25 great stories about the immigrant experience

25 great stories about the immigrant experience

The sixth category for the 2017 Reading Challenge—for those of you who are stretching yourselves this year—is “a book about the immigrant experience.”

Why? The books that fulfill this category automatically include a diversity of plot lines that make for a good story: the clash of cultures, the journey tale, the confusion of identities, the pang of homesickness, the nostalgic look to the past.

Depending on which title you choose, this could be your opportunity to take a journey you’ll never actually live, to travel back in time, to better understand your neighbors, or to experience your own land through radically different eyes.

Need ideas for this category? There are so many good ones, which is why I’ve included a whopping twenty-five titles here. Most are fiction; a few are non-. All are fair game for this category. I can’t wait to hear your suggestions, and to see which titles YOU choose to read.

What are you reading for this category? What titles would you add to the list?

Series: Reading Challenge: An Immigrant Story
A Fall of Marigolds

A Fall of Marigolds

Author:
I know a lot of Susan Meissner fans, and many of those readers cite this one as their favorite. The action goes back and forth in time between two women, a century apart, who are linked by a beautiful scarf and by their unlikely survival in two devastating tragedies in New York City. Now, a woman struggles to make a new life for herself after 9/11. In the past, a woman deeply affected by the Triangle Shirtwaist Sire nurses immigrants on Ellis Island. Meissner's tone makes this an easy, enjoyable read despite the tough subject matter—I read this in a day. More info →
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

Author:
From the author of The Tiger Who Came to Tea. In this 1971 middle-grade novel, Kerr draws on her own experiences as a Jewish child in Germany: Kerr was born in Berlin, the daughter of an established German writer, but her own family fled the country in 1933 as the political situation became increasingly dangerous. A gentle and compassionate introduction to World War II history for young readers. More info →
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

Author:
Major Pettigrew's friends and neighbors can't believe he'd befriend Mrs. Ali, a Pakistani immigrant who doesn't understand their ways, but they bond over their common experiences and a shared love of reading. A winsome story with an unlikely hero -- a widower who was raised to believe in propriety above all falls hopelessly in love with someone who is completely wrong for him, at least by the standards of his small English village. More info →
The Hundred Dresses

The Hundred Dresses

Author:
Wanda Petronski is a Polish girl in a Connecticut school whose classmates make fun of her for wearing the same old dress every day. Wanda defends herself by saying she has a hundred dresses at home, but nobody believes her. When Wanda moves away, her classmates feel terrible--but it’s too late to make things right, even though they now know the truth behind Wanda's claim. A poignant, beautiful book. More info →
Little Bee

Little Bee

Author:
I adored last summer's Everyone Brave Is Forgiven. Cleave knows how to tell a good story, and in his sophomore novel, he weaves together the lives of his narrator Little Bee, an illegal Nigerian refugee who has renamed herself to evade pursuit by the Nigerian militia, and a recently widowed Londoner. A powerful story that's not exactly easy to read. (Get your Kleenex ready.) More info →
Orphan Train: A Novel

Orphan Train: A Novel

In Kline's bestselling novel, an unlikely friendship blossoms in the common ground of two women's rootless childhoods. Eighteen-year-old Molly is one mishap away from getting kicked out of foster care, even before she shortly ages out. Vivian is 91, a well-to-do widow who has lived a quiet life for many decades. But as a child, she was part of a failed social experiment: she was among the thousands of young orphans, many, like her, the children of immigrants, who were shipped west to find a home with midwestern families. This story of surprising friendship and second chances is a book club favorite. More info →
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Author:
I loved this story from page 1. If you're new to this novel, brace yourself: Francie Nolan is about to win you over. Her Irish Catholic family is struggling to stay afloat in the Brooklyn slums, in the midst of great change at the turn of the century, while her charismatic but doomed father is literally drinking himself to death. But Francie is young, sensitive, imaginative, and determined to make a life for herself. A moving story of unlikely beauty and resilience. More info →
The Sun Is Also a Star

The Sun Is Also a Star

Author:
Yoon's latest is a YA novel with ALL THE FEELS. Daniel and Natasha meet and fall in love over the course of one whirlwind day in NYC, the day before her family is set to be deported to Jamaica; they lack the documentation to stay. In his own way, Daniel is also trapped: his Korean family has big plans for his future, plans that don't align with what he wants for himself. Yoon tackles serious issues here—identity, family, fate—but she does it with such a light touch, it almost reads as breezy. I read this in an afternoon. More info →
Pachinko

Pachinko

Author:
In this sweeping domestic drama, Lee tracks four generations of a 20th-century Korean family back to the time when Japan annexed the country in 1910, affecting the fates of all. Lee portrays the struggles of one struggling Korean family against the backdrop of cultural and political unrest, as they endure fierce discrimination at the ends of the Japanese. A compelling portrait of a little-explored period of history. More info →
Before We Visit the Goddess

Before We Visit the Goddess

I LOVED this book (and so did many of you). This novel in stories was nothing at all what I expected. The novel tracks three generations of Indian women and their fraught relationships. The title comes from a chance encounter one of these women has with a stranger, which is fitting because my favorite parts of the story deal with the small moments that change the course of a person's life, and the unlikely friendships that do the same. More info →
O Pioneers!

