10 Must-Read Books By Immigrants About Their Experience

A themed reading list for our times

by Naomi Elias

Though there are many people who leave their home countries voluntarily, many more are forced out by harsh circumstances; a 2016 report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that every minute, 24 people are displaced from their homes, resulting in a record-breaking 65 million being forcibly displaced people around the world. The identities forged from this upheaval are constantly being negotiated and renegotiated as people resettle and acclimate to foreign environments. Despite being a nation built by immigrants—from our railways to the architectural design and construction of the White House—America’s leaders and foreign allies have recently chosen to attack immigrant communities around the world by enforcing a xenophobic policy. The welcoming attitude toward the poor, tired, and tempest-tost enshrined in the poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty has been replaced with a distinctly un-American hostility to difference.

Despite the adversity, centuries of historical precedent assure us that endurance is practically encoded in the DNA of immigrants, who are, in effect, cultural hybrids, forced to straddle worlds. Theirs is a story spanning continents and conflict zones, a story about internal battles and group trauma and barriers both real and imagined. This reading list gives shape and voice to the vast territory that is the immigrant experience.

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The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla

Writer Nikesh Shukla put together a collection of essays about immigration and identity in the U.K. with contributions from 21 authors representing Britain's black, Asian, and minority ethnic groups (BAME). The contributors include actors, journalists, and playwrights with a shared goal: providing a counter-narrative to the idea of the good or acceptable immigrant. This label was bestowed upon people like Somali-born Olympic champion Mo Farah and Muslim reality TV star Nadiya Hussain, who enjoy popularity inaccessible to other non-celebrity members of their racial and religious minorities.

In “Airports and Auditions,” Rogue One: A Star Wars Story actor Riz Ahmed, a Pakistani Muslim, shares the dangerous hypervisibility he experiences at airports where his brown skin and religious background have typecasted him as a terrorist. In “My Name is My Name” poet Chimene Suleyman writes about how British integration is synonymous with standardization forcing all immigrants to either become chameleons or erase parts of themselves. In a post-Brexit Britain, hate crimes spiked and every non-white Briton felt the glare of the national spotlight upon them. Across the pond, the Trump administration instituted an immigrant ban targeting Muslim-majority countries that rung out like a warning alarm around the world. These writings, though first and foremost about the U.K. experience, intimate the struggle for equality everywhere.

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In the Country, Mia Alvar

This remarkable debut from Manila-born author Mia Alvar charts the life histories of the Filipino diaspora in nine short stories stretching across North America, the Persian Gulf, and the length of the Philippine archipelago. Alvar’s protagonists differ in gender, age, and occupation but their stories share a common thread, the challenge of cultural integration. As if to illustrate this, Alvar peppers Tagalog words throughout the text and alternates between giving and withholding their definitions. There are homecomings as in “Kontrabida,” the story of a young pharmacist who smuggles drugs from New York into Manila for his ailing father, an alcoholic in the end stages of a fight against liver cancer. There are also stories about isolation as in “Esmeralda,” where a housemaid sums up her life thusly: she has spent 19 years working for a woman named Doris, longer than Doris’ own son lived with her. Alvar articulates the story well, from alluding to how her form of labor is gendered to revealing how she seals her wages in envelopes as diaspora remittances for family back home. In the Country expertly captures the sense of non-belonging, the struggle to bridge the chasm that exists when head and heart live in different countries.

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Bilingual Blues, Gustavo Pérez Firmat 

Since its publication in 1995, Firmat’s poetry collection has become essential reading in the postcolonial canon. Bilingual Blues blends Spanish and English in poems that exude Firmat’s cheeky witticism as well as his latent frustration. Firmat’s blues come from viewing bilingualism as both a blessing and a curse. In a frank conversation with NPR, Firmat, now a professor of Spanish literature at Columbia University, explained how his cultural duality manifests in linguistic preferences; he must curse in Spanish and say “I love you” in English. The Cuban-American author has inspired many next-generation Latino writers like Junot Díaz who used this line from Bilingual Blues’ “I Do Not Belong to English, Though I Belong Nowhere Else” in the preface to his novel Drown: “The fact that I am writing to you in English already falsifies what I wanted to tell you. My subject: how to explain to you that I don't belong to English though I belong nowhere else.”  

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In the Country We Love: My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero

This memoir from Orange Is the New Black actress Diane Guerrero offers a look at the personal costs of public policy, chiefly the deportation of undocumented immigrants. Guerrero’s parents moved from Colombia to New Jersey where they had her, their only American-born child. She grew up under constant fear that her parents’ lack of proper documentation would separate her from her family. When she was 14 years old, this nightmare became a reality one day after school when she came home to find her home empty and neighbors informing her that her older brother and parents had been deported. Last week, the first major immigration enforcement plan from the new administration materialized as a rash of ICE raids aimed at the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in America. Hundreds of people were arrested and deported. Guerrero’s story is sadly common, but this book, about finding strength in adversity, can act as a balm for others who share her experience. Guerrero also served as an ambassador for citizenship and naturalization during the Obama administration and volunteers with Mi Familia Vota, a national organization that promotes increased civic engagement in the Latino community.

