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Immigrants in Fiction

Updated: February 18, 2020

Fleeing war, pursuing an education, missing family and friends, living a dream, living in a family member's dream, trying to fit in, and intergenerational clashes are among the themes of fictional tales of immigrants.

Away : a novel
Bloom, Amy, 1953-
This novel follows Lillian, an immigrant who comes to New York from Russia in the 1920s, but when she learns that her daughter is still alive, she travels overland to Alaska to find a ship, and hopefully, her daughter.

The barbarian nurseries
Tobar, Hector, 1963-

In an affluent Los Angeles community, a Mexican live-in maid, Araceli, discovers that her employers are gone, and she is left in a sprawling house, with the owners' two little boys. So begins an adventure in today's Los Angeles, as Araceli takes the two children on a search for their grandfather Señor Torres. 

The book of unknown Americans : a novel
Henríquez, Cristina, 1977-
In an apartment building in Delaware, nine families of immigrants from Central and South America have taken up residence in the hopes of creating new and better lives in America. Told in alternating voices, the many stories center around the budding - and tragic - romance between two teenagers. This beautiful, powerful book is a must read.

The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao
Di?az, Junot, 1968-

Dominican Republic

Details the experiences of Oscar and his family and friends in New Jersey and the Dominican Republic, exposing you to a rich mix of the cultures in both locations.


The Buddha in the attic
Otsuka, Julie, 1962-

Explore the collective lives of a group of Japanese “picture brides” brought to the US in the early part of the 20th century.  Otsuka gives us a compelling yet wrenching tale of the immigrant experience in this novel.

Statovci, Pajtim,

Two friends decide to leave their native Albania and take their chances in Rome, Italy. Bujar has lost his father and Agim is contending with his gender identity and sexuality.  Finding comfort and peace in one's own body can be as onerous and complex as finding a home in another country. Statovci's lyrical writing style magnifies the complexity of those who are excluded by a culture, or by its conventions.

Djavadi, Negar, 1969-

A story of Iranian life in exile told by Kimiâ Sadr, who left when she was ten-years-old to live in France. Now at 25-years-old, her mind is overrun with emotional memories and tales of generations of her family and their life in Iran.

Winner of the LAMBDA Literary Award for 2019 and the French Albertine Award for 2019.

Everything I never told you
Ng, Celeste.

This slender debut novel is deceptively quiet and elegantly restrained on the surface, but packs a knock-out punch. The story of how and why teenager Lydia Lee, the beautiful, brilliant, best-loved child of a 1970's mixed-race Ohio family, meets her shocking death is much more than just a Midwestern mystery. Within her very specific rendering of one family's tragedy, author Celeste Ng illuminates America's poisonous history of racism, sexism, and homophobia, but never at the expense of a suspenseful plot and a compellingly original cast of characters.

Exit west : a novel
Hamid, Mohsin, 1971-

Hamid, the Pakistani author of Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, is one of the world's best contemporary writers, sure to be considered for the Nobel Prize in literature. This novel concerns refugees who pass through hidden magic doors in search of a safer life. Fear, loss, resilience, love, and hope all play a part as main characters Nadia and Saeed gradually make their way from an unnamed, war-torn homeland to a dystopic America.

Free food for millionaires
Lee, Min Jin.

Thrown out of her parents’ threadbare home for speaking with contempt to her low-achieving father, twenty-two year-old Casey Han strives to maintain the excessively high standard of living she enjoyed as a student on scholarship at Princeton. Fellow Korean immigrants, co-workers, friends, boyfriends and churchgoers aid and abet Casey in her quest.

Go, Went, Gone
Jenny Erpenbeck

Retired and living in modern cultured Berlin, a former classics professor ponders what to do with his time. When he confronts the African refugee crisis in his city, the professor must deal with his emotional reactions, and a call for action. His academic analysis and training are of little use. Erpenbeck has created layers of tragic stories about the experience of displaced people, and the often misplaced and futile attempts to assist them.

Gravel heart
Gurnah, Abdulrazak, 1948-

As life changes in Zanzibar, so does Salim's life. He leaves a house full of secrets, and joins his charismatic Uncle Amir in London. However, Salim is not prepared to experience the culture shock as an immigrant and college student. As in his other novels Abdulrazak Gurnah's elegant writing and keen observations about exile and immigration personalize the lives who are most vulnerable.

Brennert, Alan.
Expecting to receive the education she is denied as a female in Korea in 1914, Regret travels to Honolulu as the picture bride for a wealthy Korean man who has established himself in the tropical paradise. Instead she finds herself married to a violent alcoholic who is an impoverished plantation worker.

How to be an American housewife
Dilloway, Margaret.
Encouraged by her father to marry an American serviceman in order to climb out of the dire circumstances of post-World War II Japan, Shoko ultimately settles with her husband and two children in San Diego, California. Never embraced by the Americans she meets, Shoko devotes herself completely to her family. With her health failing, she asks her grown daughter to travel to Japan to seek reconciliation with the brother who turned on her when she married one of the their country's enemies.