O Pioneers!

Author:
I never read Cather as a student, so I'm making my way through her work now. This 1913 novel, considered by many to be her best work, shows the transformation of the Nebraska frontier—and the people who settled it—through the eyes of one woman. This is the first in a trilogy, with The Song of the Lark and completing the series. More info →
Brooklyn

Brooklyn

Author:
In this quiet coming-of-age story, set just after the second World War, a young girl from Ireland's County Wexford is offered the opportunity to travel to America to settle in a a Brooklyn neighborhood that's "just like Ireland," with the assurance of an education and a good job. She had no intention of leaving home, but can't say this aloud, and so she goes. A poignant novel with homesickness at its heart, reminiscent of Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. More info →
Girl in Translation

Girl in Translation

Author:
When 12-year-old Kimberly and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn, Kimberly quickly assumed a double life: model student by day, Chinatown sweatshop worker by night. Kwok emigrated herself as a young girl, and her own immigrant experience imbues this plucky story with the ring of truth. Participating in the 2017 MMD Reading Challenge? This could absolutely be a book you read for the cover. More info →
The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story

Author:
In this memoir, Lee tells the story of her daring escape from North Korea when she was 17, and what happened after. Growing up in a town on the Chinese border, the stark contrast between the two countries was clear to young Lee. When an opportunity for escape opened, she took it, and then finally returned many years later to spirit her family away, this time to South Korea. Oprah called Hyeonseo Lee's "the most riveting TED talk ever." More info →
Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith

Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith

Author:
In this memoir, D.L. Mayfield recounts how living among immigrants transformed her understanding of the immigrant and missionary experiences. As a young Christian, Mayfield was determined to save the world, one soul at a time. She thought she knew exactly what they needed, and was determined to bring it right to them. But years later, Mayfield and her family settle in a neighborhood heavily populated by Somalian refugees in Portland, Oregon. As she befriends people with backgrounds radically different from her own, she experiences their immigrant lives through fresh lives, and discovers the value of knowing—and being served by—all our neighbors. More info →
The Namesake

The Namesake

Author:
In this follow-up to Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize-winning debut, Interpreter of Maladies, she tells the story of the Ganguli family. Following their arranged marriage, husband and wife travel from Calcutta to Massachusetts and struggle to become Americans. It's complicated enough when it's just the two of them, but when they have a son, the generational clash heightens the burden of assimilation—for all three of them. More info →
Behold the Dreamers: A Novel

Behold the Dreamers: A Novel

Author:
In 2007 Manhattan, two families' lives become intertwined. Family one is that of immigrants from Cameroon: a dishwasher, his wife, and their young son. Their lives are changed when the husband scores a job as a chauffeur for a wealthy family of the 1%. But in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession, there's plenty of trouble to go around for both families. The Tenement Museum in NYC calls this a must-read immigrant story; Kirkus named it one of the best books of 2016. More info →
The Boston Girl

The Boston Girl

Author:
From the author of The Red Tent, a coming of age story about a young Jewish woman growing up in Boston at the turn of the last century. Born in America ("a real American," as her mother would say) to Russian immigrant parents, Addie's struggles are familiar to legions of children of first-generation immigrants. I like the structure of this story: 85-year-old Addie shares her life story with her twenty-something granddaughter, in response to the question "How did you get to be the woman you are today?" More info →
The Shoemaker’s Wife

The Shoemaker’s Wife

In this family saga, Trigiani's descriptive writing makes you feel you're right there as two star-crossed lovers journey from a small town in the Italian Alps to Little Italy in New York City, neither knowing the other has made the journey. Trigiani's multi-generational saga spans two families, two continents, two world wars, and nearly five hundred pages. More info →
The Light of the World: A Memoir

