Well, it has been quite the week or two regarding immigration, immigration reform, and real life consequences of immigration policies and executive orders. It has ushered in a time where many Americans don’t recognize their country — the one of “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”(from The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus). But, it is also a time in which many other Americans, afraid of terrorism and terrorists, are acting and reacting from a place where immigration restrictions feel protective and correct. Since none of us have all the answers, nor all the righteousness, nor all the facts, we thought we would turn to the voices of immigrants – to those who have lived and are living lives directly affected by what to many of us are only policies. To find these voices, we turned to books. We hope the list we collected helps you put faces on the headlines and perhaps inspires action; but most importantly, we wish these books will create empathy and compassion towards all of us living in this great world of ours.
The Distance Between Us: YA version by Reyna Grande (2016) – With this book, Ms. Grande has adapted her adult memoir for middle grade readers and young adults. In it, she tells of her life as a toddler in an impoverished town in Mexico, her three attempts to cross into the USA with a coyote as a young child, her life in LA as an illegal immigrant, how her family gained legal status, and how she managed college. This is not for the faint hearted due to themes of physical abuse and complicated relationships with parents who are always leaving. But it is important to be informed; and, this book will insert faces into any political discussions about immigration that the pre-teens and teens in your life might encounter. ~ Lisa Christie
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin (2009) – Brooklyn is a coming of age story about a girl, Eilis, who leaves Ireland post World War II to travel to New York for better prospects. She arrives alone, leaving behind her beloved sister, Rose, her mother and brothers. Brave, smart Eilis carves out a life for herself and even finds a beau in sweet Tony before tragedy calls her unexpectedly back to Ireland. Brooklyn is a complicated love story, one that also paints one of the most poignant pictures of homesickness and a rough transatlantic journey that we have ever read. It is definitely a book that will stay with the reader and generate plenty of discussion for lucky book groups that have yet to select it. Also, this is one of the rare instances where the movie is as good as the book (see Book Jam review February 29, 2016). ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea (2009) – Inspired by “The Magnificent Seven“, 19-year-old Nayeli goes north from her small town in Mexico to recruit seven men to save her village from ruin at the hands of drug dealers, and to find her father who disappeared north years before. Beautifully written and funny — think of this novel as the book Jon Stewart would have written if he ever wrote about crossing the Mexican border into the USA. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
In The Country We Love by Diane Guerrero (2016) – One of the stars of “Orange is the New Black” penned this memoir (with some help from a co-author) about her life as the USA-born daughter of undocumented immigrants from Colombia. Her story hinges on the day her parents were deported while she was at school, after which she was left to fend on her own, relying on her friends for places to live so she could finish High School in the USA. She is now using her fame to help shed light on the lives of the undocumented in the USA. While the prose may not sing quite as well as some of the other books on this list from award winning authors, I, for one, was appalled at some of the more surreal aspects of her story (e.g., she was completely forgotten by the US government which never checked on her, or helped her in any shape or form). And, I am very grateful she broke years of silence to put her face on many nameless Americans, and on a problem we all need to help solve. ~ Lisa Christie
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (1999) – If you somehow missed this collection of nine short stories about Indian-American immigrants, fix that now and read these Pulitzer Prize winning tales. Ms. Lahiri’s prose is gorgeously crafted, and her characters and their trials and tribulations – both the mundane and the incredible – will stay with you long after you finish the last sentences. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia (1992) – Reaching far back in our bookshelf, our memories, and into the Caribbean Sea, our hands land on Garcia’s 1992 novel of the Cuban immigration experience. Told from the perspective of three generations of strong women, this lush narrative will be appreciated by lovers of magical realism. Strong female characters tell the story of the experiences of being political expats in New York City, and also of the ones left behind in Cuba. Moving between the United States and Cuba, and the present and the past, this book creates a sensation of dreaming but also of the very real situation of a country and its people experiencing turmoil and change. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015) – The Pulitzer landed on an important book in 2016. The narrator, a Vietnamese immigrant to the USA, was rescued by the Americans during the fall of Saigon due to his work with the US military and diplomatic corps. His life further unravels from this relocation to LA. His tale provides a superb entry into conversations about the Vietnam War, as well as the lives of all the Vietnamese immigrants to the USA who followed the soldiers and sailors across the Pacific to life in America. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate (2007) – My 11-year-old read this for school earlier this year, and I am so glad he did. I borrowed it and devoured it in one sitting. A great book about the complicated lives of immigrants to the USA. It weaves the tale of a boy, from an unnamed country in Africa, adjusting to cold days and nights in Minnesota and wondering what happened to his mother, the only other person from his family to have survived the genocide there. ~ Lisa Christie
Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez (2002) – We finish with a Vermont author who has penned so many great tales (e.g., How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, In the Time of Butterflies), and highlight Before We Were Free – her award winning novel for older children. In this tale, by the 12th birthday of the main character Anita, most of her Dominican relatives have emigrated to the United States, a few have disappeared without a trace, and the police continually terrorize her family remaining in the DR all of whom are suspected of opposing el Trujillo’s dictatorship. A heartrending tale of growing up based upon the author’s extended family’s own experiences. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
OK, two more….
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013) – Before she wrote We Should All Be Feminists, Ms. Adichi earned our reading loyalty with this incredible novel of love and culture clash. As Maureen Corrigan of NPR stated, “Adichie has written a big knockout of a novel about immigration, American dreams, the power of first love, and the shifting meanings of skin color . . . Americanah is a sweeping story that derives its power as much from Adichie’s witty and fluid writing style as it does from keen social commentary. . . . ”
Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi (2013) – When a renowned surgeon dies suddenly outside his home in Accra, his family, which is scattered across the globe, suddenly learns much more about him and what his choices meant for them. Beautifully rendered, this novel takes you from Accra to Lagos to London and to New York. It also shows us the power of love, family, and choices as we figure out who we are and where we come from.