June is Immigrant Heritage Month, a time to celebrate our shared heritage as a nation made of immigrants and an opportunity to learn about the cultural differences our friends, family, and neighbors brought with them from their first home countries. To stand with immigrants and honor their invaluable contributions, we’ve put together these famous immigrant books to read during Immigrant Heritage Month 2022.
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Importance of Immigrant Fiction
Rhetorically speaking, we were all immigrants at some point. Many migrated to the states for economic and social gains while others were brought against their will. American literary history is all reflective of it, so much that immigrant fiction has become a recognizable genre. “I believe in America” are the first few words of the greatest US immigration story ever adapted to the silver screen, The Godfather. It then unfolds to examine the promise of the American dream versus the American reality.
However, at the beginning of the 21st century, contemporary immigrant fiction saw an inevitable transformation as a result of the 9/11 aftershocks where immigrant narratives grappled with the issues of identity and started questioning their true community. Their belief in America seems jolted and they often reject the notion of an “immigrant nation” as Kennedy called it.
Immigration and diversity are both inseparable elements of the American social fabric. It has become more crucial than ever before to highlight the role of immigration and its importance in shaping the cultural landscape. One of the ways to understand the many facets of immigrant life is through reading books by American immigrant authors. These novels put you in the shoes of their immigrant experience with atmospherically moving tales of love and family, psychological upheaval, fleeing war, living a dream, pursuing education and struggling to fit in a new culture.
What is Immigrant Heritage Month?
Formally started in 2014, Immigrant Heritage Month is a month-long celebration. It honors the shared heritage and contributions of immigrants to the American economy, culture and common identity as an immigrant nation.
According to a survey, almost 14% of the US population comprises recent immigrants and 44% of the companies on the Fortune 500 list are founded by immigrants or their children including Google (Russian immigrant), Yahoo (Taiwanese immigrant), eBay (Iranian-French immigrant). Nevertheless, their contributions are not just limited to the economy but expand to every other walk of life in making America great.
Few countries in the world allow residents of various national backgrounds to thrive and prosper solely on their merits, rather than their cultural or social background.
Why Read Stories of Immigrants?
One of the main goals of Immigrant Heritage Month is to foster a greater understanding and appreciation of our immigrant history and what newcomers bring. Plus, it aims to provide opportunities for immigrants to explore and celebrate their roots.
For readers — and many others as well — the best way to know about someone else’s experience and culture or even our own is by reading books.
22 Powerful Books to Read During Immigrant Heritage Month
Imbued with the spirit of celebration and togetherness, we have managed to find these book recommendations for Immigrant Heritage Month that you may enjoy. These modern and classic novels by immigrant authors not only hold power to transport you to different cultures and lands all around the world but also let you experience all the struggles they went through in becoming part of another country.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017)
A story of love and sacrifice, interestingly, the title of the book Pachinko doesn’t suggest much. It is a Japanese word for an automated gambling machine that resembles a pinball game.
It’s a historical rag-to-riches saga of a Korean immigrant family and their fight to maintain control over their own destinies. The story begins in the early twentieth century of the Japanese colonized Korea and spans over four generations. Sunja, a cherished daughter of a Korean fisherman, becomes pregnant by a married man and refuses to become her mistress. Fearing to bring shame upon her family, Sunja’s life is saved when a young sickly preacher marries her and brings her to Japan. Her ambitious decision ensues a sweeping epic of survival and thriving in a world that is hostile to them.
The book is also adapted into an Apple TV series.
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez (2014)
This book is a riveting depiction of Latino tenants and the love between two teenagers living in a run-down apartment of immigrants in Delaware. Fifteen-year-old Maribel moves from Mexico to the US with her parents after a near-fatal accident hoping to seek the best possible healthcare. Panamanian boy, Mayor Toro falls for Maribel. Both families live in the same building and form a special connection as their children grow closer. However, their perfect American dream is soon faced with grim realities that cast dark shadows over their entire future in America. Told through the dual perspectives of Maribel and Toro’s mother, this unsentimental story is bound to inspire you.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (2017)
Exit West is the barest mystical story of belonging based on the issues of migration and asylum. The author inventively explores the idea of leaving everything behind to start anew — which can prove both exciting and frightening. The story of this novel follows a journey of a young couple Nadia and Saeed, who met and fell in love while living in refugee camps. As the future becomes grim and uncertain, they hold onto each other migrating from one mainland to another. A quietly moving story that rips your heart with its gentle truthfulness.
The Fortunate Pilgrim by Mario Puzo (1965)
Before Mario Puzo became known for The Godfather, he penned one of the finest immigrant novels, The Fortunate Pilgrim. Heart-rending, comic and violent, this literary novel unravels the story of matriarch Lucia Santa, whose family relocates to America and finds themselves in Hell’s Kitchen, New York. An indomitable mother of six living in poverty struggles to hold her family together during the turbulent times of the Great Depression. If you always wanted to read Mario Puzo but were unsure where to start, this is your chance.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (2017)
Kamila Shamsie in Home Fire puts love, loyalty and hope on a slippery slope. It is a modern retelling of the Greek mythological play Antigone unfolding among British Muslims. Isma, a British-Pakistani young woman is finally free to resume her studies in America after watching out for her siblings for years since her mother passed away. However, she can’t keep her sense of duty and worry at bay. Back in London, her beautiful sister Aneeka is desperately trying to find her brother Parvaiz, and dealing with their father’s problematic background. Hope glimmers when a son of a prominent British Muslim politician enters their lives.
