in-love liberal arts graduates who are working entry-level jobs and struggling in New York City — are capable of portraying the entirety of the millennial experience.
The term "millennial" is coming to evoke a specific group of individuals: over-achieving, disillusioned, technology-addicted college graduates who reside in large North American cities. However, millennials are from every imaginable background, and all parts of the globe. Millennials in Latin America and Egypt are coming out in force against their governments. Millennials in Greece and Spain, both the seats of former empires, are watching their countries buckle under the weight of their respective recessions. Millennials in India are fighting for women's rights, and there are millennials in China who, unlike many of us, still hold great respect for tradition and the status quo.
One of the greatest failings of generations before ours has been to the tendency to set up ideological camps. By surrounding themselves exclusively with people like themselves, literature about themselves, and television about themselves and their experiences, people came to believe that their reality was the only reality, and subconsciously view all others as secondary. Growing up in a world as interconnected as we do, millennials have the responsibility to learn from that mistake, and the privilege of avoiding it.
There is a strong common thread underlying our different experiences. (After all, we can relate to the problems and feelings Dunham describes in Girls, even if we're not living her same life.) If we can begin to understand each other, our generation will take a small step toward better living with each other. As an alternative to Dunham and storytellers like her, here is a list of writers from previous generations who made strides toward representing a world's worth of experiences.
1. Jhumpa Lahiri
Lahiri's first novel, The Namesake, follows an immigrant couple from Calcutta to the United States, and tracks the life of their son Gogol. Gogol's experience growing up in a traditional immigrant family, and how that clashes with the liberal American culture surrounding him, is painfully real. His embarrassment at his own culture, attempts to distance himself from his parents, and acute desire to be American even though he's deeply affected by his cultural origins will be readily understood by the children of immigrants. Many millennials have been raised to walk a tightrope between two cultures, and struggle to keep their balance.
2. Azadeh Moaveni
Moaveni's Lipstick Jihad is a unique look into Iran from an Iranian who was raised in California, but moved back to Iran as a young adult with a thoroughly Western education. Moaveni spends much of the book dispelling her preconceived notions about the nation as she comes to experience it firsthand. Iran, though very different from the United States, is modernizing and forming a distinct cultural identity. Moaveni's story is a startling reminder of how little we truly know about the people in the world around us, and the power (and dangers) of stereotyping. Moaveni's repatriation is lengthy and highly introspective, and like Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, it shakes our ideas of what we see when we look at our peers in the Middle East.
3. Irvine Welsh
Although it was published in 1993, Trainspotting remains depressingly relevant today. Main character Mark Renton finds himself out of work, out of luck and out of hope in Scotland during the Thatcher era. Renton's heartbreaking and hilarious (and more often than not, incomprehensible) journey through the underbelly of Edinburgh shows what happens to the sectors of society that are left behind when the going gets tough. While middle class youth fight their way up a career ladder, the unemployed youth of the working class face bleak prospects. Describing the conditions that created Trainspotting, Welsh stated, "By 1983, you had 3.6 million unemployed," says Welsh. "It tells its own story — you've got a lot of people with a lot of time on their hands. The government was basically creating demand."
Attempting to get by in the working class during an economic crisis is a bleak reality for many, and an uncomfortable one to witness in a wealthy nation like Britain. We often get caught up in the glamour of middle or upper class problems (as with shows like Girls, The O.C., and Gossip Girl), as if those challenges faced by the majority of society. But by turning a blind eye to working class problems, we only exacerbate them Novels like Trainspotting are uncomfortable, and for that very reason, incredibly important.
4. Alejandro Zambra
Zambra has been called the most important Chilean author since Roberto Bolaño. Zambra's novella Ways of Going Home brilliantly depicts the experience of growing up in a country scarred by a political history one never experienced firsthand. This is the reality for many South Americans, who find themselves living in the aftermath of the dictatorships and military coups that their parents lived through. For many bibliophiles, South America is strongly associated with magic realism, the style fathered by Gabriel García Márquez's One Thousand Years of Solitude. Zambra writes outside of that tradition, establishing one of his own, and making a name for his generation in the literary canon and in the wider culture.