The Light of the World: A Memoir

I LOVED THIS. In Alexander's words: "The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story." The author's husband died just four days after his fiftieth birthday. A few years later, Alexander looks back on their life together, their love, and the impact of that loss in her life. Her source material is fantastic: Alexander is an American, born in Harlem. Her husband was born in Eritrea, in East Africa, and came to New Haven as a refugee from war. Both were artists—and their home sounds like this amazing, vibrant, multicultural extravaganza with food and friends and music and art. I could barely put this down, and while sad, it exudes joy. Heads up for audiophiles: Alexander's narration of her own work is magnificent. More info →
Love, Loss, and What We Ate: A Memoir

Love, Loss, and What We Ate: A Memoir

Author:
Lakshmi isn't a natural writer, but for many readers, her history makes up for it. Her c.v. is impressive: cookbook author, supermodel, Top Chef judge, fashion columnist, wife of Salman Rushdie. In her memoir, she reveals parts of her life that haven't been tabloid news fodder, from her recent life in NYC back to her Indian roots and their enduring significance in her life. More info →
Americanah

Americanah

This story centers around a smart, strong-willed Nigerian woman named Ifemelu. After university, she travels to America for postgraduate work, where she endures several years of near-destitution, and a horrific event that upends her world. She finds her way, winning a fellowship at Princeton, and gaining acclaim for her blog, called “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black." A highlight: Adichie seamlessly weaves blog posts—about race, national identity, class, poverty, and hair—into the narrative. The novel grapples with difficult issues without becoming overwrought. I would not have read this based on the flap copy, but I was hooked from page one. Haunting, moving, incredibly well done. Terrific on audio. More info →
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Author:
The first novel from award-winning author Díaz. Self-described "Dominican ghetto nerd" Oscar has never had an easy life. He's a misfit, an overweight Jersey-dweller who dreams of becoming the new Dominican Tolkien. But that's never going to happen, because his family is cursed. Of note: the newest audio version is read by Tony Award-winners Lin-Manuel Miranda and Karen Olivo. More info →
Cutting for Stone

Cutting for Stone

This engrossing story combines medicine, family, and politics to great effect. Moving between India, Ethiopia, and New York City, we follow the story of identical twin brothers, born of a secret union between an Indian nun and the British surgeon she assisted. Part coming-of-age story, part mystery, part sweeping family story, this novel defies easy genre categorizations and ranks as the favorite book EVER of legions of readers. Start this book with no preconceptions because the description doesn't do it justice. More info →
Exit West

Exit West

Author:
Two young people meet and find love during a time of great political unrest in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. As violence simmers and then explodes into war, they survey their options and make the difficult decision to flee the city, perhaps taking advantage of the rumored doors that open almost magically into other lands, like Syria or San Francisco. An evocative story improved by the restrained element of magical realism, and strongly reminiscent of The Underground Railroad. I recommend this book to Laura Tremaine in episode 68 of What Should I Read Next. More info →

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62 comments

  1. Christine says:

    The Hundred Dresses was probably one of my favorite books growing up. I always asked my mom to get it from the library. Such a good book!

  2. Eileen says:

    Just finished the Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen. A collection of short stories with excellent insights into the universal experiences faced by refugees. Based on the Vietnamese refugee experience.

  3. Christa says:

    Wow! I just learned that this must be one of my favorite genres. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is my all time favorite with The Boston Girl being one of my favorites as well. Pachinko is tied for best book I’ve read this year (along with This is the Way it Always Is). Thank you for this list, I will return to it for future TBR.

  4. Courtney says:

    I’d like to add American Street. Just finished it and it was excellent! High school student Fabiola and her mother immigrate from Haiti to resettle in Detroit with an aunt and cousins. Life in urban Detroit is not what Fabiola expects and she finds herself in way over her head due to cultural differences.

  5. Julie Feldman says:

    The Voyage of Their Live: The Story of the SS Derna and its Passengers by Diane Armstrong is a marvelous account of European immigrants who survived WWII and traveled to Australia to begin new lives. Mrs. Armstrong compellingly weaves narratives of individuals from many walks of life, sharing their heart-rending war experiences, shipboard encounters, and courageous adventures as they began a new life in a strange land.
    Armstrong is uniquely qualified to pen this work as she was a 9 year old passenger on the SS Derna. As a journalist she has the skills to ferret out interesting details and compassionately tells the stories of many amazing people. It’s an inspiring book of immigrants who overcame great obstacles.

  6. Sue K. says:

    The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar, or anything by Thrity Umrigar would be my choice for a great novel in this category.

  7. Jennifer N. says:

    Exit West is one of my favorite titles of the year (though I’ve noticed it’s not for everyone.) I just lent my stepmom my copy of Before We Visit the Goddess, since she lent me Interpreter of Maladies, both of which were so good! Americanah, The Namesake, The Sun is Also a Star, AND Little Bee are all currently on my bookshelves and my TBR list. I really need to get on it!

