Tag Archives: Immigrants in fiction

Five Novels I’ve Read About Immigrants

Cover imageI’ve travelled a reasonable amount but I’ve never lived anywhere except my own country. Perhaps that’s why I’m so fascinated by the immigrant experience. There’s been a wave of fiction exploring the plight of refugees recently but all except one of the five novels below are about choosing to move to country rather than fleeing one. I’ve written about several of them before but have only reviewed one on this blog for which there’s a link.

Abudulrazak Gurnah’s By the Sea seems to capture beautifully how it feels to be exiled from your own country. Told not to reveal his ability to speak English by the man who sold him his ticket, an elderly asylum seeker finds himself blurting out a sentence to his kindly social worker when she tells him she has found an interpreter. When he learns the interpreter’s identity, Saleh realises that they are already bound together by an intricate series of events which brought about the downfall of Latif’s family and his own imprisonment. Written in delicately evocative prose, By the Sea unravels the complexities of Saleh and Latif’s past offering hope of redemption.

Also set in the UK, Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is about a group of young Indian men sharing a house in Sheffield. Sahota vividly depicts the precarious lives of these economic migrants, worked like dogs on a building site by day and returning to sleep in squalid conditions at night. Sahota unfolds each of their histories at the beginning of his novel so that we come to understand the events that have brought them to the UK. Woven through the narrative is the Cover imagestory of a British Sikh woman who decides to defy both the law and her family in the face of what she sees as injustice. It’s a remarkable novel, although sadly not one that those who believe immigrants to be scroungers and layabouts are likely to read.

Skipping across the Atlantic to the USA, Chitra Viraraghavan’s The Americans explores the lives of a disparate set of immigrants scattered across the country, all with a connection to Tara Kumar visiting from Madras. Lavi is her fifteen-year-old niece – all hormones and crushes. Shantanu is the uncle, illegally in the US and entangled in his boss’ criminal web while Madhulika is the friend whose arranged marriage is floundering. The novel is set in 2005, sufficiently distant from 9/11 for its full effects to be felt on anyone with a brown skin, many of whom find themselves regarded with even more suspicion than they did before. There’s the odd jarring note but Viraraghavan manages to keep control of her many stories weaving them into a rich tapestry of immigrant life.

The son of working-class Cuban immigrants, Oscar Hijuelos explores both first and second generations’ experience through Lydia, a New York cleaning lady, in The Empress of the Splendid Season. Anyone who passes her on the street might think of her, if they notice her at all, as just another dowdy drudge but Lydia has a very different view of herself. After a quarrel with her father when she was sixteen, she left the trappings of a well-to-do family in Cuba but has never relinquished her sense of superiority. From her ambitions for her children and her cherished memories of her youthful beauty to her tentative feelings of friendship for one of her kindly employers and the uncovering of the secrets of others, Lydia’s story is told through a series of closely linked vignettes in this tender portrait of a woman who refuses to accept her second-class status.

 Cover imageJhumpa Lahiri turns the first generation/second generation perspective on its head in The Namesake through the lens of Gogol Ganguli whose parents arrive in Massachusetts from Calcutta in the early days of their arranged marriage. Out in the world, pursuing his career as an engineer, his father happily adjusts to life in America but his mother does not, staying at home, missing her family and bring her son up as an Indian rather than an American. Lumbered with the name of his father’s favourite writer, Gogol finds himself torn between the expectations of his parents and becoming a part of the American world in this empathetic, funny novel about conflicting loyalties and identity.

Any books about immigrants you’d like to recommend?

America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo: Home is not necessarily where the heart is

Cover imagePerhaps because I’ve only lived in one country, I’m perennially attracted to the immigrant experience in fiction which is why Elaine Castillo’s debut caught my eye. Set in the Californian city of Milpitas in the early ‘90s, it’s about a Filipino community and I’m ashamed to say that before I read it I knew next to nothing about the Philippines’ troubled history. Castillo explores that history through the story of Hero who comes to live with her uncle and aunt after being released from a prison camp.

Hero hasn’t spoken to her parents since 1976 when she dropped out of medical school and became involved with the New People’s Army. Never part of their guerrilla attacks, Hero patched up her comrades until she was snatched and incarcerated for two years, leaving her with badly broken hands. Her favourite uncle offers her a home in the States where she’s an illegal and unable to work. Instead, she looks after her sassy seven-year-old niece Roni of whom she becomes increasingly fond. Her aunt is not so welcoming. Paz takes as many nursing shifts as she can, stubbornly intent on Roni’s betterment while Pol works as a security guard, his impeccable surgical reputation useless without accreditation. Paz and Pol come from very different backgrounds: he’s from a wealthy family with connections to President Marcos; she’s from a dirt poor, hardscrabble home. Their mother tongues are not the same; their food preferences differ widely; despite her training Paz holds firm to the old superstitions. Paz proudly stood her ground against the womanising Pol for a long time but he was determined. Now their marriage seems unequal. This is the strained household into which Hero must fit herself, made easier when she meets Rosalyn and finds a second home.

America is Not the Heart is a big, sometimes baggy novel that draws you in after a slowish start. Castillo deftly weaves the benighted history of the Philippines into Hero’s story both through flashbacks and family history. Pol and Paz neatly personify the archipelago’s intensely stratified society, a chasm between their ethnic, social and economic backgrounds which seems impossible to bridge although it’s Paz who’s the breadwinner in their American household. Castillo captures the insularity of a community in which the many signals of where each member sits in Filipino society are present and correct, evoking it particularly vividly in Rosalyn’s fury at her own ignorance when she contemplates moving out of Milpitas. The characterisation is strong – Hero and Rosalyn are polar opposites yet their relationship feels entirely credible. And Castillo writes about sex well, unafraid to use a bit of humour – not an easy feat to pull off as winners of the Bad Sex Award will no doubt tell you. Just one criticism, I could have done with a glossary. Lots of googling interrupted the reading flow for me. That said, Castillo’s debut is entertaining, engrossing and enlightening. Can’t say better than that.