Below are our favorite immigration reads of 2015. They range from fiction to non-fiction to short stories and memoir, and are geared to varying degrees of relaxation and contemplation for the library of migrationists everywhere. These books were not necessarily published in 2015, simply read this year by a regular contributor or guest contributor, and enjoyed enough to share with you. You can also read 2014’s “Favorite Immigration Reads” list here.
Amy Grenier – I spent a couple of weeks traveling in Mexico in August before going to law school. While looking for books about Mexico, I found Luis Alberto Urrea’s Into the Beautiful North, a coming-of-age novel about a young woman in a remote village in Mexico who travels to the United States to bring the men back to her town. It’s a really interesting, if somewhat fantastical story that winds along buses and cars from rural coastal Mexico to Ohio and explores the dynamic between the women who stay behind and the men who go North. Around the same time, I also read Urrea’s more well known nonfiction book, the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Devil’s Highway. This one also deals with the U.S.-Mexico border and an incident in 2001 where only 12 of a group of 26 border crossers survived the Arizona desert. Like Into the Beautiful North, this book has beautifully written prose, but it is filled with, as Publisher’s Weekly described it, “righteous rage” that is contagious to the reader. If you have any interest in border politics or immigration in the United States and you haven’t read this work, I highly recommend it.
Amy Clarke – This was the year when I finally got round to joining a book club, a successful attempt to get me to commit to reading more fiction. With that in mind rather than focusing on non-on fiction migration reads I’m choosing the easy-reader Mr Rosenblum’s List: or Friendly Guidance for the Aspiring Englishman by Natasha Solomons as my migration read of 2015. Suggested to the book club for its topicality as the summer’s migrant ‘crisis’ peaked the book tells the touching, albeit whimsical, story of German born Jew Jack Rosenblum’s quest for acceptance as an ‘English Gentleman’ in postwar England. Despite its presentation as an old-fashioned comedy – the cover describes the book as “hilarious”, “utterly charming”, and “very funny” – the whimsical simplicity of the plot line overlies something darker and much more serious. The humorous elements of the book sit alongside anything-but-hilarious stories of prejudice, intolerance and anti-Semitism, to which Mr Rosenblum, is painfully oblivious. It is a touching and charming tale, yes, but with serious undertones.
Rachel Scott – Philippe Legrain’s Immigrants- Your Country Needs Them is an all encompassing exploration of the economic impact of migration. I love this book for two reasons. The first is that it is entirely devoid of economic jargon. You know the kind of thing that makes you feel like you are a 7 year old who has just woken up and found yourself in a post-grad MIT maths exam. And there are no equations or graphs that you are pretty sure must have been written when a cat wandered over and sat on the the keyboard. In short this is a book about economics which you can read without falling asleep. Legrain uses personal anecdotes and examples from around the world to argue his case, making this a colourful and entertaining read. The second thing I love about this book is the conclusion. That immigration is good for the economy. And not a narrow selective type of immigration, like only letting in people who have fantastic STEM degrees. After exploring the consequences of low skill migration, high skill migration (both for the host and country of origin), employment rates, welfare impacts, and cultural and social cohesion for good measure, Legrain concludes that open migration makes the most sense. And after reading his book it is hard not to agree.
Stacy Jones – In addition to Immigration Stories, I finally read Zadie Smith’s acclaimed 2000 novel White Teeth this summer and wondered why it had taken me so long to pick it up. Smith’s own experience being born in London to a white English father and Jamaican immigrant mother no doubt informed at least one of the intertwining story lines woven into her multifaceted debut, which relates the tales of both first and second generation UK immigrants over the course of several decades. The book explores the immigrant experience from multiple perspectives through the stories of Englishman Archie Jones’s near-lifelong friendship with Bangladeshi immigrant Samad Iqbal, Archie’s marriage to Jamaican Clara Bowden, and the experiences of both families’ children growing up in the country their fathers fought for during World War II. Having read White Teeth around the same time that my book club was reading last year’s Migrationist favorite Americanah, I was struck by the similar themes examined in both books regarding immigration, race, and class, despite the authors’ and characters’ different backgrounds. Perhaps, then, it is not so surprising that I enjoyed this book as much as I did, and I’d recommend the two books be read together for a thought-provoking comparison.
