America has long been portrayed as a land of immigrants. After all, the Statue of Liberty is meant to be a symbol of welcome and inclusion for people of all ethnicities and walks of life. These novels are largely based off of real stories and give us a fantastic look at the life of the immigrant. The selected books give portrayals of immigrants from different time periods and tell the tales of a variety of groups.
1. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Amy Tan weaves a tale of three mother-daughter pairs as they struggle with their identity in America. Tan interchanges between telling the story of the mothers’ journey to America and their daughters’ journey for identity. She also does an excellent job in describing the various challenges facing both newcomers and the second generation. As members of the second generation, these women have to deal with both the pressures of their inherited identity as well as fitting in with their friends.
On the other hand, the first generation of Chinese women also face their own societal struggles. These include typical struggles with maintaining their Chinese identity while also adapting to America. The added pressure of trying to raise their daughters in this new environment while also hoping to pass on the unique aspects of their culture can be sympathized with by the reader. This tension creates a wedge between mother and daughter, leading to the two groups struggling to find common ground.
2. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
A more contemporary tale of a family that comes to America from Iraq. After the main character, Amir, flees the Hussein regime to America, he struggles with his own identity. Amir must then try to find a way to maintain his own cultural heritage while also finding his way as an American.
He also struggles with several traumatic incidents from his past, including dealing with his friend’s rape. Eventually, he finds redemption in saving the son of his old friend from the brutal regime. The novel explores themes of self-discovery and religion in an authentic and unforgettable way.
3. The Immigrant Train and Other Stories by Natalie Petesch
The Immigrant Train is a collection of different stories regarding the Polish immigrant experience in the 20th century. The author does a fantastic job of describing the conditions that these immigrants faced. The collection of short stories also detail the crisis of identity faced by the people who move to America. The variety in the different stories illustrate the variety of reasons that people immigrated to America, as well as the perceptions of America at the time.
4. Honolulu by Alan Brennert
Alright, I’ll admit, being from Hawaii may have lead to some bias in this instance. But hey, the Hawaii immigration experience is just as important to the history of the country. While most people have the image of grass skirts and surfing, Hawaii is home to a fairly diverse population. This book touches on that diversity through the story of a picture bride that has been married off to a laborer.
Throughout the novel, we see the development of the state of Hawaii and how the diverse population impacted it. This includes a dive into the crime syndicates that ran the shadier side of Honolulu during the era. There is also the issue of the ethnic tensions on the island that cannot be ignored. Alan Brennert gives the reader a great picture of Hawaii and its historical development. This portrayal of Hawaii as containing varying ethnic groups is perhaps the most accurate out there.
5. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
The iconic American novel that exposed the malpractices of the meat packing industry, The Jungle also serves as a tale of the exploitation of immigrants that had recently arrived in America. For the most part, the novel deals with the feeling of exploitation that immigrants coming to America faced in the past.
Sinclair perfectly conveys the mixture of desperation and, at times, hopelessness immigrants experienced in the 19th century. The Jungle illustrates the difficulties of being a member of a group no one wants to advocate for. In doing so, he perfectly describes the early plights of immigrants in the US. Although this book is most remembered for exposing the poor conditions of the meat packing industry, its role in exposing the exploitation of migrants is an equally notable landmark.
6. The Assistant by Bernard Malamud
Describing life as an immigrant within the city in a growing America, Bernard Mamalud accurately exposes life as a struggling newcomer in America. The story revolves around a shopkeeper and his young assistant. The book mainly deals with themes of philosophy and identity and through this, we can see one picture of the racial boundaries that composed the early versions of America.
Although today we are often taught in school that America is a land of immigrants learning to tolerate one another, the painful process is often skimmed over. Even though these details are mentioned in a more subtle sense, you still get a sense of the climate. In many ways, the tensions and problems that are visible in this novel are still very visible today, just with different actors.
7. The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
The tale of a Dominican that has moved to America, Junot Diaz’s classic novel touches on several themes that impact the lives of immigrants. Told from a variety of different perspectives, this novel provides insight into the Dominican diaspora and identity. The most unique aspect of this novel is the author’s transitions between using slang and English throughout.
The switching of languages symbolizes the struggle of the narrator to find his own identity as an immigrant. The narrator strives to fit into his new home, but still wants to retain his identity as a Dominican. Junot Diaz’s writing style perfectly addresses the inner turmoil that can be felt for anyone in the midst of transition.
What makes you most proud of your heritage and culture?
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