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New Fiction from New Immigrants

by Carol Jackson

*This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of RA News.*

Novels about immigrants have long been a valuable part of literature. Willa Cather’s My Antonia and Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rolvaag gave insight into the issues and emotions facing immigrants to the United States. In recent years, literature has seen a welcome explosion in fiction about the contemporary immigrant experience. Written by first- or second-generation immigrants, these novels speak personally about what it means to leave one’s homeland for a new world. 

The Secret Side of Empty by Maria E. Andreu 
ISBN: 9780762451920
Monserrat Thalia (M.T. for short) is finishing up her senior year of high school. While her classmates are anticipating college, she dreads the end of high school for one reason: M.T. is "illegal". Her parents came to America from Argentina as undocumented immigrants when she was a baby. She has no legal papers, and that means no college, no jobs, and no future. Somehow, she needs to figure out how to make a life for herself in this country. M.T.’s voice and humor keep this difficult subject readable and surprisingly funny. Maria Andreu writes movingly, drawing from her own experience as a (former) undocumented immigrant. 
Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement 
ISBN: 9780804138789
Ladydi lives in the mountains of Mexico. She looks at her mother’s life with her big screen TV and mountain of empty beer cans in the backyard and wants something better. Things are looking up when she gets a job as a nanny in Mexico City and falls in love for the first time. But a local murder soon complicates things and Ladydi’s future takes a dark turn. Gritty, lyrical and unforgettable, this haunting novel is based on real stories of “stolen women.” Author Jennifer Clement, who grew up in Mexico City, wrote this novel after researching women in the drug culture.  
A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman  
ISBN: 9780062287878
Slava lives in New York and works at a prestigious literary magazine. His beloved grandmother, an immigrant from the Minsk ghetto, has just passed away. His irascible grandfather asks him to write him a Holocaust restitution claim; however, the events in the claim are not necessarily true. Soon, Slava’s grandfather refers all of his immigrant friends to him so he can write (not entirely truthful) claims for them. All is well until Slava gets contacted by an official with Material Claims against Germany. Rich and lyrically written, with wonderfully vivid characters, this is novel includes fascinating endnotes on Fishman’s copious literary allusions. Born in Belarus, Boris Fishman immigrated to the U.S. when he was nine.  
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay 
ISBN: 9780802122513
Mirelle lives in Miami with her husband and child. Her parents have moved back to their homeland of Haiti, and while visiting them there, she is kidnapped. When her father refuses to pay the ransom, she is held and treated with unbelievable brutality. After 13 days she is freed, but now she must learn how to heal and move on with her life. Gay creates a complex and compelling portrayal of Mirelle’s internal struggle while she is held captive. This gripping novel looks deeply at issues of immigration, complex societal issues in Haiti, and violence towards women. Gay’s parents emigrated from Haiti, and she drew on that cultural identity for this novel.   
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez 
ISBN: 9780385350846
The Riveras move from Mexico to Delaware so Maribel, their brain-injured daughter, can attend a special school. They move into an apartment building filled with other recent immigrants, including the Toros, a Panamanian family. The families become more closely tied than anyone ever expected. Henriquez intersperses her main narrative with short chapters that consist of first-person accounts of the other immigrants living in the Riveras’s apartment building. These stories are suspenseful, poignant and vividly illustrate a variety of immigrant experiences. Henriquez’s novel was inspired by her father who came to the U.S. from Panama in 1971.
Together Tea by Marjan Kamali 
ISBN: 9780062236807
Darya is working hard to find a perfect husband for Mina, her daughter. Mina is in business school but secretly longs to be an artist and resists her mother’s efforts. Mina comes up with a plan to heal their shaky relationship: they will go back to Iran for the first time since they left in 1978. The narrative travels in time and place between Iran in 1978 and present-day America, and provides an amusing and thoughtful story of family relationships. Kamali, who was born in Turkey to Iranian parents, creates an intriguing portrayal of Persian culture in America and the contrast between life in Iran before and after the Islamic revolution. 
Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen 
ISBN: 9780670025091
Lee Lien is a second generation immigrant who lives with her mother and grandfather and works at the family restaurant. She becomes obsessed with finding out whether a family heirloom pin actually belonged to Rose Wilder Lane, embarking on a literary mystery that unfolds from Saigon to the Chicago suburbs to California. This reflective novel wonderfully depicts the complicated parent and child relationship. As a child, Nguyen was obsessed with the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and how the Wilder books contrasted with her own immigrant experience.
Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta 
ISBN: 9780544003453
This collection of ten first-person short stories focuses on the lives of Nigerian women. Told in spare and lyrical writing, the stories vividly depict life in Nigeria as well as Nigerian immigrant life in America. The stories span the ranges of genre and emotion -- some are romantic and earnest; others suspenseful and chilling. Chinelo Okparanta was born in Nigeria and moved to America at age ten. This book is dedicated simply: “For home.”
Family Life by Akhil Sharma 
ISBN: 9780393060058
Family Life begins in 1978 Delhi. As Ajay and his family wait to join their father in America, Ajay regales his friends with stories of America. The family settles in New York, in a vibrant Indian community, and America seems like a land of opportunity. Ajay’s older brother Birju has just been accepted into the prestigious Bronx High School of Science when tragedy strikes. The family turns to healers in the immigrant community while simultaneously navigating the American health care system. Spare and engaging, this novel provides a fascinating look at the effect both religion and alcohol have on a family. Sharma, a native of Delhi, spent twelve and a half years writing this semi-autobiographical novel.
The Mango Bride by Marivi Soliven 
ISBN: 9780451239846
Set in Manila, this novel is about two closely linked families and two young women who journey to San Francisco. Amparo, daughter of a wealthy family, is banished to America after she is involved in a scandal and works as an interpreter. Beverly, the niece of Amparo’s family’s maid, signs up with a matchmaking agency, and moves to America with her new husband. Her dreams of wealth and luxury give way to harsh reality, and soon, the women’s lives intersect unexpectedly. Soliven creates vivid characters and settings, particularly, Manila’s vibrant culture: the traffic, the pedi-cabs, the vendors, and the food. Philippines-born Soliven based this novel on her experience as an interpreter for other immigrants.  


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Carol Jackson is a Branch Manager in the Ramsey County Library (MN) system. She serves on the steering committee of the Readers’ Advisory Roundtable of the Minnesota Library Association and is thoroughly devoted to all things readers’ advisory.