Written by Christie Basson
No human is an island, and neither should they be expected to be.
No matter the genre or the style of a writer, it is impossible that they could write in isolation from their past or from the world roaring around them. The political or social commentary might be more nuanced in some works but nonetheless the influence is there because nothing occurs and nothing is produced in a vacuum. Immigration, for instance, has never been more prominent in politics, in society, and in the arts. Writers who tackle these perspectives are not only dealing with the issues we should all be invested in (DACA, the travel ban, a U.S.-Mexico wall, refusal of refugees, and restrictions on legal immigration, to name a few), but they bring perspective to people who would not otherwise have been alerted of changing times. Not that diverse perspectives and stories of immigrants didn’t exist before, but we are thankfully moving towards a time when diversity is celebrated and voiced.
One must only look to, say, the 2018 Texas Book Festival to see the surge in interest in the immigrant story, told by the immigrants or families of immigrants themselves. Especially in Texas, this is an important topic, and the Festival focused heavily on immigrant issues. It featured second generation authors like Celeste Ng and Elaine Castillo, and held panels focusing on culture and heritage. The festival promoted the voices we need to be hearing and pushed the boundaries we need to be pushing. Panels also covered topics such as undocumented immigrants, bilingual authors, and political issues; one could find these stories in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, in memoir or journalistic format. With their books, these authors are sparking the conversations that Americans need to have.
In celebration of this movement towards better inclusion and appreciation of diverse experiences, here are six authors who have embraced their immigrant experiences and used them as inspiration to form the words on the page. Arguably, these books have never been as important as they are now.
“He said that if culture is a house, then language was the key to the front door; to all the rooms inside. Without it, he said, you ended up wayward, without a proper home or a legitimate identity.”
Hosseini was born in Kabul in 1965 where his father was a diplomat and his mother a teacher. They were relocated to Paris in 1976 and then the U.S. in 1980. By then the Soviet Army had invaded Afghanistan after a communist coup and they decided it would be unsafe to return, so they sought and were granted political asylum in the United States. Hosseini completed high school and college (he studied medicine) in California.
Hosseini started writing The Kite Runner in 2001 and since then has published three wildly popular novels about his homeland and its people. He was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Refugee Agency and he has established The Khaled Hosseini Foundation which focuses on providing humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan.
Although he is perhaps best known for The Kite Runner, his novels A Thousand Splendid Suns and And the Mountains Echoed was received with equal enthusiasm. He is widely regarded a master of telling stories of family and connection, and relaying the Afghan culture in a heart rendering manner. He manages to seamlessly weave the tumulus setting of Afghanistan with the beauty of the people and the culture and leave us with stories that find a place inside us and remain there.
Recommended Book: And the Mountains Echoed
“So trying to come to America from the wrong country is a crime?”
Zoboi was born in Port-au-Prince in Haiti and immigrated to New York with her mother when she was four. She has published numerous short stories that were well-received as well as American Street which was a National Book Award finalist and Pride, published earlier this year. She also edited and submitted to the anthology Black Enough.
American Street directly deals with the immigrant experience, especially in relation to the expectations the United States has of foreigners. After her mother is detained by U.S. Immigration, the main character is forced to navigate Detroit as she discovers the realities of the American dream and its shortcomings. Forced to leave behind Creole and her Haitian mannerisms, she is quickly brought to confront her identity and place in American society as an immigrant. The story draws heavily on Zoboi’s own experiences and the cultural touches infused through the story is the perfect way to tell this important story.
“Aiyoooooh, finish everything on your plate, girls! Don’t you know there are children starving in America?”
Kwan was born and raised in Singapore until the age of eleven when he moved to the United States. He received his first degree in creative writing from Houston University and then moved to Manhattan. He spent some time as a visual consultant and then 2013 his novel, Crazy Rich Asians became an international bestseller.
Crazy Rich Asians came out this summer as a movie and was extremely well-received. Kwan manages to take a look into the Asian elite and offer these ideas to his worldwide audience in a way that feels fresh. Whereas many well-known classic novels on the Asian experience focuses on traditionalism and hard-working immigrant perseverance (think The Joy Luck Club), Kwan manages to pull Americans into the lives of the absurdly rich in Singapore and completely captivate them.
