“No one gets to choose when or where to be born, but what happens after that is what you can imagine.” — Abdi Nor Iftin
The term “immigrant” did not come into being until the late eighteenth century, when it was coined to describe the situation in the new nation of America, where people were leaving their homelands to come to the American continent. In recent times, the terms “migrant,” “immigrant,” and “refugee” are no longer used as terms that imply respect for those brave enough to leave one land in order to find something else in another. Almost as soon as he became president, President Trump declared that immigrants from certain countries were not going to be allowed into the country. He has denounced entire countries and religions, as if each person in a country were represented by the actions of their governments. In just the last few months, we have seen immigration policies at the Mexican border that seem unimaginable; American border guards forcefully separate parents from children as a means of “discouraging” those whose desperation has led them to try to cross the border without proper paperwork. The cruelty of such a move is hard to fathom, and reports indicate that bereaved parents are committing suicide or falling into deep depression as a consequence.
My own parents brought me to America when I was a toddler. My parents came to this country when my father was twenty-four and my mother was just twenty — ages that startle me — because my father had decided that there were no opportunities for him in his homeland. From the moment they landed, like all immigrants who hold jobs, my parents paid into the Social Security system, paid their taxes, volunteered in their communities — my father coached boys who eventually played for the U.S. Olympic and World Cup soccer teams — and were good neighbors. While some may hold them up as “model” immigrants, the truth is that the overwhelming majority of immigrants act in these ways. While the president may point to the tragic cases where an immigrant has committed a heinous crime, those crimes are the exception.
Immigration is not easy. My parents’ struggles to adjust went on for years. There were not television shows about being a recent immigrant, and no literature existed that would have helped them to feel less alone. And yet, they didn’t return to where they had come from. They stayed here, raised their children here, learned to celebrate American holidays, and made American friends. For them, the overall experience of immigrating was an increase of joy in their lives, exactly what the immigrant wants: a chance to change their circumstances so that joy is possible.
The attitude of many Americans is that immigrants have to do all the work. They are the ones that have to learn our language, our customs, our culture, our political system. Despite the fact that, (with the exception of Native Americans, who were here first, and enslaved peoples from Africa brought here against their will), every other American is descended from someone who came to America looking for something. And yet, many Americans want to shut the door to anyone else who wants a chance to live here. And they don’t seem all that interested in the stories that immigrants can tell them not only about the lands whence they came, but also their perceptions of America.
Literature is a place where immigrants, and the children of immigrants, can tell their stories. Some of these stories reveal the horrors of war-torn lands left behind. Others chronicle the experiences of those who live in America and who work to reconcile the cultures they grew up in with their adopted cultures. No two immigrant stories are the same, even if they reflect common experiences. The books below offer stories that originate with people who decided to come to America. Their stories are poignant, exciting, adventurous, pious, and reveal to the reader vital truths about the human experience. Each book that chronicles the story of immigration adds to the American story.
A Place for Us
Fatima Farheen Mirza
Rafiq and Layla came from India to America, where they raised their three children. Their Muslim faith made up the roots that supported the children’s healthy growth. Layla raised Hadia, Huda, and Amal with a love that none of the children ever doubted. While the children know that Rafiq loves them, too, he tries to provide them with a paternal discipline that will allow them to grow up strong in their faith and good in their hearts.
As the novel opens, Hadia is getting married, finally, after rejecting for years the marriage offers her parents presented to her. Sister Huda has refused to marry until Hadia marries, and Amal, who has been estranged from his family for three years, shows up at the ceremony in response to Hadia’s invitation. As the night progresses, however, a lifetime’s worth of family secrets emerge, and by the end of the night, hearts will be damaged.
Fatima Farheen Mirza has written a tale of an American family where attachments among its members are tested by internal and external pressures. She captures, in gorgeous prose, the ways in which parents come to terms with the inevitable aging of children, and children struggle to interpret gestures that parents intend in love, but which injure growing hearts. Mirza writes from multiple perspectives within the family, giving readers knowledge that family members hide from one another.
It’s been a long time since a novel has inspired tears in me. But I found A Place for Us to be one of the most moving novels that I have read in a long time.
José Olivarez burst onto the poetry scene in Chicago with his participation in “Louder Than a Bomb,” the poetry festival for Chicago’s students. His poems range in mood — funny, angry, contemplative — as he details his life as the son of Mexican immigrants. The collection is a celebration of Chicano culture, and an exploration of the experience of occupying Mexican spaces, American spaces, and the spaces in which they merge.
His recurring poem “Mexican Heaven” offers various scenarios in which St. Peter greets the recently dead; the scenarios imagined by Olivarez made me laugh out loud. He offers odes to cheese fries and Scottie Pippen, and a poem about Vaporub that caused its mentholated scent to fill my nose. In “Mexican American Disambiguation,” readers get a lesson in nomenclature, the multiple ways that immigrants can identify themselves depending on who is calling their names. And readers are also introduced to the ways that his father tried to keep his son on the straight and narrow.