  8. Mary Kay says:

    Hi Anne! Thank you for sharing your list! I will definitely add some of those titles to my TBR list. I just read “That Thing We Call a Heart” by Sheba Karim, and really enjoyed its description of a Pakistani-American teenager navigating love and friendship the year after graduating from high school. While it is an easy-to read YA romance, it also tackles a wide range of cultural topics, including wearing hijab, Urdu poetry, and the partition of India and Pakistan. I would definitely recommend this book!

  9. Jennifer O. says:

    This year I’ve read a few immigrant stories: The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, Girl in Translation, and Americanah. The first is about an Ethiopian who comes to Washington, DC and deals with gentrification in poor neighborhoods as well as immigration.

  10. Michelle Wilson says:

    This one is not really on anyone’s radar. I think maybe they talked about it on a Book Riot podcast. An African in Greenland by Tete-Michel Kpomassie. A young boy from Togo ends up living in Greenland and of course, fish out of water problems endue!

  11. Margaret says:

    Rain of Gold by Victor Villasenor. I couldn’t put it down. It’s the story of the authors parents who were undocumented workers in Calif. The book was passed around my family for a summer and we all loved it and still discuss it years later. The characters become like family.

  12. What a fantastic list, hadn’t heard of several of these! I really loved Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea, a wonderful book about Irish immigrants travelling by sea to America in the mid-19th century.

  13. Isabelle H says:

    Great list – thanks for posting! I’d like to add “We Were the Lucky Ones” by Georgia Hunter, based on the true story of a family of Polish Jews who are separated at the start of WWII, determined to survive and somehow reunite. I found it relevant and gripping from start to finish.

  14. Deb Garvey says:

    Great list. I had read quite a few, several are on my to-read list. I HIGHLY recommend The Song Poet and The Latehomecomer by Kao Kahlia Yang. Deep, emotional, loving non-fiction books of a Hmong family immigrating to Minnesota.

  15. Loved Girl In Translation, Orphan Train, and Major Pettigrew (possibly all recommendations from your blog or podcast!). We Never Asked For Wings by Vanessa Diffenbough was also a good one about Mexican illegal immigrants.

  16. linda says:

    I REALLY LIKED THE ONE I READ FOR THIS CATERGORY— TITLED UPRISING WRITTEN BY MARGARET PERERSON HADDIX. RATED IT 4 STARS OUT OF 5.

  17. Michelle says:

    Great list, as always. I don’t think anyone else mentioned this one, but I would like to add No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal. I recently finished it and loved it.

  18. Andrea says:

    What a great list! I’m so glad to see “Girl in Translation” on this list. I had never heard of it but saw it on my library’s “Too Good to Miss” shelf (where they display good books that have been out for a while) and decided to pick it up. I loved this book and felt such a bond with Kim despite having vastly different life experiences.

  19. Anne says:

    Anne, I’ve just been appreciating you and your book recommendations lately and wanted to let you know. Thank you! You are amazing at what you do!

  20. Tana Henry says:

    So many great books on this list! I just added several to my TBR list. Will Cather has a special place in my heart, as she lived in Red Cloud, Nebraska, only about an hour from my home. Such expansive and beautiful writing!

  21. Janet says:

    Loved Little Bee!

    I would add The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street to this list (by Susan Jane Gilman). You could use the same book for the “unreliable narrator” category. Great ideas here. Thanks!

  22. Libby says:

    I listened to Behold the Dreamers on Audiobook and I can NOT recommend it nearly enough. So beautiful and such a skilled reader! All of the accents and songs and music–it was enchanting and heartbreaking.

  23. Malsi Welch says:

    In the Country We Love is a must read. Diane Guerrero’s memoir after coming home from school one day to find her parents had been deported. Heart wrenching and eye opening. Also, The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez, told from the point of view of several different Latino immigrants in one small northeast apartment complex. Also oldie but a goodie, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez

  24. Trishia says:

    Thank you for the list! These are my favorite kinds of stories because, as an adult, I’m actively seeking titles about diverse cultural experiences. I recommend In the Country by Mia Alvar. It’s a fantastic collection of short stories about the Filipino/a diaspora that feel so intimate that they left me thinking about the characters long after finishing the book.

  25. Renee P. says:

    Wow, I guess I’ve found my genre, too! I’ve read, and loved, so many of these books! Little Bee, Brooklyn, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Namesake. I guess I’ll have to add some of the others to my TBR! These are such beautiful, important stories for us to read. Thanks for another great list.

