7 novels about the immigrant experience

Immigration is on everybody’s minds these days. Countries are now locking down borders, letting in certain nationalities and keeping out the rest. In a globalized world, this can seem strange but that’s how it is. These books explore the consequences of uprooting yourself from your homeland to put down new roots in a different country.

1. Brick Lane (2003)

This novel by Monica Ali was one of firsts I read in the genre. Nazneen from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) marries an East Pakistani immigrant living in London and deals with the alienation and cultural clashes that occur in her new adopted homeland.

“You can spread your soul over a paddy field, you can whisper to a mango tree, you can feel the earth between your toes and know that this is the place, the place where it begins and ends. But what can you tell to a pile of bricks? The bricks will not be moved.”

Lahiri(1)

2. Unaccustomed Earth (2008) by Jhumpa Lahiri

This is a collection of short stories by master storyteller, Jhumpa Lahiri. It follows her first collection, The Interpreter of Maladies. It deals with more Bengali immigrant/diasporic stories in the US.

 “After Rahul graduated from high school their parents celebrated, having in their opinion now successfully raised two children in America. Rahul was going to Cornell, and Sudha was still in Philadephia, getting a master’s in international relations. Their parents threw a party, inviting nearly two hundred people, and bought Rahul a car, justifying it as a necessity for his life in Ithaca. They bragged about the school, more impressed by it than they’d been with Penn. “Our job is done,” her father declared at the end of the party, posing for pictures with Rahul and Sudha on either side. For years they had been compared to other Bengali children, told about gold medals brought back from science fairs, colleges that offered full scholarships. Sometimes Sudha’s father would clip newspaper articles about unusually gifted adolescents – the boy who finished his Ph.D. at twenty, the girl who went to Stanford at twelve – and tape them on the refrigerator. When Sudha was fourteen, her father had written to Harvard Medical School, requested an application, and placed it on her desk.”

Americanah

3. Americanah (2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This book focuses on a love story between Ifemelu and Obinze who both migrate from Nigeria to the US and UK respectively. It also deals with their return to the homeland after living abroad.

 “Alexa, and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”

hazycam

4. Open City (2011) by Teju Cole

It focuses on Julius who tries to navigate life and alienation in the Big Apple as a Nigerian immigrant.

 “The past, if there is such a thing, is mostly empty space, great expanses of nothing, in which significant persons and events float. Nigeria was like that for me: mostly forgotten, except for those few things that I remembered with an outsize intensity. These were the things that had been solidified in my mind by reiteration, that recurred in dreams and daily thoughts: certain faces, certain conversations, which, taken as a group, represented a secure version of the past that I had been constructing since 1992. But there was another, irruptive, sense of things past. The sudden reencounter in the present, of something or someone long forgotten, some part of myself I had relegated to childhood and to Africa.”

Kiran desai

5. The Inheritance of Loss (2006) by Kiran Desai

This is the second and critically acclaimed novel of Anita Desai’s daughter. It focuses heavily on how immigrants are forced to straddle two worlds, that of their birthplace and that of their adopted homeland.

“He knew what his father thought: that immigration, so often presented as a heroic act, could just as easily be the opposite; that it was cowardice that led many to America; fear marked the journey, not bravery; a cockroachy desire to scuttle to where you never saw poverty, not really, never had to suffer a tug to your conscience; where you never heard the demands of servants, beggars, bankrupt relatives, and where your generosity would never be openly claimed; where by merely looking after your wife-child-dog-yard you could feel virtuous. Experience the relief of being an unknown transplant to the locals and hide the perspective granted by journey. Ohio was the first place he loved, for there at last he had been able to acquire poise –”

6. The Buddha in the Attic (2011) by Julie Otsuka

This story is told by a collective narrator representing Japanese picture brides who went to California in the early 20th century. It strongly reminded me of books that detail the Indo-Caribbean indentureship experience.

“Mostly, they were ashamed of us. Our floppy straw hats and threadbare clothes. Our heavy accents. Every sing oh righ? Our cracked, callused palms. Our deeply lined faces black from years of picking peaches and staking grape plants in the sun. They longed for real fathers with briefcases who went to work in a suit and tie and only mowed the grass on Sundays. They wanted different and better mothers who did not look so worn out. Can’t you put on a little lipstick? They dreaded rainy days in the country when we came to pick them up after school in our battered old farm trucks. They never invited over friends to our crowded homes in J-town. We live like beggars. They would not be seen with us at the temple on the Emperor’s birthday. They would not celebrate the annual Freeing of the Insects with us at the end of summer in the park. They refused to join hands and dance with us in the streets on the Festival of the Autumnal Equinox. They laughed at us whenever we insisted that they bow to us first thing in the morning and with each passing day they seemed to slip further and further from our grasp.”

Sea of poppies

7. The Sea of Poppies (2008) by Amitabh Ghosh

This is the first part of the author’s Ibis trilogy. It focuses on the ship’s journey from Calcutta to Mareech (Mauritius), carrying Indian indentured laborers across the Kala Pani (Black Water).

“How had it happened that when choosing the men and women who were to be torn from this subjugated plain, the hand of destiny had stayed so far inland, away from the busy coastlines, to alight on the people who were, of all, the most stubbornly rooted in the silt of the Ganga, in a soil that had to be sown with suffering to yield its crop of story and song? It was as if fate had thrust its fist through the living flesh of the land in order to tear away a piece of its stricken heart.”