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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

6 literary quotes about the Caribbean immigrant experience

Immigration is on everyone’s lips these days, especially with tightening national borders and refugee crises. That said, the migration of Caribbean people has always been a tumultuous one. You may not know this but most of the people in the Caribbean migrated to the region from other parts of the world: Africa, India, Europe, China, and the Middle East to name a few. After this first migration, many then left their new “homelands” for developed countries, particularly the US, the UK, and Canada. Want to learn more about their migratory experiences? Here are 6 literary quotes about the Caribbean immigrant experience.

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The Mimic Men (1967) by VS Naipaul

“Shipwreck: I have used this word before. With my island background, it was the word that always came to me. And this was what I felt I had encountered again in the great city: this feeling of being adrift, a cell in preparation, little more, that might be altered, if only fleetingly, by any encounter.”

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The Lonely Londoners (1956) by Samuel Selvon

“Harris is a fellar who like to play ladeda, and he like English customs and thing, he does be polite and say thank you and he does get up in the bus and the tube to let woman sit down, which is a thing even them Englishmen don’t do. And when he dress, you think is some Englishman going to work in the city, bowler and umbrella, and briefcase tuck under the arm, with The Times fold up in the pocket so the name would show, and he walking upright like if is he alone who alive in the world. Only thing, Harris face black.”

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‘Til the Well Runs Dry (2014) by Lauren Francis-Sharma

“New York City was like the deepest deepness of Blanchisseuse. A city bush where people, rather than animals, slithered and lurked, where people, rather than trees, smashed and bumped. In the city-bush, like in the bush of Blanchisseuse, there was barely a sky…I could sense, as I watched them, – all of them – behaving repressively wild, with fear and dread built up behind the whites of their eyes, that none of them knew how to get out either.”

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The Amazing Absorbing Boy (2010) by Rabindranath Maharaj

“I remember Uncle Boysie telling me that Canada was so safe the policemen wore nice red outfits and rode on horses but according to Roy the country was like Gotham City with crooks around every corner… I pictured them as shady Frank Miller characters with bulging muscles and machine guns poking out from trench coats but the photograph from the papers was of a group of boys my age. They kind of resembled some of my friends from Mayaro too.”

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The Swinging Bridge (2003) by Ramabai Espinet

“If you happen to be born into an Indian family, an Indian family from the Caribbean, migratory, never certain of the terrain, that’s how life falls down around you. It’s close and thick and sheltering, its ugly and violent secrets locked inside the family walls. The outside encroaches, but the ramparts are strong, and once you leave it you have no shelter and no ready skills for finding a different one. I found that out after years of trying.”

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) by Junot Diaz

“Once you’ve been fuera, Santo Domingo is the smallest place in the world.”

Review: Marco Polo Didn’t Go There

“It is the expectation itself that robs a bit of authenticity from the destinations we seek out.”

– Rolf Potts

One of the best ways you can travel meaningfully is by reading travel fiction/non-fiction on the country/countries you intend to visit.

I got interested in Rolf Potts when I heard he was the “Jack Kerouac for the internet age” and had written an essential travel book called Vagabonding. Truth be told, I didn’t find Vagabonding very helpful but I picked up his collection of 20 short stories to see whether it would change my mind. The book spans his real-life adventures in several countries and arguably his most famous piece, Storming the Beach, is about planning how to storm the movie of the same name on location in Phi Phi Leh, Thailand.

Some of the stories show how the best stories come from being open to the road like Road Roulette or from misadventures like Turkish Knockout, Be Your Own Donkey, and Up Cambodia without a phrasebook. I especially liked the shattering of preconceptions in Tantric Sex for Dilettantes.  It was also nice to see a travel story on Grenada: Seven (or So) Sins on the Isle of Spice although it wasn’t as juicy as the others.

What I liked most about his stories were the endnotes. Here, Potts explained why he had to write his story in a certain way or leave out certain details for his narrative arc. I think this shines a light on how writers have to create a story from the tangled strands of a real lived experience.  The endnotes also sometimes explained his motivations for writing the story. It felt very behind the scenes and I totally loved it.

Verdict: great read!

Have you ever read Marco Polo Didn’t Go There? What did you think about it?

Around the world in 100 books

I’m a book nerd. Always have been. Always will be.

Since childhood, I’ve taken books with me everywhere: in the backseat, at the beach, on the lawn, at the pool, under the covers, in the crook of a plum tree (like Brick from The Middle). I sniff out bookshelves, libraries, and bookstores wherever I go. Good books are presents I’ll never refuse.

One of the cheapest ways I travel is from an armchair. Even if I can’t literally visit a country, I still experience it through reading. This is a list of books from across the globe that I’ve read over the years.

Disclaimer: For each entry, I’ve included which country is featured in each book rather than the author’s country of origin. I know I haven’t read the whole world yet so this list is not definitive. It’s also highly subjective (based on my own personal biases) and is a work in progress. Adding solid titles is my lifelong commitment.

