7 books to better understand the immigrant experience
(Ed. Note: All titles discussed in this post can be purchased in OverDrive Marketplace in this list.)
By: Bethany Porter, Librarian and OverDrive Collection Development Specialist
If you’ve followed the news in the past few months, or happened to interact with anyone who’s followed the news, you may have noticed that immigration is a very hot topic. There have been attempted immigration bans, heated discussions between lawmakers, stories about the immigrant experience and a whole lot more. While immigration issues are nothing new, trying to understand them is still something we could all benefit from. Here are a few books that give insight on different perspectives.
Funny in Farsi by Fioozeh Dumas
This is a refreshingly funny memoir about Fioozeh Dumas’ life growing up in Southern California, where her family ended up settling in the 1970s. Dumas spends her first two years in the United States learning English, with sometimes hilarious results. This book was published in 2004, but its lighthearted take on immigration is one that we need to continue visiting.
If you’ve already read this and want another lighthearted memoir by Dumas, try Laughing Without an Accent.
Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang
Eddie Huang is famous in the food world. He owns Baohaus, a Taiwanese restaurant in the East Village of Manhattan. He has spent his entire life defying stereotypes, and has paved an incredibly successful path for himself. He found a place within Hip Hop, food culture and an obsession with football. This book serves as a great reminder of how diverse and interesting this country is becoming.
For the record, yes, Fresh Off the Boat is a TV series loosely based on this book. Eddie Huang is not a fan.
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
It may be a paradox, but reading fiction is a great way to learn about other people’s experiences. Lahiri is a wonderful writer, and I could feel empathy for all the characters I have read in her books. This book is not easy to read, but is broken up into bite-sized short stories.
Jhumpa Lahiri is an immigrant (from the UK to the US), and is the child of immigrants (from India to the UK). This story collection is one of her first works in English, but she continues to write excellent novels in English about characters living out the immigrant experience in the Western world.
On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family by Lisa See
The title of this book (especially the “One-Hundred-Year Odyssey” part) may make it seem intimidating, but this book is quite lovely. See discusses her childhood in Los Angeles and, like many of the other titles I have already mentioned, she reinforces the fact that immigrants often deal with racism, assumptions based on stereotypes and other hardships simply because these people choose to emigrate from their homes to create a new life somewhere else.
On Gold Mountain is perhaps the most tedious of all the titles presented, but also the most scholarly, if you’re interested in that. Lisa See also writes fiction. Her newest is The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, and is also about immigration. It has been receiving glowing reviews by critics, and I encourage you to check this one out, as well!
Toward a Better Life by Peter Morton Coan
Are you a decedent of ancestors immigrating to the United States from other countries? I am, and I have often wondered what my ancestors were thinking as they made the long trek to America for a better life. This book is a compilation of images and interviews with many immigrants, including relatives of Annie Moore (an Irish woman who was the first immigrant to arrive at Ellis Island), the Von Trapp family (of The Sound of Music fame), and musician Gloria Estefan. These interviews are intimate and insightful, and give voice to a group of people who are often portrayed not-so-kindly by the media.
The House on Mango Street by Santra Cisneros
This title is a classic – you may have read it in school. If you haven’t read it in a while, I encourage you to revisit it soon! It was published in 1984, and is still just as relevant as the day it was released. I remember being incredibly invested in the story of Esperanza, a Latina girl growing up in Chicago. Cisneros does a beautiful job of creating a relatable character, even if you have not experienced emigration before. Esperanza perfectly portrays teenage angst, but as one of the few Hispanic people at her school, also deals with feeling like an outsider in her community.
This book is short, and written in vignettes. It’s a quick read, I promise! And whether you’re reading it for the first time or choosing to go back and revisit this title, you’ll be sure to learn something from it.
They Take Our Jobs! And 20 Other Myths about Immigration by Aviva Chomsky
This is perhaps the most important book out of any of the titles I have mentioned. The recent discussions about “fake news” and “alternative facts” prompts me to want to make sure that all the facts I state, no matter the topic, are correct. Aviva Chomsky is a professor and scholar at Salem State University, and holds a PhD from the University of California in Berkeley. She has been working with Hispanic immigrants since the 1970s, and has published countless articles, books, and studies about the topic of immigration in the United States. She knows what she’s talking about, and has presented this issue in a way that is accessible and interesting.
I hope this list helps you learn something you may not have known about immigration and immigrant issues. Do you have any recommendations for other titles dealing with the immigrant experience? Let us know!