Also check out 20 Bewitching Modern Greek Retellings including Circe
2 A.M. in Little America by Ken Kalfus (2022)
American Ron Patterson is one such exile, working as a repairman and living with other asylum seekers. In his first real friendship in years, Marlise, a migrant from Mexico, comes into his life. For the first time in a long time, Ron feels at home in “Little America,” but he soon finds himself under threat from the political regimes. 2 A.M. in Little America is an insightful, darkly humorous, and unsettlingly prescient warning about the dangers of political factionalism and polarization.
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (2018)
Ada is the main character in this autobiographical debut novel that focuses on her turbulent childhood in Nigeria. Her upbringing was characterized by tantrums, which her parents attempted to control by adhering to the rules and regulations of Catholicism. However, because of their own religious upbringing, her parents found it difficult to manage these outbursts. When she goes away to college in Virginia, her multiple identities compete for a greater share of control over her life. Asughara is the most powerful of them all. She pushes Ada further away from sanity with her demands for sex and violence, and is putting her life in more danger. This is the best self-discovery novel for all the young adults out there looking for the best immigrant novels.
An American Brat by Bapsi Sidhwa (1993)
An American Brat is about a girl who is torn between two cultures and is doing her best to keep up with both of them while at the same time falling in love with a boy who is completely ordinary. This novel, written for young adults, follows a young Pakistani girl, Feroza Ginwalla, who goes to live with her uncle in Massachusetts to escape the ultra-conservative religious milieu in her homeland. With the unique perspective that only an immigrant has on life in the United States, she enrolls in Idaho’s conservative Mormon college, falls in love with a young man who is not a Parsee, and learns about her new country firsthand.
Available on: Amazon
The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri (2019)
Dina Nayeri, then age 8, had to flee Iran with her mother and brother, and the three of them ended up in a hotel in Italy that had been converted into a refugee camp. She was granted refuge in the U.S. She relocated to Oklahoma before enrolling at Princeton. Nayeri interweaves her own story with those of other refugees and asylum-seekers in recent years, immersing us in their daily lives and guiding us through the stages of their journeys, from flight to asylum to resettlement. A couple falls in love over the phone, while women cook homemade noodles. A closed-door queer man seeks asylum, and a translator helps new Immigrants tell their tales. Nayeri battles “the swarm” and “decent” immigrants. She highlights how Western governments unfairly prioritize some hazards.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (2003)
First Afghan novel to be written in English, The Kite Runner is a heartbreaking tale of a poor boy’s unlikely friendship with the son of a privileged Afghan family. In the aftermath of the Soviet invasion and the Taliban’s establishment, the friendship of these two boys is put to the test. Amir, returns to Kabul from the US after 25 years when he is offered a way to atone for his sins and amend the traumatic experiences he endured during his childhood. Preceeded by The Thousand Splendid Suns, this book is an unusual debut about friendship, as well as the power of reading, the price of betrayal, and the possibility of redemption.
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue (2016)
Immigrant Jende Jonga from Cameroon resides in Harlem with his wife, Neni, and her son, who is 6 years old. During the fall of 2007, Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers, hires Jende as a chauffeur. Clark expects punctuality, prudence, and loyalty from Jende. Cindy, Clark’s wife, offers Neni a temporary job in the Hamptons. Jende and Neni can finally establish themselves in America and envision a better future. Jende and Neni soon see flaws in their employers’ facades in the world of power and privilege. The Jongas are determined to keep Jende’s work after Lehman Brothers’ collapse, even as their marriage falters. When tragedy strikes, Jende and Neni must choose between their four lives.
Also check out 20 African-American Books You Must Read
The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui (2017)
Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do is a visual memoir of one family’s journey from war-torn Vietnam to America. Bui recalls her family’s brave escape after South Vietnam’s fall in the 1970s and the challenges they faced constructing new lives. While adjusting to life as a first-time mother, Bui finds what it means to be a parent – the infinite sacrifices, unrecognized gestures, and silent love. Bui plays parent and child despite how hard it looks. Bui explores the inherited hardships of relocation and diaspora by documenting parental sacrifice and unearthing family history.
The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengetsu (2007)
This novel revolves around a seventeen-year-old young boy, Sepha Stephanos, who fled Ethiopia to settle in Washington, D.C, America. He starts running a grocery store there and his only companions are his two fellow Africans, with whom he shares all his emotions. He sees that his life has turned out to be very different and secluded from what he had envisioned for himself years ago. Beautifully written to give us a gist of what the life of an immigrant is like and all the struggles that they face.
