From Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) to Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (1918), from Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street (1984) to Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989), immigration was a persistent theme throughout twentieth-century American fiction, and the twenty-first century has seen unprecedented growth in the genre. This is perhaps not surprising, considering that immigration has historically been one of America’s defining issues and one that has become increasingly contentious in recent years. It seems that immigrant stories are inhabiting our contemporary fiction more and more, and the range of these stories has never been more geographically or ethnically diverse.
According to author Salman Rushdie, “America, a nation of immigrants, has created great literature out of the phenomenon of cultural transplantation, out of examining the ways in which people cope with a new world.” And reading such literature can help all Americans better understand and appreciate the diversity that gives us our collective strength. The following list includes ten noteworthy works of immigrant fiction published in the past decade. May your reading be both enjoyable and inspiring.
by Markel Tumlin
America is not the Heart by Elaine Castillo (2018)
Castillo’s debut novel, named one of the year’s best books by NPR, tells the story of a young Filipina who immigrates to the Bay Area after being disowned by her parents. Haunted by the political turmoil she leaves behind, Hero De Vera moves in with her uncle, his wife, and their daughter, the first member of the family born in the United States. Marie Claire calls it “a fierce, deeply affecting story of immigrant life in America,” while Vogue adds that “Castillo is part of a younger generation of American writers instilling literature with a layered sense of identity.”
The Atlas of Reds and Blues by Devi S. Laskar (2019)
Laskar’s novel, also her debut, follows an American-born daughter of Bengali immigrants – identified only as “Mother” – after she moves her family from Atlanta to the wealthy suburbs. The action pivots on an unjust police raid that leaves her lying wounded and flashing back on her life. Named 2019-2020 Adult Fiction Book of the Year by the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association, the well-received debut was also named a Best Book of the year by The Washington Post. In a review for Book Riot, Rebeea Saleem calls it “a timely, poignant meditation on police brutality and lingering racism.”
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue (2016)
With yet another remarkable debut, Imbolo Mbue won the 2017 PEN/Faulkner Award for her novel drawing upon experiences as an immigrant from Cameroon. Born in Limbe in 1981, Mbue became a US citizen in 2014. Behold the Dreamers follows a Cameroonian immigrant family and the stresses that confront them living in Harlem during the 2008 financial crisis. Jende Jonga is working as a chauffeur for a Lehman Brothers executive until the financial collapse threatens him and his family with ruin. The New York Times says, “as a dissection of the American Dream, Imbolo Mbue’s first novel is savage and compassionate in all the right places.”
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez (2014)
After their fifteen-year-old daughter Maribel sustains a devastating injury, Arturo and Alma Rivera leave their comfortable life in Mexico for Delaware, where they believe she has a better chance to recover and lead a more satisfying life. Their lives intertwine with a Panamanian family’s when son Mayor Toro falls for Maribel after seeing her at a Dollar Tree store. Writing in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani says, “the story of their families gives us a visceral sense of the magnetic allure of America, and the gaps so many immigrants find here between expectations and reality.”
The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea (2018)
Author Luis Alberto Urrea’s father was born in Mexico, and his mother was from Staten Island, but Urrea grew in in the Logan Heights and Clairemont neighborhoods of San Diego. Set over two days in San Diego, The House of Broken Angels centers on the last big birthday blowout of 70-year-old Mexican-American family patriarch Miguel Angel de la Cruz, recalling family histories that touch both sides of the border. Writing in The Washington Post, Michael Lindgren calls The House of Broken Angels “a book about celebration that is, itself, a celebration.”
No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal (2017)
This humorous and touching novel is set in an Indian American community in Cleveland. Forty-something Harit is living with his mother who is despondent over the death of Harit’s sister. Having taken up wearing a sari in the evenings to try to cheer up his mother, Harit finds himself in an unusual friendship with Ranjana, an immigrant who fears her husband is having an affair. On NPR’s Fresh Air, Maureen Corrigan commented, “No One Can Pronounce My Name explores the politics of sexual identity, as well as the immigrant and first-generation American experience, but, unfashionable as it may sound, the novel's greater achievement lies in the compassionate, comic way it explores the universal human experience of loneliness.”
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (2019)
Named a best book of the year by publications too numerous to mention, Vuong’s debut novel won the 2019 New England Book Award for Fiction. An LGBTQ Coming-of-Age story in the form of an epistolary novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is written as a letter from a Vietnamese-American immigrant named Little Dog to his illiterate mother. A nonlinear story that jumps back and forth between the two countries, the novel explores how intergenerational stresses in an immigrant family can result from historical events. Little Fires Everywhere author Celeste Ng says, “With a poet's precision, Ocean Vuong examines whether putting words to one's experience can bridge wounds that span generations, and whether it's ever possible to be truly heard by those we love most.”
The Other Americans by Laila Lalami (2019)
After her father, a popular restaurant owner and Moroccan immigrant, dies in a suspicious hit-and-run accident in a small town in the Mojave, jazz composer Nora Guerraoui returns home in a story that is part mystery, part romance, and part immigrant family history. Using multiple narrators, Lalami weaves a tale of Americans torn apart by class, race, and religion. A National Book Award finalist in 2019, The Other Americans was also on Time Magazine’s list of the year’s Best Fiction. Maureen Corrigan of NPR’s Fresh Air commented, “You feel like the promise of America can still come through after all."
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2017)
After winning the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for The Sympathizer, Nguyen returned the following year with this collection of short stories written over a period of twenty years with settings in both Vietnam and America. Many of the characters are straddling the two worlds and facing life-altering decisions, and they come alive in Nguyen’s hands. Nguyen was born in what was then South Vietnam in 1971 and fled to the United States with his family when Saigon fell in 1975. Amongst The Refugees’ many accolades was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year award and an NPR Best Book mention. Writing legend Joyce Carol Oates calls Nguyen “one of our great chroniclers of displacement.”
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (2013)
A brilliant literary debut about ten-year old Darling, a girl who escapes the violence of Zimbabwe to go live with an aunt in America. The many awards this novel received included the 2014 PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction, the 2014 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction, and the 2014 Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Legacy Award for fiction. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Uzodinma Iweala credits Bulawayo with demonstrating “a striking ability to capture the uneasiness that accompanies a newcomer’s arrival in America."
The Good Immigrant: 26 Writers Reflect on America Edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman (2019)
Not so much fiction as personal memoir and essay, this collection brings together pieces by 26 diverse writers on the topic of immigration, many of them personal narratives that connect with our shared humanity. The Washington Post calls it “a provocative, conversation-sparking, multivocal portrait of modern America.”