If you’re anything like me, you mine these end-of-the-year book lists for your 2015 “to-read” list. So here’s an immigration-themed to-read list from the contributors here at The Migrationist that spans both fiction and non-fiction. There’s some themes – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is mentioned by several of us, author W.G. Sebald got multiple shout outs. In some cases, our favorite reads reflected our larger research projects this year, such as Paul’s ongoing research on cities and Samantha’s graduate thesis on Central American street gangs and migratory patterns. Of the many books we collectively read this year related to immigration, these are The Migrationist’s most recommended. – A. Grenier
Stacy Jones – I made a conscious effort this year to read more books by and/or about Africans and discovered three amazing and very different new favorites. In the spring, I finally got around to reading What is the What, a “novel” by Dave Eggers based on the true story of “Lost Boy” Valentino Achak Deng’s harrowing and inspirational flight from Sudan to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya and eventual resettlement in the U.S. Next up was We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo, the tale of 10-year-old Darling’s life in Zimbabwe and journey to live with her aunt in America. And I just finished reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s incredible Americanah, a sprawling novel about two Nigerians’ varying experiences with immigration, culture shock, race, identity, and love, as they live in the U.S. and England before returning home. I thoroughly enjoyed all three of these books while also learning about parts of the world that are unfamiliar to me, and highly recommend them to anyone interested in immigration, or just a good story.
Amy Grenier – I really liked Adichie’s Americanah as well, especially as an exploration of the different experiences of race within the United States. In the non-fiction realm, I really enjoyed The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas by Anand Giridharadas. It’s the story of Raisuddin Bhuiyan, a Bangladeshi immigrant, and Mark Stroman, a white American. After 9/11, Stroman shot several immigrants at gas stations around Dallas who he thought were “Arabs.” He was eventually tried, convicted, and sent to death row. Bhuiyan, who was one of Stroman’s victims, survived and ended up fighting against the death penalty for Stroman and becoming an activist. It’s an excellent, very readable story of the complexities of race, religion, and the immigrant experience in the United States.
Paul McDaniel – I’ve been continuing to read much this year about cities and metropolitan areas as immigrant destinations and immigrant receiving communities. One chapter in The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy, by the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, particularly stood out to me. The chapter describes the work of a community-based organization, Neighborhood Centers, in Houston, Texas, helping strengthen immigrant integration in the Houston metro area. Another book I enjoyed is Nashville in the New Millennium: Immigrant Settlement, Urban Transformation, and Social Belonging, by geographer Jamie Winders. This book, based on Winders’ extensive field work in Nashville, a new immigrant destination without a long history of receiving immigrant populations, paints a compelling portrait of the changing geography of immigrant settlement in the United States. Winders also published a fascinating article, “New Immigrant Destinations in Global Context“, in the International Migration Review. In this article, Winders argues that by expanding the frame of reference for the study of new immigrant destinations we can gain greater insight into the ways new geographies of immigrant settlement around the world are re-shaping understandings of contemporary migration processes.
Erin Phelps – Oh man, I thought I was going to be real original with Americanah. I am a big fan of Jhumpa Lahiri, whose stories always give unique insight into experiences of migration, separation, and finding home in new lands. Her most recent novel, The Lowland, is at the same time a story of sibling relationships, a lesson in contemporary Indian history, and a painful meditation on the role of migration in dividing and shaping a family for generations. I also wrote a review of Aviva Chomsky’s Undocumented earlier this year, which I have enjoyed passing around to friends interested in understanding the history of “illegal” immigration in the US. It’s an accessible starting point for learning about the context of our current national discussion on immigration.
Samantha Howland – Most of the year I was finishing up my graduate thesis on the relationship between Central American street gangs and migratory patterns, so a lot of the reading I did was centered on that topic. A particularly interesting book is “Space of Detention: The Making of a Transnational Gang Crisis between Los Angeles and San Salvador,” by Elana Zilberg. It provides a really foundational background to understanding this crisis and the unintended or unanticipated consequences that the region is seeing now such as security issues, the flight of child migrants, and the challenges in the U.S. court systems.
Lali Foster – This year began my delayed obsession with German writer W.G. Sebald. Delayed, because I wish I’d been reading him ages ago – such has been his effect on me. Sebald’s Austerlitz (which I wrote about here) and The Emigrants are his most obvious explorations of the emotional experience of migration and loss, but his entire body of work is concerned with belonging, exile and memory. Reading about the democracy protests in Hong Kong introduced me to The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos who writes in crisp (and deceptively simple) prose on China. Osnos’ experience of Europe from a Chinese tour bus was a highlight of my non-fiction reading year. More depressingly, my Australia-focused reading has seen some of our best commentators tackle Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers which has proven to be ‘one of the most divisive political issues in Australia’s recent political history’.
Tom McLean – I picked up Nadine Gordimer’s 1956 story collection Six Feet of the Country at a book sale this year, not long after her death in July. Many of Gordimer’s protagonists are (white) visitors and immigrants navigating their way through the complexities of South Africa’s ethnic and class diversity. In the best stories, like “The Smell of Death and Flowers” and the title story, the private and political mix together in a way one rarely sees in mid-century Anglophone literature. I look forward to reading more of Gordimer’s stories in 2015.
W.G. Sebald’s 1995 The Rings of Saturn was a perfect and unexpected travel companion during a week in Tasmania. As Sebald’s narrator wanders the back roads of Suffolk, the author mingles memoir, history, and travelogue in a remarkable way. Whether the topic is silk cultivation in Germany or the stories behind Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, questions of migration, memory, and belonging are always present. In doing so, Sebald made me think about the tragic colonial history of Tasmania (and by extension that of all the British settler colonies) in a new light. More on that soon… Or maybe not. After reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s fine essay about the complexities of species migration in New Zealand, I wondered why I even bother to write. Run don’t walk to the New Yorker website and read it.
And if you don’t have time to read a novel, short story or long essay (but of course you do), you surely have time to see a great film. Three great and recent films that meditated in different ways on many of the themes we explore at the Migrationist were Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, and Wim Wender’s and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado’s breathtaking documentary The Salt of the Earth.