Breath, Eyes, Memory
Danticat is perhaps one of the most beloved contemporary American novelists, and her debut novel is still as powerful today as it was when it appeared almost 25 years ago. The novelist’s 12-year-old protagonist Sophie Caco speaks of the violence in Haiti without flinching, and was definitely an inspiration for me as I wrote Girl at War from a young girl’s perspective. Born in Haiti, Danticat migrated to Brooklyn to join her parents, who’d left years earlier—like Caco, she was twelve years old.
What I love about Native Speaker is the way Henry Park’s profession as a spy allows for a rich symbolic exploration of the constant shifting of identities that many immigrants go through as they try to assimilate. Lee, who migrated from South Korea with his family as a small child, often addresses these themes of assimilation, and diaspora in his work. I also recommend his second novel, A Gesture Life.
Lost Children Archive
I was lucky to come to Luiselli’s work several years ago—when judging a translation prize, I fell in love with her novel The Story of My Teeth, a work that was originally written in Spanish and distributed on a chapter-by-chapter basis to the workers at a juice factory in Mexico. The Mexican-born Luiselli lived and studied all over the world due in part to her father’s career as a diplomat, and she writes often about travel and migration. Her latest novel, Lost Children Archive, deals directly with the current emergency at the US-Mexico border, and weaves parallel narratives of the crises of a road-tripping family and the asylum-seekers at the border nearby.
The Russian Debutante's Handbook
When I read Shteyngart’s debut novel, which chases its young Russian protagonists from Alphabet City to Prava—a fictional Central European city fashioned after Prague—I was reminded that stories of migration and displacement don’t always have to be wistful or nostalgic, they can also be fun, satirical, even silly. I also love Shteyngart’s blend of gravity and humor in his memoir, Little Failure.
I know, I know—Zadie Smith is not quite an immigrant; she and her family divide time between New York and London. But when I read this book in college, my imagination burst wide open—Smith’s debut challenged my conceptions of what a novel can do. Somehow, Smith created a story that was both heady and plot-driven, at times dark but also very funny. Though White Teeth is set in the UK, the book has no shortage of immigrants, and its raw energy and numerous storylines are a structural mirror of the complex but rich way our lives can intertwine when neighborhoods, cities, and nations are infused with cultures and histories from around the globe.
The Complete Maus
Running first as a serialized comic from 1980-1991, Maus tells parallel stories of his parents’ experiences in Nazi concentration camps alongside Spiegelman’s own journey to converse with his father so that they might both come to terms with their family’s tragic history. Of Polish-Jewish descent, Spiegelman was born in Sweden after World War II, and his family migrated to the US when he was a small child. Maus caused a great deal of controversy at first—could one do justice to the victims of something so horrific as the Holocaust through a comic? It’s a question I’ve often asked myself as a fiction writer, too. Maus’s enduring success as a founding text of the graphic memoir genre, as well as one of the most popular Holocaust narratives, instills a hope in me that art has value even amidst the darkest times.
America Is Immigrants
There are scores of novels (and memoirs! and story collections!) written by and about immigrants that have galvanized and inspired me as a writer and human. It was hard to pick just six books about immigration. Nevertheless, here are some of my favorites—many of these stories fortified me as I wrote Girl at War, and many of their authors are featured in my forthcoming nonfiction project, America is Immigrants.
Featured Image: Visual Generation