One modest sliver of silver lining to the divisive state of our current politics is that many great backlist novels are getting second looks. Sure, that’s true for dystopian tomes like 1984 and Brave New World. But it’s also true for immigrant and refugee stories. If it’s true that reading engenders empathy (and we’re absolutely positive it does), then what better time to learn more about the lives of immigrants, to understand their trials and tribulations, and to reflect upon our own privilege.
So, to that end, we present our favorite novels about the immigrant experience.
Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides — Eugenides’ Pulitzer-winning masterpiece is a story about so many things, but it begins as the story of a Greek-American immigrant family, who comes to this country and settles in the Detroit area in the 1920s. Over the years, multiple generations of the Stephanides family witness everything from Prohibition to gentrification to the notorious Detroit race riots, all while trying to reconcile their own family’s history and their place in the larger world. This book is gorgeously written, and likely one of the most memorable things you will ever read.
Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue — Mbue’s perceptive and utterly readable debut novel tells the tale of Jende and Neni Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant couple who move to NYC in the middle of the last decade and attempt to carve out their piece of the American Dream, despite the looming recession, complicated relationships with Jende’s employers, and the constant threat of deportation. Mbue, herself a Cameroonian immigrant, isn’t afraid to give her characters real psychological depth, and the result is a modern-day immigration story that everyone should read.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Micheal Chabon — The story of Sam Clay and Joe Kavalier and their creation, the comic book creations The Escapist is the story of art and public life in the middle of The American Century. But it couldn’t be that without it also being the story of Joe Kavalier, a refugee from Nazi Germany, who’s escape from certain death in his country inspires and haunts him throughout the story and leaves the reader with the idea that an essential part of the American story is the story of immigrants.
Inside Out & Back Again, by Thanhha Lai — This is an award-winning, semi-autobiographical novel told in spare, beautiful verse. It is told from the perspective of 10-year-old Ha, who lives with her family in Vietnam until they are forced to flee when the Vietnam War arrives on their doorstep. Ha remains hopeful as her family spends week sailing to an unknown land, and eventually ends up in Alabama, where she struggles to fit in and find her place in her new home. Lai’s book is an epic, but deeply personal account of displacement told with grace and empathy, and well-deserving of a read.
All of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novels, short stories — For my money, nobody writes more eloquently and relatably about the immigrant experience than Lahiri does in her two novels, The Namesake and The Lowland, and her two short story collections Unaccustomed Earth and (Pulitzer-winning) Interpreter of Maladies (“A Temporary Matter,” the first story in this collection, is one of my favorite short stories of all time.) I really love all four of these books — Lahiri writes as clearly, as evocatively, and as smartly as anyone.
The Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henriquez — Simply put, this is a novel EVERY American should read. It tells the stories of several immigrant narrators from several Central American countries who all live in the same apartment building in Delaware. There are struggles, there is teenage love, there is heartbreak. But the strength of this novel is Henriquez’s ability to get readers to empathize and understand these characters. And ultimately the point is this, as expressed simply and eloquently by the immigrant landlord of the apartment building: “I know some people here think we’re trying to take over, but we just want to be a part of it. We want to have our stake. This is our home, too.”
The UnAmericans, by Molly Antopol — I typically find it difficult to care about the characters in short stories, making it hard to care about the plot. But somehow, Molly Antopol manages to convey her characters’ personalities, triumphs, challenges, and moral dilemmas authentically in a short amount of time. I found myself engrossed in these tales, even as I claim to be a short story hater! This book’s awards are well-deserved.
Some other favorites: The Infinite, by Nicholas Mainieri; The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing, by Mira Jacob; Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu; Open City, by Teju Cole; Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng. And so many others.
We fully realize this is an incredibly small sampling of the vast number of immigrant novels out there. If you’d like to check out longer lists, here is a great collection from Buzzfeed, and a very recent one specifically about refugees from the NY Times.