How to read the air
Mengestu, Dinaw, 1978-

Working at a refugee resettlement center in Manhattan, Jonas Woldemarian edits and embellishes the personal statements of asylum applicants. As he recounts the violent and numbing saga of his father’s escape from war torn Ethiopia and his mother’s adjustment upon her arrival in Peoria, Illinois, Jonas may or may not again be embellishing.

Interpreter of maladies : stories
Lahiri, Jhumpa.
In Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize-winning debut collection, her Indian-American characters contend with assimilation, cultural traditions, and family relationships that cross generations and national borders.

Into the Beautiful North: A Novel
Urrea, Luis Alberto

All the men have left Tres Camarones for the United States, leaving its residents vulnerable to abuse from local bandidos. But after 19-year-old Nayeli watches The Magnificent Seven, she and her friends hatch a plan to take back their village.

The Joy Luck Club
Tan, Amy.
This book follows four immigrant Chinese mothers and their American born daughters in a series of vignettes that explore the impact of their life experiences on their familial relations.

Kamal Jann
Eddé, Dominique.

A searing family saga set in modern Syria, Europe and the United States.  All the elements of a Shakespearean historical tragedy are here, where a patriarch's will to power creates generational damage, sorrow and chaos.

The Kite Runner
Hosseini, Khaled.

A tale of a tumultuous father-son relationship in present-day Afghanistan and the United States which reveals two family secrets.

The leavers
Ko, Lisa,

Deming Guo’s mother disappears when he is eleven years old, and the white couple that adopts him rename him Daniel Wilkinson and attempt to make him over into their version of an “all-American boy”.

2017-2018 Asian Pacific American Award for Literature, Adult Fiction.

Make your home among strangers
Crucet, Jennine Capo.

In this award-winning debut novel, tough life-altering decisions face Lizet, daughter of Cuban immigrants, who is about to enter college, and leave her immediate family.  A hard-won opportunity for advancement in a new country is not necessarily the answer to all of life's questions.

A map of home : a novel
Jarrar, Randa.

Nidali, the daughter of a Palestinian father and an Egyptian-Greek mother, recounts with comedic aplomb her childhood in Kuwait, her family’s harrowing escape during the Iraqi invasion, the no-holds-barred fights between her parents, her teenage years in Egypt, and the family’s ultimate move to Texas where she is routinely perceived as a Spanish-speaking Latina.

Monstress : stories
Tenorio, Lysley.

This debut collection of stories is noteworthy for its depiction of a spectrum of Filipino and Filipino-American experiences little represented in American literature; settings include San Francisco’s Manilatown in the 1930s, a Philippine leper colony in the 60s, and the Manila film scene of the 70s. What makes the stories truly enjoyable though, is Tenorio’s ability to cut to the quick of deep emotions with control and with humor.

The namesake
Lahiri, Jhumpa.

Born in Boston soon after his parents arrive from Calcutta, Gogul Ganguli grows up embracing American ways that are an affront to his family’s Bengali heritage. He even legally changes his given name, which his father had chosen to honor a Russian writer he credits with saving his life.The book is beautifully descriptive, capturing 30 years in brief, relevant snippets.

No more boats
Castagna, Felicity,

The novel takes place during the time of the Tampa affair when a Norwegian freighter with 433 refugees, mostly from Afghanistan, was denied entrance to Australia. The father of an Italian immigrant family makes a dramatic life-changing decision that will affect more than his immediate family.

On Earth we're briefly gorgeous
Vuong, Ocean

Three immigrants are struggling to survive in America amidst trauma, abuse, racism, homophobia, addiction, and yet the dark core alternates with light and humorous moments. Absolutely stunning prose from a wildly talented (and absurdly young) poet.

Other people's houses.
Segal, Lore Groszmann.

Lore Segal’s semi-autobiographical novel is about her life as a refugee Jewish child evacuated from Austria during World War II to the relative safety of England. It is a poignant and candid reflection about a child’s displacement, and how it feels to be thrust into new surroundings, without the immediate comfort and solace of one’s own family.

The refugees
Nguyen, Viet Thanh, 1971-

A collection of eight short stories exploring the Vietnamese American diaspora.

2017-2018 Asian Pacific American Award for Literature, Honor, for Adult Fiction.

The reluctant fundamentalist
Hamid, Mohsin, 1971-

Changez reminisces to an American he meets in Lahore, Pakistan, about his meteoric rise to success in a New York financial firm, and his acceptance in elite social circles via his relationship with a woman he met while a student at Princeton University. After September 11, 2001, his love for his new country transforms.

The Sympathizer
Nguyen, Viet Thanh, 1971-

As the Vietnam War, and U.S. involvement, comes to an inconclusive end in 1975, Viet Thanh Nguyen skillfully portrays the conflicts which existed within the Vietnamese people. There were those who supported the United States and those who supported the North Vietnamese, but how they did this was not always clearly evident.

The world we found : a novel
Umrigar, Thrity N.

Though she has lived in America for almost thirty years, Armaiti’s greatest wish, when diagnosed with a brain tumor, is for a reunion with her three best friends from their undergraduate student activist days in Bombay. Laleh and Kavita don’t hesitate to accept the invitation to travel to America, but they first need to find Nishta, who disappeared when her Hindu parents disowned her for marrying a Muslim