Not all writers think of migrants as a “faceless brown mass”. Indeed, if there is one thing that readers should take away from the ill-fated release of the over-hyped American Dirt, it is that the stories of migrants and refugees have been and are continuing to be told by writers around the world, richly, with nuance, and without relying on trite stereotypes.
We asked the authors of some of our favorite novels about immigrants and migration to recommend an alternative reading list to American Dirt. Here are their selections.
Viet Thanh Nguyen
Luis Alberto Urrea’s The House of Broken Angels is the Latinx novel that Oprah should have picked for her book club. The novel has it all – humor, history, politics, emotions, all packaged into a highly readable account of a Mexican American family that straddles the border of the United States and Mexico. This is the Great American Novel, if by “American” we mean the greater America that is both north and south of the border. Urrea is an expert on the border and migration, having spent years and many books exploring these topics. He combines that intimate knowledge with a master novelist’s flair to pull us into a family whose struggles have historical roots but whose feelings are ones that we all know – love, loss and longing.
Elaine Castillo’s America is Not the Heart has a special place in my heart because it’s set in the 408 – the area code for the south bay of the Bay Area. The Bay is dominated by San Francisco, but the 408 is the less than glamorous land of bedroom communities including Castillo’s Milpitas and my San Jose. Castillo, of Filipina descent herself, focuses on the lives of documented and undocumented Filipina/os and traces their origins to the impact of American colonization in the Philippines and the US support for the martial law regime of Ferdinand Marcos. While politics and revolution form the background of the novel, the foreground is all about the power, pleasure and peril of kinship and romance, set in a beautifully, intimately drawn portrait of the Filipino American community. Plus lots of hot queer sex.
Luis Alberto Urrea
The crisis of representation and appropriation ignited by American Dirt has made my mind turn to scores of worthy books in every genre about this issue. It would be nearly impossible for me to suggest *the book* on this subject. But one of the books that weighs on my mind is this moving work of witness by Tim Hernandez, All They Will Call You. He tells a forgotten story about the fate of a group of migrants, deported by the US government in 1948, who died in the worst airplane disaster in California history. The thing that haunts me is his care for the stories of the dead, his refusal to allow those human beings to be forgotten. It is a quintessential migrant story, which makes it a truly American story.
Urrea is the author of 17 books, including Nguyen’s top pick above, the short story collection The Water Museum, The Devil’s Highway, a Pulitzer finalist in non-fiction, and several volumes of poetry.
I highly recommend Bang by Daniel Peña, Butterfly Boy by Rigoberto González, Mean by Myriam Gurba and The Moths and Other Stories by Helena María Viramontes, all of which are by Chicano writers who have dedicated themselves to researching, exploring and writing about and around the border and immigration. I read Viramontes as an undergrad. Her work was being taught in a sociology class. In my creative writing and lit classes I was taught writers like Simpson, Gaitskill and Atwood. All of whom were writers in the same generation as Viramontes but stocked on different shelves in the bookstores. And this is obviously a problem because Viramontes’ stories are innovative, acute and beautifully written and if published today, one hopes her collection wouldn’t have had to include a long academic introduction to create context and validity for her work and instead would have been reviewed and celebrated in mainstream literary spaces for the explosive content, the nuanced characters and her singular literary style.
Another work I’m excited about by a storyteller who works for the stage is Andrea Thome’s Fandango for Butterflies (and Coyotes). If you are in NYC you don’t want to miss the show that tells the story of undocumented immigrants coming together for a fandango on the evening of an Ice raid in New York City, as they wait for a loved one to arrive from Honduras. Inspired by interviews with undocumented immigrants from Latin America living in New York, the piece will be a community celebration where stories are brought to life through live performance, music and dance.
Cruz is the author of three novels, including Dominicana, about a child forced to marry in order to secure her family’s future in America.
I would like to suggest two very different books.
Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North is a novel about a young man going from Sudan to Europe. He studies, immerses himself in a different culture, and comes back changed, both angry and anger-inducing, but also perplexed and deeply unsettled. It’s a seminal text, not of the migrant who assimilates and achieves the so-called dream, but of the migrant who goes and comes back. There’s a very strong awareness in this book about the sexualisation of the migrant and the self-exoticisation that occurs, but also about the impossibility of return. You can go back to where you come from but the person who goes back is no longer the person who left. That is a theme we see echoing again and again across migrant fiction. It’s important to remember that we need antidotes to the idea that migrant fiction is simply people going north or going west. Very often, it’s people who willingly or unwillingly have to return, altered, to where they began.
Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic is an incredible work on multiple levels. It tells the story of a generation of women, a shipload of Japanese wives who head to California, employing a first person plural, which is very unusual. We sometimes hear about the danger in fiction of a writer depicting a group as a ‘faceless mass’, or of presuming to speak for an entire group through underhanded means. Otsuka’s book is remarkable: it does speak for a group but uses form to subvert and interrogate that critique. The narrative voice that emerges is of a group of people with constantly individualized particulars. That’s a very difficult task to pull off but I think Otsuka succeeds magnificently. I would suggest this book as an antidote to the limited imaginings of what we think a narrative can be and as a reminder of the power of literary fiction to unlock some of those puzzles. It’s truly a unique and awe-inspiring book.
Matt de la Peña
I’ll never forget the visceral experience I had the first time I read Luis Alberto Urrea’s powerful The Devil’s Highway. I was living in Brooklyn, NY, and my wife and I were expecting our first child. Back then I was reading a lot of books set on the Mexican border. Having grown up in a border community myself, I think it was my way of staying connected to home. We used to make the short drive into Tijuana frequently when I was young, to visit family, and I remember staring outside the windows of our Volkswagen Vanagon, fascinated by how drastically everything changed the second we officially left San Diego and entered Mexico. But it was The Devil’s Highway that woke me up to the political travesties surrounding this barrier between the two countries. I was so shaken by Urrea’s brutal account of 26 men and their passage across the border, into the Arizona desert, that as soon as I finished, I started again. This time I listened to the audiobook, read by Urrea himself, as I pushed my sleeping newborn around Prospect Park in a stroller. It was on these walks, listening to The Devil’s Highway, staring at my baby girl, that I realized all writing is political writing. And my own work was forever changed.
De la Peña’s books for young adults include Mexican WhiteBoy and We Were Here. He has also written several books for younger readers, including the Newbery Medal winning Last Stop on Market Street.
“We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings.” Hannah Arendt wrote these words in the 1943 essay We Refugees.
I think of these words when I read immigrant stories to remind myself of what an honest story owes to the reader. Has the author struggled over these private and subtle calculations? Does she understand these specific indignities? Or does she want to portray the drama for the entertainment of others? The books below impressed me because they understood deeper truths about displaced lives. They honored immigrants even in humiliating moments, instead of exploiting their stories.
Years ago, I read Dinaw Mengestu’s novels The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, and All Our Names in quick succession. Both are stories of Ethiopian men struggling to make a new life in DC and Chicago, to find companionship and love, despite poverty, the heartbreak of a ravaged home, and so much American hostility. Both novels show well-meaning American women who, as they try to help, trample on the men’s dignity, safety and much else.
99 Nights in Logar by Jamil Jan Kochai is so well rooted in the Afghan narrator’s voice and experience, it goes beyond empathy, transporting the reader. It ignores the western gaze and tells the story the way its subjects need it to be told. The result is funny and sharp and devastating. One chapter, a private family story, is written in Pashto – because it isn’t meant for everyone.
Catherine Chung’s Forgotten Country is gorgeously written and full of heart. And that’s another way to honor the subject matter: write it well. Bother to learn the craft (as many have failed to do). Chung’s book is about sisters, family loyalty and war. It is illuminating and sensory and the characters come alive in the care of a precise and compassionate author who has made a lifelong study of her craft.
Nayeri is the author of two novels, Refuge and A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, as well as the memoir The Ungrateful Refugee.
These recently published or upcoming books for children and young adults are part of a larger dialogue about immigrant realities and migrant justice that was taking place before the American Dirt fiasco. It must be acknowledged that there is no one definitive migrant story but many and must include not only Mexican voices but the many voices of migrants to the United States.
Picture books: My Shoes and I by René Colato Laínez; Where Are You From? by Yamile Saied Méndez; Dreamers by Yuyi Morales.
Middle grade: Gaby, Lost and Found by Angela Cervantes; Front Desk by Kelly Yang; Other Words For Home by Jasmine Warga; Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros and my book, Land of the Cranes.
Young adult: All the Stars Denied by Guadalupe Garcia McCall; Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer by Alberto Ledesma; The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande; American Street by Ibi Zoboi; Illegal by Francisco X Stork; The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante; We Are Not From Here by Jenny Torres Sanchez; Lobizona by Romina Russell; Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland; Indivisible by Daniel Aleman.