Finding Common Themes in Four Books About Immigrants
Immigration has been a hot topic this campaign season and, as the spouse of an immigrant, I get frustrated with the misinformation, distrust and xenophobia that’s been dominating the national conversation.
What is life really like for immigrants? Obviously there isn’t a universal experience, but we can turn to fiction to help us discover some common themes among the different categories of immigrants. Read these four award-winning books to get a glimpse of the lives of a variety of immigrants.
1) The Refugee: The Sympathizer by Viet Thang Nguyen
The 2016 Pulitzer prize winner follows the story of a Vietnamese man who is an undercover communist agent during the Vietnam War. A large portion of the story is set in California where the main character lives as a refugee with other Vietnamese who are having to endure the transition of having been esteemed military leaders and are now forced to live unassuming and impoverished lives in the U.S. This is definitely a common theme among refugees and immigrants who end up in America and have to start all over again. This time from the very bottom.
2) The Immigrant Without a Visa: The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
Winner of the Man Booker Prize, this book follows the lives of two Indians, including one who is an immigrant living and working in the U.S. illegally. This novel does an excellent job of debunking the fantasy of many immigrants that they will make tons of money quickly in the U.S. and can either send money home or just move back home. This is hard to do even when you have a visa, but even harder if you’re not legally able to work.
3) The Student Visa: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi
Americanah (winner of the National Book Critics Circle award) is a novel about an immigrant from Nigeria
on a student visa, which is a good contrast to the story of the visa-less immigrant. As great of an opportunity as it may be to get a visa to study in the United States, one common problem students have is that they have no way to legally earn money even while in school. Only the most privileged of us are able to get through college without working a part-time (or full-time) job at the same time. When I shared parts of the book with my husband he would say, “that’s too real.” This quote was one of those.
They would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness.
4) The Immigrant, Permanent Resident, Naturalized Citizen: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpar Lahiri
The final category is of those immigrants who live and work in the United States legally and may even have become citizens. Lahiri’s Pulitzer-winning collection of short stories focuses on the lives of Indian immigrants, but reading the stories I could relate to the challenges and themes as a wife of an Eastern European immigrant. The stories focus a lot on learning to live in a new, vastly different culture than your own, which is something most immigrants will experience.