The movie is the first in 25 years to have an all-Asian cast and is the highest grossing rom-com in nine years. Furthermore, Michelle Yeoh would be the first Asian actress to be nominated for an Oscar in 12 years. Although the success of the book and by extend the movie is commendable, it has managed to highlight a lack of Asian representation in American culture and media that should not exist.
Good news: Crazy Rich Asians is only the first book in the trilogy. Be sure to read all three before the next movie premiers!
Recommended Book: Crazy Rich Asians
“When they ask you / where you’re from, tell them your name / was fleshed from the toothless mouth / of a war-woman. That you were not born / but crawled, headfirst— / into the hunger of dogs. / My son, tell them / the body is a blade that sharpens / by cutting.”
Vuong was born in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and moved to the U.S. at the age of two. He spent a year in a refugee camp in the Philippines with his mother and seven siblings before they settled in the housing projects of Hartford. His poetry widely deals with transformations, desire, and loss. Here he talks about being the only literate member of his family (the war interrupted most Vietnamese people’s educations) and the responsibility he feels to continue the traditions and stories of his family.
He started by publishing shorter books like chapbooks (No and Burnings) before publishing his first full collection of poetry, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, in 2016. His work is acclaimed internationally—his novel Night Sky with Exit Wounds is available in five languages and soon five more translations will be added.
Vuong’s poetry covers many subjects such as sexuality, family, connection, and history. He writes about the Vietnam torn apart by the war, the one his grandmother witnessed change. He also addresses his own experiences as an immigrant and refugee: he manages to examine the aftereffects of war on his homeland while simultaneously addressing his own role in American society and how the two come together to form his identity as an immigrant in between two countries.
Recommended book: Night Sky With Exit Wounds
Recommended poem: “Kissing in Vietnamese”
“When we got to America we took our dreams, looked at them tenderly as if they were newly born children, and put them away; we would not be pursuing them. We would never be the things we had wanted to be: doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers. No school for us, even though our visas were school visas. We knew we did not have the money for school to begin with, but we had applied for school visas because that was the only way out.”
Bulawayo was born in the Tsholotsho District in Zimbabwe in 1981. She moved to the United States for college and received her bachelor’s degree from A&M University in Texas. She has written many short stories and one novel, We Need New Names, published in 2013.
Bulawayo focuses a lot on her experience as a Zimbabwean to influence her work and has won the Caine Award for African Writing for her short story Hitting Budapest (which focuses on a gang of Zimbabwean street children). Her work is often told from the viewpoint of children as she says, “There is something universal about kids. We can all relate to them. They are children, they have no power.”
Her novel, We Need New Names, revolves around the political and social climate after Robert Mugabe took rule of Zimbabwe and the country hit an economic downfall. She says the novel is less fiction and more of an effect of politics. Even though she lived in the U.S., she was connected to her motherland as it plunged into crisis. Her helplessness as her family and friends suffered was the inspiration for writing the novel.
Recommended Book: We Need New Names
“If people who were actually born here had to prove they were worthy enough to live in America, this would be a much less populated country.”
Yoon was born in Jamaica and moved to Brooklyn as a child. She studied Electrical Engineering at Cornell before becoming hooked on creative writing. She has published two books: Everything, Everything and The Sun Is Also a Star.
She is another author whose novel has recently been adapted into a movie. The film adaption of Everything, Everything came out in 2017 and Yoon mentions the premise was based on the birth of her own biracial daughter whom she wanted to represent in the novel. The movie rights for The Sun Is Also a Star have also been bought by Warner Brothers and MGM so we may anticipate an adaptation.
Yoon uses her heritage as inspiration for her work. Although The Sun Is Also a Star is targeted towards a YA audience, the premise is timely and very important (as is the case with many YA books after all). The story revolves around a character and her family who are about to be deported. It recounts their last few hours in the U.S. as they try to fight the inevitable. Be sure to read it before the movie comes out!
Recommended book: The Sun Is Also A Star