“Immigrant” is a complex word — and the human beings that cross our borders can be easily lost in the sea of political opinions the word “immigrant” can evoke.
As a nation of immigrants (with the exception of Native Americans), immigrant stories resonate with all Americans. Whether the immigrant is from Ireland in 1870 or Syria in 2019, there is something profoundly amazing in undertaking the journey to start life somewhere new and foreign.
These stories should be preserved, should be told and should be imagined. In understanding our shared histories as immigrants, we can begin to erase the lines that divide us and instead focus on the perils that we and our ancestors have endured in the great project that is our country.
As an immigrant myself, and the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants, I value these stories. These stories allow me to see myself, my loved ones and strangers I will never meet encountering and redefining “America,” another complex word, but just like “immigrant,” a beautiful one to behold.
Here are some of my favorite stories (out of so many!) that begin to unravel what it means to be an American and an immigrant today. Because the immigrant experience is diverse, this list is diverse too — different stories told by folks from different countries with different experiences in different forms.
These talented writers of fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, poetry, young adult and children’s books, all grapple with similar questions: Who is America for, if not the immigrant and the children of immigrants?
“The Other Americans” by Laila Lalami. A Moroccan immigrant is killed by a speeding motorist — but that’s only the beginning. “The Other Americans” contains a mystery, unresolved family secrets, cultural criticism and even a love story. By using multiple points of view, Lalami is able to explore the race, ethnic and class tensions underscoring our thoughts on immigration from a variety of angles, avoiding getting too political. With superb writing, Lalami considers the lasting effect even the smallest aggression can make.
“The Book of Unknown Americans” by Cristina Henríquez. Henríquez tells the story of two families, their communities and the sacrifices many immigrants make for their children to have a better life. Henríquez’s characters fall in love, make terrible mistakes and reach for the impossible — a quintessentially American proposition.
More Great Reads: “Dominicana” by Angie Cruz, “Brooklyn” by Colm Tóibín, “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Girl in Translation” by Jean Kwok, “My New American Life” by Francine Prose, “Open City” by Teju Cole.
“The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez: A Border Story” by Aaron Bobrow-Strain. The book chronicles the life of Aida Hernandez as she navigates police raids, detention centers, immigration courts, deportation and life on the border. Bobrow-Strain writes like a journalist and sociologist, with clear information on history and policy, along with plenty of narrative tension. Hernandez is not a perfect immigrant (she has a criminal record), but she’s a real one, and her story provides insight into how the larger immigration machine actually works.
“The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border” by Francisco Cantú. Cantú’s memoir has been controversial (protests and boycotts have abounded) — yet as a former Border Patrol agent, he is able to offer unique insight into immigration from the enforcement side. Written with tremendous empathy and honesty, Cantú tells the story of a compassionate man working a job that is anything but.
More Great Reads: “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen” by Jose Antonio Vargas, “Enrique’s Journey” by Sonia Nazario, “Brother, I’m Dying” by Edwidge Danticat, “The Ungrateful Refugee” by Dina Nayeri, “Crux” by Jean Guerrero, “Bird of Paradise” by Raquel Cepeda, “Borderless Economics” by Robert Guest.
“Ink Knows No Borders: Poems of the Immigrant and Refugee Experience” by Patrice Vecchione and Alyssa Raymond. The co-authors assembled a truly diverse group of poets for this collection. Despite hailing from all over the world, the poets share a common background; they are all immigrants, refugees and the children of immigrants and refugees. The poetry and lyricism are on point, but more important, the range of experiences challenges the very notion of an “immigrant identity.”
“How to Love a Country” by Richard Blanco. Blanco captures the contemporary in his newest collection, taking up guns, terror, diplomacy and the stark divisions that define our times. He underscores ordinary events with great depth — allowing readers to see themselves in his symbolism.
More Great Reads: “Night Sky With Exit Wounds” by Ocean Vuong, “Unaccompanied” by Javier Zamora, “Eye Level” by Jenny Xie, “Brooklyn Antediluvian” by Patrick Rosal.
“They Called Us Enemy” by George Takei. The beloved actor and activist recounts moments from his childhood, as one of thousands of Japanese Americans sent to “relocation centers” in 1942. His memories, hauntingly illustrated by Harmony Becker, capture the fear of living behind barbed wire, the doubts underscoring systemic oppression and the hard choices his family made to survive.
“The Best We Could Do” by Thi Bui. A beautifully rendered graphic memoir of a writer grappling with history, family and the complexities of being a parent. Bui goes back and forth between her life in California and the story of how and why her parents left Vietnam. But in between the folds of this tale are tough questions about what we inherit from our parents, and how the sorrow of displacement can be passed down through generations.
More Great Reads: “The Scar: Graphic Reportage From the U.S.-Mexico Border” by Andrea Ferraris and Renato Chiocca, “Undocumented: A Worker’s Fight” by Duncan Tonatiuh.
“Someone Like Me: How One Undocumented Girl Fought for her American Dream” by Julissa Arce. One doesn’t often think that a harrowing immigration story will end with an undocumented little girl becoming a vice president at an American multinational investment bank. And yet, Julissa Arce’s story paints a picture of an ambitious child willing to do anything to live the American Dream, even in a country that may not initially want her.
“The Border” by Steve Schafer. One night, four teens sneak out of their homes along the Mexican side of the border, with music and good cheer following them through the desert. Then the music stops and the cheer is replaced with gunshots. Suddenly, the home these teens know is no longer safe, and an attempt to cross the border proves just as impossible as staying.
More Great Reads: “La Linea” by Ann Jaramillo, “The Distance Between Us” (Young Readers Edition) by Reyna Grande, “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” by Erika L. Sánchez.
“A Different Pond” by Bao Phi, illustrated by Thi Bui. A father and son go on a fishing trip — a simple story that also holds the weight of history. Between casting lures, a boy learns about his father’s past, what his father had to leave behind in Vietnam, and the legacies that immigrants can leave their children. The prose is beautiful, the illustrations by Bui even more so.
“The Name Jar” by Yangsook Choi. What’s in a name? Everything, according to this book. New kid Unhei is trying to figure out her English name soon after moving to the United States from Korea. Her classmates help her out, filling a jar with possible names written on strips of paper. Yet in trying on different names, Unhei discovers the power in the one she’s always carried with her.
Another Great Read: “La Frontera: El viaje con papá / My Journey With Papa” by Deborah Mills, Alfredo Alva and Claudia Navarro (Illustrator).
Ramírez is a Mexican-Colombian writer, critic and performance poet based in Pittsburgh. She won the inaugural PEN/Fusion Emerging Writers Prize in 2015 for her novella-length work of nonfiction, “Dead Boys.” Her full-length nonfiction book, “The Violence,” is forthcoming from Scribner.