Olivarez offers a variety of instances in which he feels “seen” and “unseen.” In poems about family trips to the mall, he writes of the terror of being transparent when you’re trying to hide your identity. In Citizen Illegal, the title itself points to the double consciousness of the immigrant, which can both double a person or cleave them in half. His poems offer readers multiple ways to experience these feelings.
The Girl Who Smiled Beads
Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil
Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when she and her sister, Claire, set off to escape the terror of seeing neighbors killing neighbors during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Over the course of the genocide, 800,000 Rwandans died, after months of radio broadcasts and other activities urged the elimination of their fellow citizens. For six years, she and Claire occupied various refugee camps throughout the African continent with no knowledge of what had happened to their parents.
At age twelve, the two Wamariya sisters were granted asylum. Clemantine went to live with an American family who tried to provide her with a space to heal and to grow. But Clemantine became aware that others’ perceptions of her were clouded by the events in Rwanda, such that they could only see her as broken and in constant need of assistance. She rejected the attempts to label her as a victim, and details the steps she took to reclaim her sense of her whole self.
She also provides views on words such as “genocide,” which she sees as a sterile word that cannot convey anything about what it signifies. She also writes of her encounter with Holocaust survivor and human rights campaigner Elie Wiesel, which led to an appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s show, and the enormous changes in her life after that fateful appearance.
The Girl Who Smiled Beads breaks down the distance between American perceptions of the events in Rwanda and Americans themselves. She offers a view of the world that is at once hopeful and wise. And she writes of her relationship with her parents and what was lost when she was forced to leave her house and neighborhood.
Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, The Sympathizer. In this collection of essays and stories by immigrants and refugees, he treats readers to a multiplicity of perspectives and amazing writing about the experience of needing to leave one’s home. Among the contributors are Aleksander Hemon, Ariel Dorfman, and Porochista Khakpour.
Khakpour riffs on William Carlos Williams’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” to offer “Thirteen Ways of Being an Immigrant.” In her essay, she writes of being a small girl who desperately wants a “Cabbage Patch Kid.” She knows that Cabbage Patch Kids are out of reach for her poor Iranian immigrant family, until she receives a lesson in Americanness about what kinds of Cabbage Patch dolls are worth less than others. Hemon writes about what it is like to be from a “refugee nation,” and notes that nearly one-quarter of Bosnians have fled their homes. Each of those Bosnians have their own individual story, one that overlaps with other stories in places, but which remain unique in their totality. Hemon feels compelled to try to tell as many of these stories as he can.
Ariel Dorfman left his native Chile during a time when American interference led to the killing of many Chilean intellectuals. In his essay, “How Succulent Food Defeated Trump’s Wall Before It Has Been Built,” he details a trip to his local grocery store, where foods from nearly every country in Central and South America occupy space on the shelves. And it’s not just food that identifies itself on cans or bags listing a foreign country where it was created. Dorfman also talks about the foods such as potatoes, pineapples, and bananas that were originally “found” in South America by conquistadors, but which are as much a part of the American diet as the taco bowl Trump crassly used to celebrate Mexican culture.
Each story told by an immigrant helps to fill up the empathy chasm the Trump administration takes advantage of in order to separate children from their parents without mass protests. The more Americans realize that immigrant stories are American stories, the less the hate-mongers will be able to get away with. Proceeds from the book’s sales will go to support the work of the International Rescue Committee.
America Is Not the Heart
The Philippines is a land of many languages, all of which make an appearance in Castillo’s marvelous family novel. In addition to both Spanish and English, Ilocano, Tagalog, and Pangasinan are also spoken in the Philippines. Multiple languages mean that there are multiple ways to have communication issues, especially when that communication is among family members or between lovers.
When Hero arrives from the Philippines to stay with her uncle and his wife in San Francisco, she leaves behind a history that she would prefer not to talk about. Roni, her young cousin, pesters Hero to tell her why her hands are ruined. What happened to her hands? And what happened to Hero? Her uncle doesn’t ask her those types of questions, but his American-born daughter has a different attitude toward what is appropriate for people to share with one another.
As Hero begins working at a restaurant, her world expands to take in a cast of characters who show her how to live as an immigrant. Soon, however, she learns the ways of love, and unexpected passion complicates Hero’s life further. Castillo depicts these changes in Hero’s life in close detail, bringing the reader into the life of a woman who has always pushed people away.
The Far Away Brothers
As stories continue to pour in about the heartbreaking situation at the Mexican-American border, where young children — as young as infants — are ripped out of their parents’ arms and sent to detention centers, it behooves all Americans to learn more. Last year, Signature reviewed Valeria Luiselli’s book about her experiences translating for unaccompanied minors in immigration courts. Now, Lauren Markham brings readers the individual stories of identical twins Ernesto and Raul. The Flores twins arrive in America after arriving from El Salvador, which they have left because the streets have become deadly for young men and young women. The boys have an older brother who agrees to care for them.
