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.”

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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.”

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.”

A tale of two flowers

Here’s an excerpt from, A Tale of Two Flowers, an essay I recently wrote for Caribbean Beat, Caribbean Airlines’ in-flight magazine:

“In the Caribbean, we often take the flowers for granted. They seem to be always there: hibiscus, bougainvillea, or frangipani blending incongruously into the tropical landscape. I only realised how much I missed them during the long, bleak winter months I spent teaching English in Japan.

The Japanese are obsessed with hana or flowers. Although cherry blossoms can be found in many temperate regions of the world, they tend to be synonymous with the land of the rising sun. Every spring, hanami or cherry blossom viewing becomes a national ritual, and an almost religious experience. In almost every newspaper or website, you will find meteorological reports tracking the sakura zensen or cherry blossom front across the Japanese islands, starting in Okinawa to the south and ending in Hokkaido to the north.”

To read more, please click here!

We Mark Your Memory

Hey everyone! 2018’s already proving an exciting year!

I’m happy to announce that I have a short story called “Homecoming” published in We Mark Your Memory: Writings from the Descendants of Indenture.

“Homecoming” depicts a young Indo-Trinidadian couple visiting Kolkata in India, the motherland, for the first time and experiencing confusion, bewilderment, and displacement there.

The anthology is edited by David Dabydeen (Guyanese-born poet, novelist, and academic), Maria del Pilar Kaladeen (associate fellow of the School of Advanced Study, University of London), and Tina K. Ramnarine (author and professor at Royal Holloway).

It chronicles the experiences of the indentured Indian labor diaspora across the globe, from Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean to Fiji in the Pacific. It also features other Caribbean writers: Gaiutra Bahadur, Kevin Jared Hosein, and Gabrielle Hosein to name a few.

Here’s a blurb from the publishers:

“To mark the centenary of the abolition of the system in the British Empire (2017–20), the volume brings together, for the first time, new writing from across the Commonwealth. It is a unique attempt to explore, through the medium of poetry and prose, the Indian indentured heritage of the twenty-first century.”

Customers in North America can pre-order from the University of London or their local bookstores. Customers everywhere else can pre-order from The School of Advanced Study (SAS). It will also be available on Amazon worldwide from April 30th.

#WeMarkYourMemory

Are you excited to read We Mark Your Memory? Share in the comments below!

5 books that inspired me to travel

Over the years, I’ve read a lot of travel fiction/non-fiction but there are some books that remain dear to me. Some I read during my formative years before I was old enough or could afford to travel abroad. I read two of them while I was at university and they inspired me to push the boundaries of my travel experience further.

If you look closely at the header photo, you’ll only notice four of the books I mention below. That’s because I failed to keep the original copy of the fifth and never got around to buying another to replace it. In spite of this, the story is still in my heart. Here are the 5 books that inspired me to travel abroad and changed the course of my life.

1. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

Say what you want but fantasy fiction is the ultimate escapist’s tool. After reading about the adventures of Lucy, Susan, Peter, and Edmund, I yearned to find my own magical wardrobe that would transport me from my hot little island to cold climates with lots of snow, fauns, and talking animals. I also secretly wanted to try Turkish Delight, Edmund’s Achilles heel.

“Next moment she found that what was rubbing against her face and hands was no longer soft fur but something hard and rough and even prickly. “Why, it is just like branches of trees!” exclaimed Lucy. And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.”

2. Men and Gods by Rex Warner

While growing up, I enjoyed reading about ancient Greek mythology. In Men and Gods, I especially loved the stories about Perseus, Ceres and Proserpine, and Daedalus and Icarus. These tales transported me to a realm where anything could happen. I especially admired the powerful female goddesses like Diana and loved that not all the stories had happy endings, just like in real life.

“My advice to you, Icarus,’ he said, ‘is to fly at a moderate height. If you go too low, the sea-water will weigh the feathers down; if you go too high, the heat of the sun will melt the wax. So you must fly neither too high nor too low. The best thing is to follow me.”

3. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Although Jane Eyre is one of my top books of all time, it was the other Bronte sister’s Wuthering Heights that made me ache for England and her moody moors. This was the first story I read that delved into the complexities of anti-heroic protagonists like Heathcliff and really captured the connection between character and landscape in a vivid way.

“Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling. ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun. Happily, the architect had foresight to build it strong: the narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, and the corners defended with large jutting stones.”

4. On the Road by Jack Kerouac

I know it sounds like a cliché but this book really got me excited about independent travel. I read it just before I set off on an overland trip across Egypt and Jordan and despite the circumspect behavior of some of the characters, I really enjoyed how Kerouac translated his open-hearted attitude to life in his stream-of-consciousness writing style.

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”

“There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.”