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The Refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen

In this follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathizer, Nguyen delivers a powerful collection of short stories about how Vietnamese refugees reconcile their identity as immigrants with the trauma that displaced them from their homeland. While Nguyen and his wife are both Vietnamese refugees, the book isn’t autobiographical. Instead, Nguyen offers fictional stories that occasionally mirror his own experience of arriving in and navigating America. A woman who works as a ghostwriter for survivors of tragic life events returns home to the Vietnam she fled as a girl where she is visited by the ghost of her late brother, who died at the hands of pirates while attempting to smuggle her out of the country. A man fleeing Saigon in the mid-1970s is relocated by a refugee service that connects him to a gay couple in San Francisco under whose care he has a sexual awakening. Nguyen captures the chaos and urgency of his fleeing, from the way he overhears the whispers of foreign journalists embedded in the Vietnam War to how he learned English by shining the boots of GIs. The Refugees is a lucid snapshot of Vietnam; the pages detail the verdure of a jackfruit- and mango tree-lined landscape that is also dotted with bomb craters, scars from a war from which the country and its residents have still not fully recovered. The echo of this violence resounds in many of the stories. 

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How to Read the Air, Dinaw Mengestu

This novel from Ethiopian writer Dinaw Mengestu focuses on two types of emotional baggage that inform one another, the personal and the inherited. At the center of the story is Jonas Woldemariam, an Ethiopian-American who decides to deal with his failed marriage to an African-American woman named Angela by reliving his immigrant parents’ tragic love story. Jonas and Angela meet at a Manhattan refugee center where he, a frustrated writer constantly on the cusp of pursuing a Ph.D. in literature, vents by inventing colorful backstories for refugee applicants. He is someone who is more comfortable inhabiting other people’s stories than his own. Mengestu attributes his sense of loss and displacement to the ways Jonas’ parents’ unhappy marriage caused Jonas to become estranged from himself and eventually from his wife. The story time hops between his parents’ origin story as immigrants fleeing a repressive political regime and resettling on foreign soil to Jonas’ attempts at rectifying his lonely present, crafting a sweeping intergenerational drama. How to Read the Air offers a look at how identity is shaped by homeland no matter how many degrees of separation one has from it.

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  • Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Gloria Anzaldua
  • This seminal work from activist and author Gloria Anzaldua unpacks the border as a concept. What does it mean to cross a border if the border is not a real thing but a palimpsest of historical memory? Modern California is Old Mexico and present-day Mexico is a mestizo community imbued with European and African heritage. Although Anzaldua moves fluidly throughout Latino history from 1000 B.C. to contemporary North America, she focuses on the U.S.-Mexico border. “This is my home,” she writes, “this thin edge of barbwire. But the skin of the earth is seamless.” Her poetry paints a picture of the modern Latino as "many-voiced," and her essays shed new light on transcultural iconography like La Virgen de Guadalupe who she says is a symbol of how all border crossers build up “a tolerance for ambiguity.” Anzaldua’s book is especially meaningful in today’s climate where international borders have found themselves at the center of global political conversation.
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Look: Poems, Solmaz Sharif

This is a debut collection for Sharif, an Istanbul-born Iranian-American writer and former managing director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop who is currently lecturing at Stanford University’s creative writing program. Sharif has always been vocal about her belief that “the news and poetry should both be considered daily.” Here, her book of poems marries the personal and political in a lyrical account of her family’s war-fractured narrative, the human toll of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and her identity as the subject of her work and of the state. Sharif even lifts official language from the U.S. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (demarcated with ALL CAPS) in a meta-commentary about how whosoever controls language controls the historical narrative. Look announces its intention with the very first entry, a poem that shares the book’s title, “Look”: “Ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is/ your life? It is even a THERMAL SHADOW, it appears/so little, and then vanishes from the screen.” 

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Leaving Tangier, Tahar Ben Jelloun

Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun weaves together stories of the restless and hopeful inhabitants of Tangier, a Moroccan port city. At one point, Azel, the perpetually unemployed neighbor of Malika, an unhappy factory worker, asks her what she wants to do with her life. "Partir," she replies in the original French text, giving the book it's original title. The direct translation is “to leave,” but in context, it equates to fleeing. Like Gatsby burning his eyes by staring at his heart’s greatest desire, a green light at the end of his dock, these hopeful immigrants stare across the Strait of Gibraltar at a Europe shimmering with possibility. Jelloun evokes the Mediterranean as a watery mirage promising upwards mobility and security but also shipwreck and oblivion. Leaving Tangier can be read as both cautionary tale and travelogue as its protagonists are at their most vulnerable, willing to risk everything for the happiness they’ve projected on the notion of elsewhere.

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The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman

This is the story of Lia Lee, the infant daughter of Hmong refugees who fled war in Laos for Merced, California. Lia is the family’s first child born in America and in a hospital. The book details exchanges between her family and doctors during which both parties struggled to come up with and communicate a diagnosis. The book’s title is a translation of the Hmong word for epilepsy, quag dab peg, a condition Lia was initially diagnosed with before the doctors landed on brain damage. In many ways, the book is all about translation. The translation of culture, of difference, of compassion. The Hmong community’s belief in spirituality and animism confronts the American doctors’ exclusive belief in scientifically verifiable truths. This confrontation asks a lot of both parties. The Hmong are forced to translate their suffering into language palatable to American doctors by weaving what anthropologists call an illness narrative, the story of how and why they hurt. Of course, this entire interaction underwent another translation at the hands of American literary journalist Anne Fadiman to become a book. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down won a National Book Critics Circle Award and is regarded as required reading at many American medical schools.