Tag Archives: The Americans

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?

The Americans by Chitra Viraraghavan: A sense of belonging

Cover imageI’m fascinated by fiction about the immigrant experience. From Meera Syal’s Anita and Me and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane to Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Americanah and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, novels can tell you so much about the way immigrants see their adoptive country and the way it sees them, helping the rest of us understand the dislocation of not quite belonging to one culture or the other. This is the territory that Chitra Viraraghavan’s The Americans explores through eleven immigrants – both first and second generation – scattered across the USA, all with a connection to Tara Kumar who is visiting from Madras.

For some reason I’d thought The Americans was a set of linked short stories when I included it in my September preview but it’s firmly introduced as a novel on its jacket and that’s how it reads, although not the kind that lends itself to the usual brief recap. It roams far and wide across the US – from Chicago to Portland, Boston to L.A. – telling the stories of a widely disparate set of people. CLN is an elderly widower with whom Tara strikes up a conversation on his way to his first visit to his daughter in Chicago. Lavi is the fifteen-year-old niece – all hormones and crushes – Tara goes to Kentucky to look after while her sister takes her autistic eight-year-old son for treatment in New Jersey. Shantanu is the uncle, illegally in the US and entangled in the criminal web of his boss, who Tara hopes to visit. Akhil is the misfit whose worried parents have asked Tara to check on while Madhulika is the friend in Portland whose arranged marriage is floundering. These are a few of the characters in Viraraghavan’s wide-ranging novel, each of whom has a story to tell – some run-of-the-mill, others not so – all linked back to Tara who, of course, has her own tale. 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.

With so many interwoven narrative strands, each busy with characters, there’s a danger that The Americans might have run away with itself but Viraraghavan manages to keep it all under control, neatly linking each strand back to Tara’s. Only Akhil’s seemed a little strained perhaps because it’s both more dramatic and tangential than most of the others. Viraraghavan explores a wide range of experience, from Tara’s wealthy sister who employs both a housekeeper and a cleaner, to Shantanu, who risks everything despite his expired visa to protect a trafficked young woman. Instances of casual racism, both directed at the Indian characters and by them at others, are all delivered convincingly and with a light touch. While the typescript book reports scattered through the narratives jarred a little, they’re neatly tied in to Tara’s own story at the end of the novel. Well worth reading, although I suspect that it won’t get the attention it deserves. And well done HarperCollins for publishing it straight into affordable paperback.