The Comfort Women by Nora Okja Keller (1998)
A Korean refugee named Akiko and the daughter she had with an American missionary, Beccah, are the central characters of the novel Comfort Woman, which is told from the viewpoints of both Akiko and Beccah. The story of Akiko is told through the perspectives of these two individuals. As a result of Akiko and Beccah’s efforts to save her mother from her own past, the two women have been forced to live in an isolated area of Honolulu and may be insane. As Akiko recounts the tragic events of her life, including the harrowing years she spent working as a comfort lady for Japanese soldiers, she does so in a measured and thoughtful manner. Beccah comes to appreciate her mother’s incredible gifts as she delves deeper into the truths about her own abilities and the mystique surrounding them.
The Other Americans by Laila Lalami (2019)
Among the nine Rashomon-like characters in Lalami’s superb fourth novel is a Moroccan immigrant restaurant owner who was killed in a hit-and-run accident in a California desert town. Nora, the victim’s younger daughter, persuades police investigator Coleman to look into her father’s mysterious death further. Maryam, her long-suffering mother, and Salma, her dependable older sister, try to recover from the catastrophe. Efran is afraid to speak out because she was a witness, Anderson and his son A. J. have secrets, and Iraq veteran Jeremy still hasn’t forgiven Nora for her kindness in high school.
A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua (2018)
Pregnant Chinese women are pampered in Perfume Bay, just outside of Los Angeles, during the birth of prized children who will offer their parents “a footing in America.” Scarlett Chen, a factory manager who was sent to the United States to bear her married lover’s son. Scarlett can’t risk losing her pregnant child while their long-distance romance stagnates. She commandeers the residence’s van for a late-night getaway, only to discover a stowaway: Daisy, Perfume Bay’s newest and most unruly resident, who refuses to let Scarlett depart alone. The unusual duo flees to Chinatown in San Francisco, where they rely solely on their wits to stay afloat. This insightful first novel by Hua investigates identity, privilege, freedom, and a reimagining of the American Dream for the twenty-first century with pathos, insight, and a sense of humor.
Sisters of Mokama by Jyoti Thottam (2022)
A moving account of a young woman’s journey to India in search of her own nun’s mother and the other five women who went there with the sole purpose of building a hospital. They demonstrated tenacity and patience while taking care of the poor people and dealing with the Catholic Church’s regulations. Thottam draws on twenty years of research to convey this amazing narrative for the first time in Sisters of Mokama. She vividly depicts the dreams, hardships, and achievements of these ordinary people. There are many women—both American and Indian—who triumphed against all odds during the tumultuous years following World War II and Partition.
Front Desk by Kelly Yang (2018)
Front Desk is an award-winning middle-grade novel inspired by Kelly Yang’s real-life experiences. It is a cute and heartwarming story about a young girl, Mia Tang, who leaves China for America with her parents. Her parents find work at a motel in California where she helps them by managing the front desk and tending to guests. They hide illegal immigrants which if the owner of a motel finds out can cost them their jobs. Besides, Mia is also enrolled in a nearby school. She is determined to pursue a career in writing despite her poor command of the English language, whereas her mother thinks she should stick to Math. It’s an empowering #ownvoices read on how to pursue dreams despite the difficulties with the undercurrent of morals that makes it equally riveting.
What is the What by Dave Eggers (2006)
According to Valentino Achak Deng’s story, he was just seven years old when he was kidnapped along with thousands of other children from his village in Sudan and taken to a camp known as the Lost Boys. Militias, bombers sent by the government, and savage animals are all out to get them as they flee across the deserts of three different countries. Even after arriving in the United States, he is still grieving and has to deal with the new challenges of Myriad. A fascinating look at the experiences of the many millions of people who were brought to this country against their will or as a result of a coercive force.
Displacement by Kiku Hughes (2019)
Treat yourself to this visually gorgeous graphic novel illustrated by the protagonist herself. Kiku Hughes in this fast-moving tale of self-discovery inspired by her own family’s heritage, tells about a time in American history that many of us have forgotten.
As a 12-year-old in a Japanese-American internment camp during the summer of 1940, Kiku meets her late grandma Ernestina. Her interest is piqued by Japanese-American perspectives and experiences. The American people were able to keep their relatively high standard of living during a time of extreme adversity and violations of civil liberties because of the strong connections they maintained with one another and their willingness to take up arms. This was made possible by the fact that they fought for their country.
The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon (2016)
In this lovely story about love at first sight and destiny, two teenagers, Natasha and Daniel, meet at a record store. Natasha is Jamaican and Daniel is Korean-American. Both are entangled with each other because the universe had another plan for them as they are destined for each other. But soon they are forced to be apart from each other. A captivating and beautiful novel to read.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2000)
This novel is the depiction of the history of Iran from the perspective of an Iranian girl who was born in a colonial territory of the United Kingdom and witnessed the rise of an Islamic regime in her native land. Education and empowerment of women are two of our top priorities. What can you do when you can do nothing except watch as your rights are being eroded in front of your eyes? What are the options for adjusting? Your destiny is in your hands.
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