Markham presents readers with the details of El Salvador life, where gang violence and lawlessness have taken over the streets. The government has lost control, and Markham shows how U.S. involvement in El Salvador’s internal affairs in the 1980s has not helped in the establishment of a stable, effective government. The gang, MS-13, which originated in Los Angeles but then set up in El Salvador after its members were deported there, “selects” young people for membership. If those young people refuse, they are murdered.
The brothers arrive in the United States thousands of dollars in debt after paying a coyote to take them north. They get jobs with their temporary residency permits, and send much of it as they can home so that their parents may pay off the debt. Markham provides a close-up view of the brothers’ attempts to settle in the U.S., and what happens when they go to Immigration Court to see whether their petitions for asylum have been granted.
At a time when Attorney General Jeff Sessions declares that the draconian, inhumane policies toward immigrants will continue at the border; when Immigration Courts are overwhelmed by the large numbers of young people fleeing broken countries; and when the president stirs up his followers by lying about immigrants’ participation in criminal activities, Americans have a duty to learn the facts about the immigration process. Immigrants find themselves used as fodder rather than treated like human beings. Markham’s book provides readers with human faces to associate with the word “immigrant,” and gives readers knowledge in an age of disinformation.
The Incredible True Story of Blondy Baruti
Blondy Baruti with Joe Layden
Blondy Baruti’s story of coming to America is the stuff of movies, which is where he ended up after leaving the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Baruti has appeared in films like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and the story of how he arrived in America is remarkable. Baruti was born in Kinshasa, the nation’s capital. At two years-old, Baruti was felled by a virus that nearly killed him. His survival was considered a “miracle” by his family and by hospital physicians, who had not expected him to live.
Those familiar with DRC history know that for much of the 1990s and into the new millennium, the country was riven by a brutal civil war that claimed upwards of seven million lives. When Baruti was nine, the war came to his town. He and his mother and sister went into hiding, walking into the wilderness and following the Congo River. For months, they walked, covering hundreds of miles in their effort to reach a safe place.
How Baruti made the transition from child in the wilderness to Hollywood actor is a tale told with a great deal of enthusiasm. His is a happy story, and Baruti’s love for his adopted homeland comes through in his prose. For readers looking for a classic American story about overcoming adversity and achieving dreams, Baruti’s story of survival and success is a winner.
Akil Kumarasamy chronicles the lives of three generations of a Sri Lankan family who come to America to escape civil war. The stories are not told within a novel, but rather, in linked short stories, which allows Kumarasamy to present snapshots of members of the family as they move through a variety of places. In “Shade,” a grandson rides with his Tamil grandfather in his truck as they drive to the seaside. The grandfather has lost a lung, but continues to smoke. The grandson tries to envision Sri Lanka, but his grandfather bats aside his questions, and frustration leads to a rebellious act.
Among other family members is an actor who reflects on the roles that he’s offered in films while out on a blind date with a woman his sister-in-law has fixed him up with. Mohinder, Dilraj, and Nalini conduct a ménage a trois until tragedy interrupts their happiness. And as Nalini’s mother lays dying in Colombo, she reflects on the violence she has witnessed, and thinks of what will become of the family members who have no choices.
These and other stories capture moments of great beauty in the family members’ lives. The fragmented nature of their story, symbolized by the multiple short stories, allows readers to appreciate the ways that dislocation from one’s native land can break up reality. It’s a kaleidoscopic view in which the picture changes depending on from whose perspective the story is told.
Call Me American
Abdi Nor Iftin
“No one gets to choose when or where to be born, but what happens after that is what you can imagine.” Abdi Nor Iftin says this in the epilogue of his book, a piece of wisdom he offers to the rest of us. Born in Somalia, he finds a new way to talk about the American Dream, the myth that anyone, anywhere, despite the circumstances of their birth, can make of themselves whatever they can imagine. Isn’t that what what those who argue for the “bootstraps” version of personal development are saying? So why would any American who believes this then want to deny immigrants the chance to pursue their own version of the dream?
Somalia has been a site of chaos for decades. It is contested territory, where various terrorist factions battle for supremacy. Young men born in Somalia are subject to the same pressures to “join” these groups as those born in El Salvador who are told they must join gangs like MS-13. Boys are approached from very young ages and are threatened if they do not join. Abdi Nor Iftin resisted, and when civil war broke out, he continued to attend school. His travails in the streets, his protection of his family members, and the constant presence of danger is eloquently conveyed to the reader.
He escaped to Kenya, continued his education — including learning English — and applied to come to the United States. Those who believe that the U.S. does little to stem the flow of immigrants will be surprised by his account of the multiple levels of criminal checks, background checks, and various forms of paperwork that piled up as this one young Somali man waited to hear.
His story is one of hope. But his hope is combined with doing everything “right” that America asks people to do if they want to come to the United States. Few communities in America have been willing to take in Somali immigrants, especially those who may require some transitional help as they become acclimated. To read Abdi Nor Iftin is to gain tremendous respect for someone so dedicated and driven, but it’s also a huge reminder that not everyone is endowed with his sense that if he stuck it out, good things would happen. And the truth is, even with all the good intentions and hope in the world, it still doesn’t happen for the vast majority of people who apply to come to the United States.