6 Books Exploring Immigrant Identity
Words By Ally Geist
Writing is an excellent way to share our stories and comment on both the singular and universal aspects of the human experience. It can be a tool for healing, for exploration, and for self-expression. Authors who write about immigrant experiences comment on identity and its fluid-yet-constant nature. Discover six incredible novels exploring immigrant identity that we think you should leaf through!
Becoming Americans is an edited collection of poems, stories, novel excerpts, travel pieces, diary entries, memoirs, and letters, spanning over 400 years. They explore a range of experiences about coming to America, including the reasons for departing from the authors’ home countries, various incidents and encounters while traveling to America, their first impressions of the country, and their struggle with the complexities of the new environment. This book is a beautiful glance into migration and American history.
Out of Egypt, André Aciman
Out of Egypt is a delightful memoir that follows a Jewish family as they arrive in Alexandria. In it, André Aciman introduces readers to the people who shaped his life: “Uncle Vili, the strutting daredevil, soldier, salesman, and spy; the two grandmothers, the Princess and the Saint, who gossip in six languages; Aunt Flora, the German refugee who warns that Jews lose everything ‘at least twice in their lives.’” Aciman has written many memoirs, essays, and articles for a variety of publications. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, he now teaches literary theory, in both English and French, and teaches the works of Marcel Proust.
Thoughts Without Cigarettes, Oscar Hijuelos
Thoughts Without Cigarettes is Oscar Hijuelos’ first memoir, though he has previously written many other award-winning novels such as Tale of Cuban-American Life and The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. This book “introduces readers to the colorful circumstances of his upbringing.” Born in the 1950s to Cuban immigrants, Hijuelos’s inspiring story shows his evolution from a child to the successful writer he is today.
The New Kids, Brooke Hauser
The New Kids is a collection of narrative journalism, which sets it apart from a lot of other first-person accounts of immigration and memoirs. The book documents a year in the lives of a group of teenage newcomers to America, and reflects “a multicultural mosaic that embodies what is truly amazing about America.” It shows the duality of a very “typical” experience at an American high school coupled with the unique experiences of navigating a new society and culture in the middle of adolescence.
Ru, Kim Thúy
A beautiful example of migrant literature, Ru takes its name from the Vietnamese word for lullaby. In French, the same word means “a small stream.” It also signifies a flow—of tears, blood, or money. Thúy’s book is every bit as poetic and image-rich as its title suggests. I have read this book in its original French and in English, and both versions are lovely, though they include different imagery and plays on words, depending on the language and its structure. In a series of vignettes, Ru takes readers on a journey from a palatial residence in Saigon to a Malaysian refugee camp to a new life in Quebec, Canada. “There, the young girl feels the embrace of a new community, and revels in the chance to be part of the American Dream.” Ru skyrocketed to the top of bestseller lists in Quebec and has been translated into 15 languages worldwide.
When I Was Puerto Rican, Esmeralda Santiago
Esmeralda Santiago’s memoir, When I Was Puerto Rican, begins by describing her early childhood in rural Puerto Rico. This evocative memoir recounts various milestones in Santiago’s life, including tropical sounds and sights, learning how to properly eat a guava, tasting morcilla sausage for the first time, and learning the rituals surrounding ushering a baby’s soul to heaven. When she moves to America, she experiences a clash of Puerto Rican and American culture. Esmeralda and her 10 siblings must learn new societal norms, habits, and a whole new language. Her memoir describes the ways she took on a new identity after moving to America.
In such a cosmopolitan, interconnected age, it is crucial to develop a greater understanding of other people, their experiences, and their culture. In my opinion, learning more about others teaches us a lot about ourselves and our own culture. These five books are a well-rounded, exciting place to start for those looking to understand a bit more about the immigrant experience, and cross-cultural practices.