BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Immigrant Heritage Month by the Book(s)! [in The Booklist Reader]

June is #ImmigrantHeritageMonth, which began in 2014 and has been recognized and celebrated by the (Obama) White House as “a time to celebrate diversity and immigrants’ shared American heritage” since 2015. “Immigration,” the White House declares, “is part of the DNA of this great nation.”

Perhaps now more than ever – fueled by the ubiquity of alarming headlines and tragic images in the media – the topic of immigration also provides substantial literary inspiration: we gather this baker’s dozen of recent titles, all with 2018 and 2019 pub dates, for your reading enlightenment.


The Atlas of Reds and Blues by Devi S. Laskar

A woman (known as the Mother) lies sprawled in her driveway, shot by Georgia police. As she “breathes in the metal essence of her own blood,” her life indeed flashes before her eyes: her North Carolinian birth to Bengali immigrant parents, the decades of racist mistreatment as an American of color, her truncated journalism career, her absent “hero” (white) husband, their three daughters who face their own challenges, and her beloved (dead) rescue dog. Laskar knows personally what having a police gun pointed at her feels like. In 2010, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation raided her home when her professor husband was wrongly accused of misusing university funds. They confiscated her laptop on which was stored an about-to-be-finished novel (never recovered), but Laskar channeled that horrific experience into this urgent, electrifying debut.


The Body Papers by Grace Talusan

Every day she didn’t tell, Talusan thought she was saving her grandfather’s life. “There was a daytime grandfather and a nighttime grandfather, two different people in the same body.” Talusan was seven when that nocturnal monster began the sexual assaults: “I told myself that the pain and sacrifice of my hell moments were required for my family’s success.” Family was “more important than anything” in Talusan’s extended Filipino American Catholic clan. That they were immigrants meant even tighter bonds. As an adult, the threat of cancer – already killing younger relatives – forces Talusan to make radical decisions concerning her damaged body. Awarded the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, Talusan bravely alchemizes unbearable traumas into a potent memoir remarkably devoid of self-pity, replete with fortitude and grace.


Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas

“After twenty-five years of living illegally in a country that does not consider me one of its own, this book is the closest thing I have to freedom.” When Pulitzer Prize-winning Jose Antonio Vargas declared his undocumented status in 2011, Bill O’Reilly labeled him “the most famous illegal in America.” Twelve-year-old Vargas left Manila in 1993, unaware he would arrive without legal documentation to live with his maternal grandparents in California. Enabled by the kindness of strangers – teachers, mentors, colleagues – Vargas found his successes multiplying, but the cost of “lying, passing, and hiding” grew into the realization that “coming out is letting people in.” His courageous memoir is a dangerous reveal – “I don’t know where I will be when you read this book.”


Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Nigerian-born Emezi – winner of the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa – opens her autobiographical debut novel with protagonist Ada. From birth, it “was clear that she . . . was going to go mad.” Within Ada’s “weak bags of flesh” are “hatchlings, godlings, ogbanje”: sometimes they peacefully coexist; other times, they are satiated only by savage takeover. Ada’s troubled Nigerian childhood is marked by outbursts, which her parents attempt to tame with the strictures of Catholicism. When she leaves home for a Virginia college, her fractured selves assert greater control. The strongest of all is Asughara, whose demands for sex and violence push Ada further from sanity.


Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

Poornima meets Savitha because Poornima’s recently widowed father needs assistance weaving saris; clever, kind Savitha must help support her impoverished family. The pair are inseparable, nurturing each other in a society in which their gender dooms them to be financial liabilities who are bartered off. Then a horrifying act sets Savitha adrift in a world of unrelenting cruelty. Poornima, meanwhile, is pushed into an abusive marriage. When she finally escapes, her unwavering determination to find Savitha keeps her alive as she painstakingly plots her path through the international underworld of sex slavery and trafficking to reunite somehow, somewhere, with her missing soulmate on the other side of the world.


Immigrant, Montana by Amitava Kumar

Vassar English professor and journalist Kumar’s second novel is a hybrid text that moves seamlessly between Indian immigrant graduate student Kailash (inspired by Kumar himself) and numerous real-life figures and events. Kailash arrived in New York as a graduate student two decades ago, and his transformation from foreigner to U.S. citizen is reflected in his very name. He answers to Kalashnikov (because a Soviet assault weapon is more American than the holy pilgrimage site his name refers to), and accepts the truncated AK or even just 47. Kumar explicates Kailash’s “in-between” immigrant journey through his loves, his friends, and his mentors. In what is cleverly presented as a self-defense before an imaginary judge, Kailash’s story recalls and challenges memories, underscoring both his assimilation and his rebellion as a global citizen.


Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao’s Revolution by Helen Zia

Called the “Paris of the Orient,” Shanghai escaped most of the devastation of the Japanese occupation and World War II, both of which ravaged the rest of China, due to the significant international presence within the city’s borders. Mao’s Communist Revolution, however, sparked unprecedented panic, causing 1.5 of Shanghai’s 6 million residents to flee during the late 1940s, and leaving the city “in such disarray that no accounting of the departures is known to have taken place.” Where history lacks documentation, notable activist/author/journalist Zia presents the first and only book in English about Shanghai’s “massive exodus.” The U.S. benefitted significantly from the Shanghai refugees; playwright David Henry Hwang, architect Maya Lin, author Amy Tan, technology magnate Charles Wang, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, and Zia herself are just a few of the diasporic descendants. Blending intimate memories and pivotal global history, Zia ultimately presents a universal, timeless story: “what remains true for the refugees and exiles of Shanghai remains true for people fleeing from catastrophe in contemporary times.”


Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

Part road trip (with audiobook snippets even), part family drama, and part testimony, Luiselli’s spectacular latest – her first novel written originally in English – features a woman and her five-year-old daughter and a man and his 10-year-old son; the unnamed characters have been a family for four years. The man and woman met while documenting New York City’s more than 800 spoken languages. Now, the quartet is embarking cross-country to Arizona: the man to research Apache native lands; the woman to search for a friend’s daughters who’ve vanished at the border. Through a family in crisis, Luiselli lays bare the disconnects of what we hear, what we see, what we can – but sometimes won’t – understand.


Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

For those looking for alternate therapies, the Miracle Submarine in Miracle Creek, Virginia, provides HBOT (hyperbaric oxygen therapy), believed to treat such conditions as autism and infertility. For the Korean immigrant owners, Pak and Young Yoo, the makeshift treatment center is their American Dream – until a mysterious explosion kills two patients and seriously injures others. Elizabeth Ward’s son, Henry, is among the dead. Elizabeth, painted as a desperate mother who snapped while raising a special-needs child, stands trial for murder. What might seem initially obvious will, of course, prove otherwise, as victims, perpetrators, and liars peel away the layers of howdunit, whydunit, and finally, whodunit.


Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

When Chinese American immigrant Bobby Han died, entrusting his Beijing Duck House restaurant to the next generation, he couldn’t have fathomed how quickly his 30-year-old legacy would go up in flames. His younger son Jimmy, wants out of the suburban Maryland business, having already bought a swankier Georgetown establishment. Johnny, the older brother, has been avoiding family drama by teaching in Hong Kong, but his reprieve is short-lived. Their aging mother has lost all patience with her incompetent offspring, leaving plenty of room for her sly cousin, Pang, to play out his own machinations. Li’s debut is a raucous, bittersweet nonlove story across cultures, generations, morals, and other seemingly impossible divides.


On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

The cover insists “novel,” but the autobiographical overlaps are many: a gay Vietnamese American poet, an October birth outside Saigon, an other-side-of-the-world escape, a biracial single mother, a Hartford, Connecticut, upbringing, a New York City education. In his prose debut, T. S. Eliot-prized, Whiting-awarded Vuong mines his memories to create an epistolary masterpiece addressed to his mother – who can’t read. Bestowed a lofty name meaning “Patriotic Leader of the Nation” at birth, his mother calls him “Little Dog” instead, because “to love something . . . is to name it after something so worthless it might be left untouched – and alive.” After escaping Vietnam, Little Dog grows up in a house full of damaged women, caught between his mother’s monstrous abuses and her unrelenting sacrifices. His precarious journey to manhood is filled with perilous challenges: racism, poverty, mental illness, isolation, sexuality, first love, death. Writing saves his life.


The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

Lalami’s stupendous fourth title showcases a chorus of nine Rashomonesque characters confronting the hit-and-run death of a Moroccan immigrant diner owner in a California Mojave-desert town. Musician Nora, the younger daughter of the victim, Driss, pushes police detective Coleman to further investigate her father’s suspicious death. Her long-suffering mother, Maryam, and reliable older sister, Salma, struggle to move on from the tragedy. Beyond the family, Iraq vet Jeremy has never gotten over Nora’s kindness in high school, eyewitness Efraín remains too frightened to come forward, and next-door business owner Anderson and his son A. J. hold their own secrets. These are the eponymous other Americans: victims, perpetrators, and survivors who ultimately reveal much more than what happened that fateful dark night in the desert.


A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua

In luxurious Perfume Bay, just outside Los Angeles, pregnant Chinese women are pampered through the U.S. birth of precious progeny who will provide their parents with “a foothold in America.” Among the guests is factory-manager Scarlett Chen, sent Stateside to bear her married lover’s son. As their long-distance relationship stagnates, Scarlett can’t risk losing her unborn child. She commandeers the residence’s van for a late-night escape, then discovers a stowaway: Perfume Bay’s youngest and most rebellious resident, Daisy, who won’t let Scarlett leave alone. The unlikely pair flee to San Francisco’s Chinatown, where they have only their clever wits to keep them afloat. Hua’s astute debut novel confronts identity, privilege, freedom, and a twenty-first-century rendering of the American Dream with poignancy, insight, humor, and plenty of savvy charm.

Published: “Immigrant Heritage Month by the Book(s)!,” The Booklist Reader, June 13, 2019


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