  26. Brooke says:

    I just finished reading Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran, and it would make a great addition to this list. The story of an undocumented Mexican woman, her American-born son, and the Indian-American couple who become his foster parents when his birth mother is arrested and held in immigrant detention. Excellent read!

  27. Joy in Alabama says:

    The Shoemaker’s Wife is SO good! I only buy books if I want to read them again and again. I bought this one!

  28. Michelle M says:

    In addition to the great titles on the list (especially A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), I would also recommend God Grew Tired of Us: a Memoir. While not the best writing, it’s worth the read as a very thought-provoking memoir of a Sudanese Lost Boy who immigrated to the US in 2001. I read this after watching the documentary by the same name. I also second another reader’s timely suggestion of Lost Boy.

    • Mary Ann Garcia says:

      This was one of my favorite prompts in the reading challenge this year. I truly enjoy delving into the struggles and personal victories of others – their lives, cultures and time periods. As a newly identified “Explorer” it was noteworthy that I had already read 10 of the 25 books listed and could identify at least another five from my TBR list. To your list of 25 I would add some oldies but goodies: How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accent or The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love; Breathe, Eyes, Memory; The Joy Luck Club; Angela’s Ashes; Brick Lane and My Antonia.

  29. Leanne says:

    I have read a couple of these already. Thanks for the extensive list – most of them are on my TBR list, but what a great reminder to get reading!

  30. Susan says:

    What a lot of great titles here! I’ve really added a lot to my TBR today! Here’s my recommendation – Until We Reach Home by Lynn Austin (amazing writer of lots of Christian fiction – one of my favorite authors). 3 orphaned sisters in Sweden come to the US through Ellis Island in 1897, wanting to end up in Chicago. This is a fabulous book!! 🙂

  31. Kirsten says:

    Howard Fast’s The Immigrants…just starting this one. Rec9mmended to me by my FIL, an immigrant from Austria.

  32. Elizabeth says:

    Great list! Another idea for this category is a graphic novel (a first for me!) I just finished called “The Best We Could Do” by Thi Bui. I can’t stop thinking about it. Something about the combination of the haunting illustrations and the author coming to terms with her own part in the larger story of her Vietnamese immigrant family…it was powerful. My husband’s family immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam as well, and some aspects of the family’s story in the novel are quite similar to his family’s experiences. I’m so glad I read this book…and now I want to recommend to it everyone I know.

  33. Allison says:

    So many great ones on this list! I read both Little Bee and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn this year, and I have The Hundred Dresses on my daughters’ bookshelf. I need to pull it out with them soon. Pachinko is on my TBR list.

    Another great one is What is the What by Dave Eggers, about one of the Lost Boys of Sudan.

    • Carrie says:

      Great list! I think I have read twenty of them! I’ll add The Leavers by Lisa Ko, a Chinese immigrant story that is very congruent with the world today. It has a blurb by Ann Patchett and one by Barbara Kingsolver, so no need for my endorsement!

  34. Torrie says:

    A great YA pick is Esperanza Rising—easily read in a day or two, all about a young girl’s immigration experience from Mexico to the US to work as a migrant farmer after her father’s death.

    Lisa See is a good author too to watch for themes of immigration–several of her books have it as a central theme, and I have yet to read a book of hers I didn’t love.

    http://autodidacticambitions.blogspot.com

    • Ellie says:

      These look like such interesting books! Good thing my husband works at a library! I just read The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande. It was honest, good, and I felt as if I had been there with her because of her great descriptive passages!

  35. This is one of your best lists ever. I have read number of these books and have now added several to my ongoing list. The most recent book I’ve read from this list is Exit West. Intriguing and I loved the added touch of mystical realism.

  36. Allison says:

    We just listened to the audiobook for “Ain’t So Awful Falafel” and it would be a great addition to the list too. I especially liked this book because my children enjoyed it as much as I did and I think we all learned more about the immigrant experience.

  37. Kelly says:

    I can’t say enough about The Book of Unknown Americans (Cristina Henriquez) and the insight it gave into what it’s like for new families trying to settle in the US. Highly Recommend.

  38. Jennifer Cook says:

    I loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I would also highly recommend Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife (my very favorite of hers), The Joy Luck Club or The Bonesetter’s Daughter. I learned so much about the Chinese – American experience and culture that has helped me understand more of Chinese history. I can’t wait to read some of the books on this list.

  39. Taylor says:

    This is probably my favorite genre of all fiction. Super surprised that you didn’t include Joy Luck Club, though. It’s so good, and a classic!

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