Paul McDaniel – Like last year, I’ve been continuing to read about cities and metropolitan areas as places of immigrant and refugee settlement and integration and as receiving communities. One book I’ve been reading in 2015 to inform my broader research about immigrant and refugee receiving communities and “welcoming cities” is Immigrant Geographies of North American Cities, edited by geographers Carlos Teixeira, Wei Li, and Audrey Kobayashi. As an edited volume, each chapter is written by different immigration scholars. What makes this book unique is that each chapter is co-authored by both a researcher from Canada and a researcher from the United States. Both the United States and Canada are considered major destinations for large numbers of international migrants who over time have shaped the historical, social, political, cultural, and economic landscapes of both countries. As such, the chapters in this book examine various issues of migration, immigration, and settlement in urban areas from a geographical perspective, focusing on three broad areas: the internationalization of North American cities and suburbs; the imprint of immigration on North American cities and suburbs, and immigrant groups in North American cities and suburbs. Through a comparative approach, this book offers a deeper understanding of the complex spatial, social, political, and economic factors impacting immigration and refugee policies along with immigrants’ experiences in North America’s dynamic urban landscapes.
Erin Phelps – I love short story collections and am enamored by the topic of transnational families, and the two come together beautifully in Mia Alvar’s In the Country. The collection, Alvar’s fiction debut, is stunning in its ability to explore elements of Filipino migration – memories of home, familial separation, labor, and identity- with range and specificity. The diaspora threads its way through each story, with characters that include a young pharmacist returning from the US to visit his dying father, a special education teacher caring for the child of a wealthy woman in Bahrain, and an aging American model seeking work in Manila. Each story shines in its narrative voice and ability to traverse uneasy emotional and moral territory without ever simplifying or smoothing over painful experiences. Just as much as the collection highlights a common search for home, identity, and placemaking, while considering the dichotomous role migration has played in the Philippines’ history, Alvar’s diverse cast of characters also reminds me of the uniqueness of the migrant experience and the unrelenting negotiation that cannot be easily resolved by the end of a story. The title character in my personal favorite, “Esmeralda,” is a deeply religious Filipino domestic worker in New York City in 2001. I’ve read many a story and study about the experience of immigrant domestic workers in the urban United States, but Alvar’s ability to paint a picture that is both beautiful and tragic- as well as her use of a somewhat shocking twist that I won’t reveal here- made this among my favorite fictional accounts of migration.
Tom McLean – Zia Haider Rahman’s 2014 novel In the Light of What We Know was the most remarkable book I read this year. Set mostly between the aftermath of September 11, 2001 and the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, the novel defies easy summary. In conversations with an old friend, the main character, Zafar, tells his story, from childhood in rural Bangladesh, to the discomforts of class-obsessed Oxford and on to his troubling experiences among the soul-destroying NGO communities of post-war Afghanistan. Along the way, Zafar’s rich digressions range from the 1971 Bangladesh War of Liberation to the Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. Rahman fits in a genealogy of literary exile that runs from Joseph Conrad to Walter Sebald, but his novel of big ideas is also a moving study of individual relationships shaped by class, race, anger, and love.
Keeya-Lee Ayre – In a happy accident while on my honeymoon in Mauritius last month, I discovered Katy Robinson’s 2002 novel A Single Square Picture: A Korean Adoptee’s Search for Her Roots (because it was the only English book in the communal library and my brain wanted a small reprieve from French). Robinson’s novel is deeply personal, beautifully written and thought-provoking. It details her experiences as a seven-year-old Korean child, taken away to the United States and raised by an adoptive family in Utah. Then, Robinson takes the reader with her back to Korea two decades later to attempt to more fully understand herself by rediscovering her roots. It probes the depths of what we mean when we talk about the concepts of identity, family, culture and heritage. In this work Robinson is able to share her journey in a raw and relatable way that makes the reader feel as though they are being carried along with her; experiencing every heart-wrenching turn, tasting every flavour and seeing every colour through her eyes. I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in the impacts of international adoption, displacement or child migration (or anyone just looking for a genuine and personal narrative to dive into).
While these links are all to amazon due to the international nature of our blog, don’t forget about your local independent bookstore!
If you are based in the United States, you can find your nearest independent bookstore here.