Books About the Contemporary Immigrant Experience in America
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Markham’s book provides readers with human faces to associate with the word “immigrant,” and gives readers knowledge in an age of disinformation.
“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.