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10 books to help you understand immigration

By Austin Bailey September 3, 2019

Watchers of politics and society at large surely noticed the hungry chasm between inclusion and division threatening to swallow up the United States in 2019. Immigration polarized a populace already sliced and diced by issues of race, economic disparity and the urban/rural divide. And the enmity filtered into every corner, like sand in the sheets. Whether we’re more divided than ever or just paying more attention to it is up for the pundits to quibble over. In the meantime, it’s worth noting that clashes over Confederate statues rage on across the country and parents and doctors go toe-to-toe in the vaccine debates. Good luck finding anywhere to escape all the anger and charged rhetoric: Even the once close-knit crafting community needs darning after populists and progressives took their battle to Ravelry, a social media platform for the yarn-obsessed (and no longer a safe space for white supremacy).

Whether you’re retreating to your corner after a few rounds in the pen or simply watching in dismay from the stands, you could probably use some quiet reading time. And maybe you want some guidance on how to navigate the fervent divisions by which this calendar year will surely be remembered. Luckily, plenty of authors are stepping up with books about the challenges and perks of diversity in race, nationality, religion and sexual orientation.

The immigration question, arguably the most divisive of them all, factors heavily into Heifer International’s work. Heifer’s projects in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico, Honduras and Haiti all aim to help families make a go of it at home. Project participants are growing coffee and cardamom, distilling artisanal mezcal, dyeing cotton and otherwise cultivating agricultural and small-business opportunities so people don’t have to leave their families behind to find work in other countries. Still, an untold number of families without such opportunities find themselves with little choice but to leave, and people in the United States must decide how, or if, we will take these families in. Europeans face the same question as immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa continue to arrive.

The 10 books listed here, a mix of fiction and non-fiction, explore the migrant experience in different parts of the world and from multiple points of view. Any would be delicious food for thought for readers starved for understanding about the tensions and divisions at our holiday tables, on social media and across the country at large. Some of these books will fit nicely on your holiday shopping list, and some of them you might want to gift to yourself.  

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
A Vietnam origin story written from Connecticut, this short novel earned loads of attention and praise upon its June debut. The book is written in the form of a letter from a son to his illiterate mother as an attempt to make sense of his upbringing shaped by mental illness, cultural isolation and salvation in education.

Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World
Rockstar journalist Christiane Amanpour pens the foreword to this collection of essays by female journalists blazing new trails in the Middle East. Much like Alice Driver, a female journalist covering the US/Mexico border, the journalists in Our Women on the Ground overcome sexual harassment, physical threats and other obstacles unique to their gender to capture what would otherwise be the untold stories of girls and women in a culture that keeps them under wraps.

Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob
This quirky, charming and poignant graphic novel by an Indian-American writer married to a Jewish man and raising a biracial son spotlights the unique tensions in interracial families.

This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto by Suketa Mehta
Born in India and raised in New York City, the author worked for years as an international journalist and witnessed anti-immigrant backlash around the globe. Mehta surmises that colonialism and inequality have made immigration inevitable, and that we need immigrants for our economy and society to flourish.

The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You by Dina Nayeri
There are more than 25 million refugees in the world, and author Dina Nayeri wants readers to know what their experiences are like. Herself a refugee from Iran who fled at age 8 and grew up in Oklahoma, Nayeri pushes back on the characterization of asylum seekers as criminals and trouble makers by sharing individual stories of people who have to escape their own homes.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
By the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer, this short story collection published in 2017 explores immigration, family and identity.

Exiled: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to California and Back by Katya Cengel
The author follows four families facing deportation 40 years after their arrival in the United States. Cengel traces their paths of escape from torture and war in Vietnam and Cambodia to their struggle to build new lives on the West Coast.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
This book follows an artist and her beekeeper husband who escape war-torn Syria in hopes of rejoining family in England. Although it’s a work of fiction, the author draws material from two summers spent volunteering at a refugee camp in Athens.

A Grain of Rice by Nhung N. Tran-Davies
A 13-year-old and his family flee Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in this book for young adults based on the author’s real experience. 

Manuelito by Elisa Amado
Surging violence in the Guatemalan countryside convinces his parents to send the main character to live with his aunt in the United States in this graphic novel geared for readers ages 12 and up. Manuelito journeys through Mexico by bus and across the border seeking asylum. The author, a longtime advocate for migrant children, sheds light on the experiences of the thousands of children fleeing danger in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

 

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