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”

5. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

This was one of the books that really made me fall in love with the writer’s perception of her home country. Not the dusty, Taj Mahal version of the subcontinent but the fecund, South Indian part of it. Although it’s largely a tragic story, I wanted to live in Kerala just to try Mammachi’s illegal banana jam and watch the Kathakali dancers do their epic performances.

“May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst…But by early June the southwest monsoon breaks and there are three months of wind and water with short spells of sharp, glittering sunshine that thrilled children snatch to play with. The countryside turns an immodest green. “

What books inspired your wanderlust? Share in the comments below!

Review: The Lady and the Monk

Initially, I was really excited to read Pico Iyer’s The Lady and the Monk.

For those in the know, Iyer is one of the world’s leading travel writers today (travel writer, not blogger) whose observations have made him quite famous. I was especially attracted to this book because it features Kyoto, my soul city in Japan. I decided to read it after I visited because I didn’t want to spoil my first impressions with someone else’s viewpoint and wasn’t I glad I did!

In essence, The Lady and the Monk recounts Iyer’s decision to spend a year in Kyoto living a Thoreau –inspired, monkish existence only to be distracted by a beguiling lady, Sachiko. In this way, his narrative follows the template of many of the Japanese lady and monk poems and stories he reads (life imitating art, perhaps?).

The book primarily focuses on the problems of preconceptions: those Iyer has about Japan/Japanese and those Sachiko has about the West/Westerners. Through their progressive interactions, we see both characters shed their initial romanticized notions and naiveté and slowly accept some ugly truths.

Iyer comes to Japan, thinking he already knows it, based on his reading. He seems obsessed with the feminine side of Japan and actively seeks it, especially in his relationship with Sachiko.

 “…but the private Japan, and the emotional Japan — the lunar Japan, in a sense, that I had found in the poems of women and monks — was increasingly hard to glimpse. If this imaginative Japan existed only in my mind, I wanted to know that soon, and so be free of the illusion forever; yet if there were truly moments in Japan that took me back to a home as distantly recalled as the house in which I was born, I wanted to know that too.”

In the beginning, he tends to over-idealize the Japanese based on his own superficial, fly-on-the-wall observations.

“I never saw any of the children shout, or squawk, or throw a tantrum, and I never saw any of the mothers lose her smiling equanimity: both parties formed a tableau of contentment. In New York, the near-absence of children had struck me as a denaturing almost, and in California, the sense of endless possibility that was the state’s greatest hope seemed all but a curse in the hands of its young. But here, wherever I looked, I found images of madonna-and-child, in a world that seemed so settled that it almost cast no shadow.”

He also captures the seasons and changing landscape of Kyoto beautifully.

“…I felt the brightness of the Japanese autumn was like nothing I had ever seen before: such hope and stillness in the air. Tingling mornings in shiny coffee shops, dazzled afternoons among the white-robed priests: singing Handel days of rapture and precision.”

He even becomes quasi-Japanese when he travels abroad to Taiwan after a couple of months in Kyoto.

“So sheltered had my life become in Kyoto — so sanitized of danger or alarm — that I had all but forgotten that another world existed; and now it was a shock to enter a stage where tempers were lost, things went wrong, the surface snapped.”

Unlike Iyer, Sachiko idealizes the West. She loves Stand by Me, Aha, Bruce Springsteen, and Bryan Adams and often compares Iyer’s freewheeling life to her rigid role of Japanese wife and mother.

“You are bird, you go everywhere in world, very easy. I all life living only Kyoto. So I dream I go together you. I have many, many dream in my heart. But I not have a strong heart. You very different.”

She, too, learns the hard way and changes her mind a bit about Western men after a particularly awkward moment with a foreigner who mistook her friendship as sexual.

As time passes, through his relationships with Sachiko, other Japanese people, and gaijin (foreigners) in Japan, Iyer also begins to see the darker underbelly of Japan and becomes more discerning.

“This was the social contract in Japan: forfeit your individuality and you would receive a life of perfect stability and comfort; give yourself over to Japan and it would never let you down. It was like a kind of emotional welfare system: give up your freedom and you would receive a life so convenient that you’d hardly notice the freedom you’d relinquished.”

“Mother Japan prepared its children only, and ideally, for Japan.”

However, after a year passes, he leaves Japan with his romanticized vision of the country nearly intact.

“It was only later, after I had left Japan, that I realized that everything had been there that night: the lanterned dark, the moon above the mountains, the dreamlike maiden in kimono. There was the Heian vision I had sought since childhood. And yet, by now, it was so much a part of my life that I had not even seen it till it was gone.”

Although parts of the book can appear heavily romanticized and dwell too much on Zen Buddhism and Japanese poetry, The Lady and the Monk presents a generally balanced picture of Japan and Japanese culture, both the traditional and modern aspects.

Verdict: I highly recommend it.

Have you ever read The Lady and the Monk? What did you think about it?