8 Books That Capture the Immigrant Experience

Megan Drier ’20 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Despite being a nation founded on immigrants, we live in a political climate that is trying to turn those who seek a new life in America into the enemy. Here are a few books that help give immigrants and refugees a voice, and remind us that they are human beings with stories to tell.

  1. Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees by Caroline Moorehead

British writer Moorehead travelled for nearly two years across four continents to gather the stories within this book. She uses the refugee experiences she was exposed to on her travels through Cairo, Guinea, Sicily, the Mexico-United States border, Lebanon, England, Australia, and Finland to paint a portrait of what it means to be a refugee.

  1. When the Moon Is Low: A Novel by Nadia Hashimi

The tale of a mother’s love is about as emotional and heart-wrenching as it gets. This story of a mother and her struggles to seek refuge for her children after the Taliban rises to power is a heart wrenching look into some of the struggles that refugees may very well face. Hashimi explores both the seemingly constant feeling of fear and hopelessness, but also the rare moments of hope the family finds in the kindest of strangers.

  1. Little Bee by Chris Cleave

The relationship between a Nigerian asylum-seeker, who has recently been released from a British immigrant detention center, and a modern British magazine editor is a powerful look into the realities of the lives of those seeking asylum. By using his compelling characters, Cleave is able to get his statement on the treatment of those seeking refuge across effectively without it seeming like a bold political statement.

  1. Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream by Joshua Davis

Joshua Davis tells the real-life story of four high school students who, despite living in the constant restriction of not being a citizen, are somehow able to defeat beat college teams in a underwater robot competition sponsored by NASA. Their story is compelling and inspiring, but Davis does not get caught up in their temporary moment of triumph. He follows their story past their spectacular win, pointing out the flaws in current immigration policy.

  1. The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu

The debut novel of Dinaw Mengestu, an Ethiopian-American writer, recognizes the true realities of the American Dream. Much like Mengestu himself, the protagonist of this story fled a war-torn Ethiopia only to discover the isolation of immigrant life in the United States. Mengestu uses his own experiences to make sure his characters and their motivation capture the life of an immigrant in America as accurately as possible.

  1. Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation by Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat knows how it feels to be separated from a parent. For nearly ten years, Danticat and her brother were left to live with an aunt and uncle in Haiti before being able to join their parents in Brooklyn. Mama’s Nightingale tells the story of a young girl as her mother is detained at a correctional center for women without papers. The hopeful outlook of young Saya, in combination with bright and whimsical illustrations, does a fantastic job of humanizing the issue of immigration for those as young as five years old.

  1. Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America by Helen Thorpe

Helen Thorpe, a journalist in Denver, spent five years following the lives of four Mexican girls, two legal immigrants and two undocumented, as they navigate their lives from their prom to their college graduation. Despite what the title may indicate, this book explores more than just the four girls. Thorpe explores the girls’ families, even as their paths may diverge for different reasons, and uses her unique position as the wife of Denver’s mayor to grant readers an inside look at the politics surrounding immigration in Denver in 2005.

  1. Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Written in free verse poetry with a bit of unexpected humor, the story of ten-year-old Kim Hà is geared mostly toward a younger readership. Much like her protagonist, author Lai herself fled a war-torn Vietnam at just ten years old. By basing so much of this story on her own experiences, Lai creates a vivid and complex character in Kim, which is incredibly helpful in teaching young audiences about the real life struggles an immigrant faces.

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