I am an immigrant, born in Italy but living in the UK since 2009. My mother is also an immigrant (US to Italy), as were my maternal grandparents (Italy to US), and both my maternal great-grandfathers (also Italy to US). I have the immigrant gene. And I think my immigrant gene could be the reason I love reading so much: it provides me with a constant supply of new worlds to inhabit, however briefly, as well as new cultures to figure out, new languages, new ideas. More obviously, my immigrant gene is probably the reason I like immigrant stories so much (though my own circumstances are considerably more privileged than those of 90% of these books’ characters). Today, I’d like to recommend a few of my favourites–in no particular order–three of which you can read in a single sitting.
1. Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic
Otsuka’s second novel charts the lives of Japanese picture brides living in California in the first four decades of the twentieth century. Any other writer would have picked one or a few characters to focus on, and written a 300- or 500-page epic. Instead, Otsuka wrote a slim novella narrated from a choral, first-person-plural perspective. This chorus of women sometimes focuses on moments in the lives of individuals, but never for more than a paragraph. I wasn’t sure of this approach at first, as the lack of strongly defined characters made emotional attachment difficult, but, once the women reach America and their lives become more and more different from one another’s, the narrative becomes a rich tapestry of struggle and success, good luck and bad luck, disappointing marriages and great romances, births and deaths, mundanity and adventure. And Otsuka crafts her sentences with such care, such an ear for rhythm, that it’s the closest you can get to reading a poem while actually reading prose. And the last three chapters are outstanding: a chilling, moving exploration of what it must have been like when, with the start of WWII, the government started rounding up all West Coast Japanese and putting them in internment camps. The first of these chapters mostly focusses on the unsettling build-up of rumours that this was happening, the second on the act of leaving–and I won’t spoil the brilliant third and final one, but it’s not what you think.
2. Shaun Tan, The Arrival
This is an obvious one, perhaps–it came out ten years ago, it’s won all sorts of awards, and it’s widely available in bookstores and libraries, and still often prominently displayed. But I only read it a few days ago, so it’s possible there are other people out there who have also somehow not felt the urge to see what all the fuss is about. Let me tell you, this is easily one of the best books ever written. Or rather, drawn: the story is told entirely through pictures. It’s actually a pretty straightforward story: a man leaves his family to find work in a strange land and send money home. The kind of story we’ve seen over and over again. What’s different this time is the world in which the story is set: it’s somewhat familiar–tall buildings, large crowds, a huge sculpture welcoming incoming ships–but also supremely weird–you get food from huge walls of drawers, you travel by airship, and everyone is followed around by friendly familiar-like creatures. You can take this literally–this is a fictional world where weird stuff is normal–or you can take it as a metaphoric representation of how everything looks profoundly strange to someone who’s just stepped off a boat from a faraway land. And did I mention that the story, however simple, is also incredibly moving? I think I would have cried several times if I hadn’t been reading the book in public.
3. Yuri Herrera, Signs Preceding the End of the World
The strange, sparse, beautiful prose, the unexpected analogies, the oblique references to everyday things, the archetypal characters, the surreal opening and closing chapters, the heroine’s no-nonsense bravery and resourcefulness all make me want to classify this book as speculative fiction, or a folktale, or a myth, even though it’s really “just” the story of a woman leaving Mexico to look for her long-lost brother in the US. Makina is a true badass, who knows exactly how to handle harassing teenagers, sinister drug lords, and racist cops. Such a good book–I’ve read it twice and loved it each time. And it’s only a little over 100 pages!
4. Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni
When people migrate, they take their beliefs with them. Like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, The Golem and the Jinni takes this concept literally: it follows a Syrian jinni named Ahmad and a Jewish golem named Chava who, through strange circumstances, find themselves in late nineteenth-century New York. Both face the same struggles as the human immigrants they live with–the search for jobs, the search for a welcoming community, the urge to make sense of a strange new world–but these are complicated by the fact that they must also hide their supernatural nature. And this is hard for Chava when she’s gifted with superstrength and an overwhelming, unnatural desire to help people (she can hear their needs and desires in her head), and it’s hard for Ahmad, who is proud and has just come out of a centuries-long imprisonment inside a copper flask. Incapable of sleeping, they spend long nights walking the length and breadth of the city until, one night, they meet.
5. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
Ifemelu and Obinze are teenage sweethearts in Nigeria. Then Ifemelu moves to the States, and Obinze somehow ends up in the UK. Ifemelu puts down roots in her new country, and eventually starts a popular blog about race, while Obinze struggles through an undocumented existence, fearing deportation. And then, 15 years after they last saw each other, Ifemelu and Obinze meet again in Nigeria. A big, beautiful, ambitious, rambling epic about Nigeria, America, being a black African versus an African American, being undocumented, Obama, blogging, academia, relationships, going away and coming back, as well as the culture and politics of African hair. Not a perfect book–some parts are overlong, and I was surprised to discover that a few readers dislike the main character–but it’s so lusciously written, I enjoyed every syllable.
6. Min Jin Lee, Pachinko
I’ve written about this book before, but it would be perverse not to include in this list. It’s about several generations of the same Korean family living in Japan, from the 1930s to the 1980s. In my original review, I wrote: “Pachinko is one of those rich, hefty family sagas, with everything you’d expect from the genre: illicit children, affairs, ambition thwarted, ambition rewarded, disappearances, secrets, financial struggles, tuberculosis, brushes with crime, unexpected deaths, lots of babies, seemingly immortal matriarchs, gangsters with hearts of gold, and, every now and then, History stirring things up a bit, most obviously in the 40s, with WWII. A lot of the pleasure I got from this book derived simply from watching all these lives unfurl, devouring page after page just to see what comes next, sixty years’ worth of soap opera compressed into 485 pages–will Isak survive his second bout of tuberculosis? will Sunja be able to make enough money with her kimchi stall? will Mozasu drop out of school? will Noa find out who his real father is? will Solomon marry Phoebe?” You can find my full review here.
What about you, readers? What are your favourite books starring immigrants? Leave your recommendations in the comment section!