As in 2014 and 2015, these books on our annual list weren’t necessarily published in 2016. Rather, this is an opportunity for contributors and guest contributors to share their favorite migration related reads of the year with our readers. – The Editors.
Stacy Jones – Two years ago, actress Diane Guerrero made headlines when she announced to the world that her parents and older brother had all been deported when she was just 14 years old. Best known for her roles as Maritza on “Orange is the New Black” and Lina on “Jane the Virgin,” Guerrero was born in the United States after her parents and older brother immigrated from Colombia. Growing up in New Jersey and then in the Boston area, Guerrero and her family were always aware of their precarious legal situation. Her parents made attempts over the years to “fix” their status, sometimes spending all of their savings on what turned out to be unscrupulous notarios who stole their money without actually filing any paperwork. Guerrero poignantly describes in her memoir, In the Country We Love, the day she came home from school to find dinner half-cooked on the stove and her family disappeared. Her friends’ families generously took her in so she could finish high school in Boston. As Guerrero points out, no government officials ever checked up on the U.S. citizen teenager left behind when her parents were detained and deported. Guerrero continues to relate her experience of being separated from her family during her formative years, the ensuing depression she suffered and self-harm she engaged in, before finding her calling as an actress and landing her first big role on “OITNB.” She ends the book with a rousing “Call to Action,” citing numerous statistics about, for example, the large number of U.S. citizen children who have an undocumented parent – children for whom she says she wrote this book, so that other youths might not feel as alone as she did, bearing the burden of hiding her family’s secrets for so many years. Guerrero writes, “Behind every one of the headlines, there is a family. A mother and father. An innocent child. A real-life story that’s both deeply painful and rarely told.” This is a brave and important book, and hopefully Guerrero will continue to use her growing celebrity status to raise awareness about these critical issues.
Claire Ellis – In an op-ed for the New York Times, writer Yaa Gyasi and author of Homegoing examined what it means to be black in America and the tension of her Ghanaian immigrant identity. “I had no memory of life back home”, she writes, “to claim Ghana over America felt false, but to claim an America that seemed hell bent on rejecting me felt ludicrous.” This duality, mired in race politics, transnational identity, and what Gyasi describes as the ‘fullness’ of slavery’s legacy, finds embodiment throughout her poignant debut novel, Homegoing. The book chronicles a genealogical line that connects 18th century Ghana to present day California, spending time with each descendant in self-contained yet interconnected personal stories. What stands out in Homegoing is Gyasi’s attentiveness to the complexity of love and family life throughout a winding cross-section of historical events. As the characters navigate the unrelenting tides of slavery, forced migration, segregation, and today’s entrenched racism, they also confront heartbreak, jealousy, desire, and the inexplicable pull of kinship. With lyricism Gyasi folds moments of tender affection and striking acts of violence into the hum of time and daily life. Notably, she calls attention to the entanglement of power that commodified human beings, which implicates both her own Ghanaian heritage and the colonial forces that ignited an economic enterprise and embedded lasting hardship into a global diaspora. In a time where the phrase ‘black lives matter’ still faces opposition and debate, Homegoing is an essential read.
Tom McLean – Viet Thanh Nguyen’s first novel The Sympathizer turns the tables on American film and literature’s engagement with the Vietnam War, showing the war and its aftermath from a complex Vietnamese perspective. The unnamed narrator, born of a Vietnamese mother and French priest father, is educated in the United States but supports the communists, becoming a mole in the South Vietnamese army and, after the fall of Saigon, keeping an eye on a former South Vietnamese general in southern California. I wasn’t completely comfortable with the novel’s changes in tone, and at times the writing is a little overdone, but Nguyen handles his narrator’s complicated and contradictory relationship with two nations with remarkable skill. The scenes set in 1970s and 1980s California, as the narrator finds his way among the Vietnamese exile community, are especially memorable.
Amy Grenier – I read John Steinbeck’s classics East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath in 2016, both of which shot to the top of my list of all time favorite reads. They’re brilliant works of American literature worth reading, and I should not have been surprised to see themes of migration within the pages Steinbeck’s California. In East of Eden, one of the characters, Lee, was born in the United States to Chinese laborers. Lee has a prominent role as the servant and friend of Adam, as well as parental figure to Adam’s children. Early in the book, Lee reveals that his broken English is a farce. In a conversation with Samuel, an Irish immigrant, Lee explains, “Pidgin they expect, and pidgin they’ll listen to. But English from me they don’t listen to, and so they don’t understand it.” Speaking of Samuel’s own migrant background, he observes, “[a]nd in a few years you can almost disappear; while I, who was born in Grass Valley, went to school and several years to the University of California, have no chance of mixing.” In just a couple of pages, this exchange encapsulated so much about integration and migration in the United States, especially in the early twentieth century.
In Grapes of Wrath, cited among one of the reasons for Steinbeck’s 1962 Nobel Prize in literature, Steinbeck chronicles a family’s journey from Oklahoma to California (and within California) during the dustbowl. It’s a period of American history not usually reached in American public schools, which is a shame because the widespread poverty of the era shaped so much of our modern social support systems. Notably, states set up border crossing checkpoints, subjecting American citizens to search and questioning to cross state lines, with an effort to turn back the poor seeking work. Once in California, the family is subject to slurs (“Oakies”) and extreme labor exploitation, as in the era before labor regulation, it is a race to the bottom. It’s not hard to draw the parallels to modern migration patterns, both internationally and domestically. Both books are interesting windows into an earlier era of migration and integration – and into how much we have not changed on our assumptions and treatment of migrants.
Paul McDaniel – As in the past, I’ve been continuing to read about cities and metropolitan areas as places of immigrant and refugee settlement and integration, and as receiving communities. Two books I read this year, that were also published in 2016, were particularly informative. Unsettled Americans: Metropolitan Context and Civic Leadership for Immigrant Integration, edited by John Mollenkopf and Manuel Pastor, published by Cornell University Press, includes chapters by several immigration scholars. The book offers a systematic comparative study of immigrant integration at the metropolitan scale through synthesizing chapters as well as chapters about seven specific metropolitan areas, including three traditional, continuous immigrant receiving areas (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles), and four newer immigrant settlement areas (Southern California’s Inland Empire east of Los Angeles, Charlotte, Phoenix, and San Jose). This book is a significant contribution to the ongoing conversation about immigration federalism and the different ways in which sub-national governments respond to changing dynamics of immigrant settlement, integration, and receptivity, with an important focus on the metropolitan scale.
Making Immigrant Rights Real: Nonprofits and the Politics of Integration in San Francisco, by Els de Graauw, also published by Cornell University Press, explores three case studies of immigrant rights policies in San Francisco—municipal ID cards, labor rights, and language access—and the advocacy strategies nonprofit organizations employed, despite constraints and limitations imposed on nonprofits, to propose, enact, and implement such policies. Advocacy strategies the book describes include: administrative advocacy, cross-sectoral and cross-organizational collaborations, and strategic issue framing. Other cities and the institutions within them experiencing changing population dynamics in part due to immigrant settlement can draw on the lessons and experiences de Graauw presents in this book.