In her new memoir, Olive Witch, Abeer Y. Hoque delves into her childhood as a Bangladeshi girl growing up in small-town Nigeria, and then into her move to Pittsburgh at 13. She describes her feeling of being an outsider, and her eventual move back to Bangladesh on her own. Hoque selects 10 titles that brilliantly depict the immigrant experience.
No list of books about the immigrant experience could possibly be comprehensive or “essential.” I live in Queens, touted as the most diverse place on earth with at least 138 different languages spoken within the borough. It would be a challenge to list ten books that would be remotely representative of even just my hood. I’m going to leave out the heavy hitters – Díaz, Lahiri, Adichie – and pick some of my favourite new authors who have written about the immigrant experience in America and have done so in different genres: nonfiction, fiction, poetry, YA, and graphic narrative.
I read Vietnamese American author Ocean Vuong’s debut poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds in one go as soon as I got it, and then immediately started it over again. His poems are gutting, mythic, wanton, vulnerable, sharp, fine, and full of beauty. The point of view could be anyone, from Vuong himself, to his mother or father, to a gun, to a ghost. At the end of it, you have a stunning sensate jigsaw puzzle of what it might mean to stand on the edges of country, family, lover, self. Despite the winding thread of despair, Vuong’s work is in the ecstatic tradition of 13th century Persian Sufi poet, Rumi, and takes on the big questions: war, displacement, sexuality, identity. “Dear god, if you are a season, let it be the one I passed through to get here.” If that’s not an ode to survival in the new world, I don’t know what is.
Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel is Russian American author and illustrator Anya Ulinich’s second book, a graphic novel about love and immigration and relationships. Almost every aspect of the protagonist’s life rang like a bell in my head, from the awkward growing up, to being new in America, to the foibles of writing and online dating. Ulinich is hilarious and sharp and her illustrations are bold and sweetly drawn. Her book presents the immigrant experience as well as that of returning home, as impossible as that is, in pitch perfect funny prose and evocative, warm art. “Now you know that no one ever truly arrives.”
3. That Thing We Call a Heart by Sheba Karim
That Thing We Call a Heart is Pakistani American author Sheba Karim’s second novel, and challenges the usual YA tropes with a spunky and sweet Muslim American teenage girl protagonist. First love, best friends and frenemies, the bloody history of Partition, sexual dalliances, drug use, pies, hijabs, and Radiohead – it’s all there, and vividly set in a tony private high school in Jersey. The cherry on top is Karim’s writing: witty and winning and oh so easy to read. “I tossed my phone into the Louis Vuitton abyss, hoping the outcome would be ‘yes, in fact the best night of your life’ rather than ‘abject humiliation in front of the entire senior class.’”
Ghana Must Go is Taiye Selasi’s first novel about a Nigerian-Ghanaian family falling apart between Ghana and the U.S. (and some London and Lagos). There are a lot of things Selasi writes that are in my wheelhouse: West Africans immigrants, making homes here and away, pride, art, and ambition. The book has a racing plot, and its secrets are intense and devastating, but my favourite thing of all is Selasi’s use of language. I felt like I was in a kinetic poem the entire time I was reading, anapests and dactyls, joined in alliteration and gorgeous language. “He drove without looking, without needing to, from memory. Seeing instead of looking. He drove home by heart.”
5. Don't Let Him Know by Sandip Roy
Don’t Let Him Know is Sandip Roy’s debut novel in stories. Each chapter stands on its own, but they come together to tell a story of three generations, reaching from old Calcutta to chilly Carbondale to sunny California. Every character is nuanced and real, leaping off the page without sensationalism or gimmick, and their stories, secret or spoken, are told with a light and poignant touch. Roy’s sense of place is wonderful: “The snow had covered all the cars parked on the street turning them into ghostly cartoon shapes, their sharp edges rounded and softened.” But it’s the seamless combination of stories that makes this book, even as the chapters jump around in time and space. The universal themes of money and marriage, love and longing, ambition and fate are seen through the lens of often thwarted lives.
6. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman is an astonishing and gripping book which changed the way I looked at cultures at odds with traditional Western medical care. A Hmong refugee family with a severely epileptic child, Lia Lee, lands up in California, and so begins the struggle between her well-meaning American doctors at a local hospital and her loving family and wider Hmong spiritual community about how best to take care of her. It’s abundantly clear that everyone wants what’s best for Lia, and it’s impossible to lay blame on anything but the cultural and communication divide between the parties. Fadiman is an accomplished and compassionate writer, journalist, and anthropologist, and her book should be required reading. “…that stubborn strain in the Hmong character which for thousands of years has preferred death to surrender.”
Forget that Island of a Thousand Mirrors is Nayomi Munaweera’s first book. You won’t be reminded of it for a second. Not with that assured plot, the omniscient and precise characterization, the beautiful language, and the telling of tragic war torn history through the eyes of children and ordinary people. The story follows three children growing up in Colombo through civil war, the Tamil resistance movement, and a new life in America. It’s all seamlessly done, Munaweera taking charge of the storytelling like the fables of old. This book is a fast ferocious education in Sri Lankan history, a wrenching treatise on the horrors of war, and a deeply moving story of families, childhood friendships, and adult relationships. “This is what it means, then, to be spoiled. It means to be broken. It means forever.”
8. Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion edited by Piyali Bhattacharya
Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion is Piyali Bhattacharya’s decade-long labor of love to bring together the stories of 27 South Asian American women in one essay collection. The authors’ families hail from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, with Hindu, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, and Muslim backgrounds. There’s something about knowing someone else has been through what you have that makes you not feel not so crazy, selfish, ungrateful, rude, unreasonable, political, brazen, and all the other things that we’re often accused of—not just the South Asian daughters, but immigrant daughters. Not just immigrant daughters, but all daughters. We know this as women. The pressures of conforming are enormous, fatal even. It’s difficult to describe all the essays in an anthology, especially when the themes are so varied, from the grief of losing a parent, to not wanting children, or being unable to have them, to the stifling legacy of student debt, to the simple desire to create one’s own life. Part of it is as Bhattacharya says: “For the women who have written for [the anthology], this represents the breaking of a long and deep silence.”
What is the What by Dave Eggers is billed as a novel, because his subject, Sudanese Lost Boy Valentino Achak Deng, fictionalised conversations from his childhood (what memoirist or ghost writer doesn’t do this to some degree?). I think Deng’s name should at least be on the cover since “this is the soulful and historically accurate story” of his life (Deng’s own words). Fiction or not, What is the What is a compelling and powerful read. In addition to filling in many gaps in my knowledge about the Lost Boys of Sudan and how this one made it, painfully alone, to America, the book is in turn beautiful, heartbreaking, taut, and clear eyed. Deng is supremely self aware and completely un-self-pitying, despite a life's worth of sorrow (and hope). “The truth is that I do not like hanging in there. I was born, I believe, to do more.”
10. Chulito by Charles Rice-González
Chulito by Charles Rice-González is the growing up coming out story of a Puerto Rican American boy in the Bronx in New York City. Chulito’s life is rife with old school macho attitude and the insecurities and angst of teenage life, complicated by his innate sweetness and emerging feelings for his best friend. Rice-González writes with breezy humor and the narrative charges forward with intensity and heart. The myriad cast is ribald and rousing – friends, shopkeepers, bullies, mothers, dealers, and more – and the vibrant borough of the Bronx becomes a character in itself. “Sometimes you have to leave your home to grow up.”