As is to be expected, we have been reading—or should we say perusing—plenty of academic books on migration, including books directly related to our project such as “Caring for Strangers” by Megha Amrith, but we have also read novels and poetry involving migration and migrants, often penned by immigrant writers. Below is a selection of our readings. Maybe we can inspire you to pick up some of these titles, too?
Marie Louise Seeberg
“The Sympathizer” by Nguyen Viet Thanh (2016) is a spy novel and a love story, but first and foremost a book about living one’s life between two very different countries and realities.
A very different book but similar in just that one respect, “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing” by Anya von Bremzen (2013) paints a vivid picture of life in the Soviet Union through the lens of food memories. Not Proust, but much more fun to read – and again, conjuring up very different realities that are dependent on one another.
Impossibly complex but a rolling good read all the same is “The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins” by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (2017). Yes, it’s about mushrooms. It’s also about Hmong refugees in the US, and about Finnish and Japanese forestry. And just about everything else.
“In the Sea There are Crocodiles: Based on the True Story of Enaiatollah Akbari” by Fabio Geda is the devastating and beautifully written account of a young Afghan boy’s journey from his village through several countries and across the sea.
I like graphic novels too – and “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” by Marjane Satrapi is one of my favourites here. It lets you into the home and life of the author as she grew up in Iran during the years of the Islamic Revolution.
Finally, I’ll include “1947: Where Now Begins” by Elisabeth Åsbrink. This is a month-by-month recount of one year in history and not a particularly famous year at that. The fascinating thing here is that it lists sometimes unremarkable and always apparently unrelated events that are rooted in the preceding years of World War 2 (on which there must be millions of books), and that led to most remarkable events in the following years, such as the foundation of the state of Israel, the creation of the CIA, the invention of the Kalashnikov, and the beginning of the Cold War. All alongside quietly recorded events on the individual scale, in the life of the author’s father, then a 10-year-old refugee.
“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Mohsin Hamid. Through an intriguing, almost mysterious, meeting between an American and a local in Lahore, Pakistan, this novel tells the story of the Pakistani man’s fascination turned disillusionment with America.
Similarly, “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells the story of a Nigerian woman’s journey studying and living in the USA and finally her return to Lagos. This novel, published in 2017, has gained a lot of attention, and for good reason. It’s funny, insightful, and provides a fresh perspective on race and immigration.
Marta Bivand Erdal
“Migration Matters: Mobility in a Globalizing World” by Gurucharan Gollerkeri and Natasha Chhabra (2016) draws on comprehensive understanding and quantitative data on migration and development globally. It is a book that takes on a global and encompassing perspective to understand international migration today better. It does so with a global approach, but with a strong anchoring in Indian experience. It advocates a better international migration framework, for the benefit – economically as well as politically – of all, and does not shy away from challenging and complicated themes related to demographic change, global inequalities, nor colonial pasts.
“The Remittance Landscape: Spaces of migration in rural Mexico and urban USA” by Sarah Lynn Lopez (2015) draws on long-term ethnographic engagement with Mexicans in the US and their areas and communities of origin in Mexico. Through its very physical and material attention to architectures of migration, it sheds light on human aspects of migration, which are visible in the landscape. Detailing different physical structures, funded by migrant remittances, allows for other features of migration to appear, not least (and not only) migrants’ houses built in areas of origin.
“Vietnam’s new middle classes: Gender, career, city” by Catherine Earl (2014) draws on ethnographic data from Ho Chi Minh City. It traces stories of upward social mobility in contemporary Asia, through the case of young, female, educated, migrants arriving in Ho Chi Minh City from rural or small-town areas across Vietnam. Large-scale processes, such as urbanization and the growth of middle classes, are unpacked through a glimpse into the life-worlds of young women.
“Children of Dust: A memoir of Pakistan” by Ali Eteraz (2009) is a fascinating story – an autobiography – which is told by an amazing storyteller. It starts out with early childhood years in rural Pakistan, before a move to the US, and challenges with adjustment to new circumstances. Throughout the book, the author seeks his place in the world – in relation to his faith, in the US, but also in Pakistan. His personal journey and exploration of what being a Muslim means, is intertwined with the spatial journey his family has made, and his own journeys back and forth between the US and Pakistan, and across the US. “
“We are a Muslim, please” by Zaiba Malik (2010) is an autobiographical story of growing up as a Muslim in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s, written out of a need for an answer to the question “What’s it like to be a British Muslim?” The author tells a captivating, sometimes extremely funny, other times very disheartening story, of a child, and then an adolescent, bridging worlds within her own life, which sometimes did not or did not want to bridge very well, yet were simultaneously and intrinsically constitutive of her own lifeworld.
“Brit(ish): On race, identity and belonging” by Afua Hirsch (2018) is an autobiographical story, with political edge and relevance. It is a fascinating and complex personal story, spanning life and growing up in very different parts of London, and a mixed-race girl seeking to re-trace African heritage. Meanwhile, it is also an urgent call for change in common, taken-for-granted conceptions of Britishness in everyday life and in politics. It traces imperial pasts, and tackles issues of racism head-on, with the hope of being part of emerging conversations that start from honesty, rather than defensiveness or fear.
Elzbieta M. Gozdziak
As an immigrant, I like to read books by immigrant and refugee writers. “Citizen Illegal” by José Olivarez is a short collection of poems, in which the young poet explores the narratives, joys and sorrows that characterize life between Mexico and America. The poems are especially poignant now as we debate the humanity of the people who built this nation. Reading José’s poems one cries both of joy and saddens and at the same time feels inspired by this new generation of migrants.
I usually don’t read magical realism, but I am glad I made an exception for “Exit West” by Moshin Hamid, a novel about magic-realist migration, where refugees don’t flee on boats or on foot, but pass through a series of doors, doors that can whisk people far away , if perilously and for a price. In her review for the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino wrote that this novel “feels instantly canonical” and I could not agree more.
And finally, Fatou Diome’s “The Belly of the Atlantic” brought home all sorts of feelings about belonging. Salie, the novel’s protagonist says about herself: ‘As I am a hybrid, Africa and Europe and Europe ask themselves confusedly which bit of me belongs to them’ (p. 182) and about returning home (to Senegal): ‘I go home as a tourist in my own country, for I have become the other for the people I continue to call my family’ (p. 116). These seem to be the experiences of all migrants who ‘go home’: not fully accepted by the country where they settled, but also considered weird and strange in their homeland.