Around the world in 100 books

  1. A house for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul (Trinidad and Tobago)
  2. The mystic masseur by V.S. Naipaul (Trinidad and Tobago)
  3. Miguel Street by V.S. Naipaul (Trinidad and Tobago)
  4. Minty Alley by C.L.R James (Trinidad and Tobago)
  5. A brighter sun by Sam Selvon (Trinidad and Tobago)
  6. Ways of sunlight by Sam Selvon (Trinidad and Tobago)
  7. The hummingbird tree by Ian McDonald (Trinidad and Tobago)
  8. The dragon can’t dance by Earl Lovelace (Trinidad and Tobago)
  9. Green days by the river by Michael Anthony (Trinidad and Tobago)
  10. Crick crack monkey by Merle Hodge (Trinidad and Tobago)
  11. The jumbie bird by Ismith Khan (Trinidad and Tobago)
  12. The swinging bridge by Ramabai Espinet (Trinidad and Tobago)
  13. Raise the lanterns high by Lakshmi Persaud (Trinidad and Tobago)
  14. Prospero’s Daughter by Elizabeth Nunez (Trinidad and Tobago)
  15. Trinidad Noir edited by Lisa Allen Agostini and Jeanne Mason (Trinidad and Tobago)
  16. The old man and the sea by Ernest Hemingway (Cuba)
  17. Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua)
  18. Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua/US)
  19. John Crow’s Devil by Marlon James (Jamaica)
  20. Kingston Noir edited Colin Channer (Jamaica)
  21. The annihilation of Fish and other stories by Anthony Winkler (Jamaica)
  22. The bones and my flute by Edgar Mittelholzer (Guyana)
  23. Beka Lamb by Zee Edgell (Belize)
  24. The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato (Argentina)
  25. One hundred years of solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia)
  26. Like water for chocolate by Laura Esquivel (Mexico)
  27. Into the wild by Jon Krakauer (US)
  28. The Diamond as big as the Ritz and other stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald (US)
  29. To kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (US)
  30. East of Eden by John Steinbeck (US)
  31. The Pearl by John Steinbeck (US)
  32. On the road by Jack Kerouac (US)
  33. The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac (US)
  34. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (US)
  35. A streetcar named Desire by Tennessee Williams (US)
  36. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (US)
  37. Brown girl, brownstones by Paula Marshall (US)
  38. The Beloved by Khalil Gibran (US)
  39. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery (Canada)
  40. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (Canada)
  41. The Stranger by Albert Camus (Algeria)
  42. Distant view of the minaret by Alifa Rifaat (Egypt)
  43. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (Congo)
  44. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (Congo)
  45. The beautyful ones are not yet born by Ayi Kwei Armah (Ghana)
  46. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Nigeria)
  47. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria)
  48. The god of small things by Arundhati Roy (India)
  49. An area of darkness by V.S. Naipaul (India)
  50. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (India)
  51. Cracking India by Bapsi Sidwa (India/Pakistan)
  52. Clear light of day by Anita Desai (India)
  53. Games at twilight by Anita Desai (India)
  54. Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard by Kiran Desai (India)
  55. Malgudi Days by R.K. Narayan (India)
  56. The lady and the monk: four seasons in Kyoto by Pico Iyer (Japan)
  57. Glimpses of an unfamiliar Japan by Lafcadio Hearn  (Japan)
  58. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (Japan)
  59. A personal matter by Kenzaburo Oe (Japan)
  60. Waiting by Ha Lin (China)
  61. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini  (Afghanistan)
  62. A thousand splendid suns by Khaled Hosseini (Afghanistan)
  63. Pillars of salt by Fadia Faqir (Jordan)
  64. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (UK)
  65. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (UK)
  66. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (UK)
  67. Tess of the D’Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy (UK)
  68. Of human bondage by Somerset Maugham (UK/Germany)
  69. The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon (UK)
  70. Macbeth by William Shakespeare (UK)
  71. Hamlet by William Shakespeare (Denmark)
  72. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (UK)
  73. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (UK)
  74. Women in love by DH Lawrence (UK)
  75. White Teeth by Zadie Smith (UK)
  76. Brick Lane by Monica Ali (UK)
  77. Dubliners by James Joyce (Ireland)
  78. Men and Gods by Rex Warner (Greece)
  79. Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk (Turkey)
  80. Therese Desqueyroux by Francois Mauriac (France)
  81. La Casa de Bernarda Alba by Federico Garcia Lorca (Spain)
  82. Yerma by Federico Garcia Lorca (Spain)
  83. The sun also rises by Ernest Hemingway (France/Spain)
  84. The girl with the dragon tattoo by Steig Larson (Sweden)
  85. Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder (Norway)
  86. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria/US/UK)
  87. Open City by Teju Cole (Nigeria/US)
  88. The amazing, absorbing boy by Rabindranath Maharaj (Trinidad/Canada)
  89. The mimic men by VS Naipaul (Trinidad/UK)
  90. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (India/US)
  91. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (India/US)
  92. The inheritance of loss by Kiran Desai (India/US)
  93. Small Island by Andrea Levy (Jamaica/UK)
  94. The Buddha in the attic by Julie Otsuka (Japan/US)
  95. A tale for the time being by Ruth Ozeki (US/Japan)
  96. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Jamaica/Dominica/UK)
  97. Voyage in the dark by Jean Rhys (Caribbean/UK)
  98. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (Spain/Egypt)
  99. Eat, pray, love by Elizabeth Gilbert (Italy/India/Bali)
  100. Life of Pi by Yann Martel (India/Pacific Ocean)

What titles should I add? Make your recommendations below!