I recently read Akhil Sharma’s Family Life about an Indian family who move to America only to find themselves dealing with tragedy – a son who becomes an invalid. It’s a beautifully written novel that manages to make misery entertaining. As much of this entertainment comes from the young narrator acclimatising to an alien culture, it’s had me thinking about other immigration literature.
Over the years, I’ve read countless books, fiction and non-fiction, about people who move from one country to another. Some stories are about the journey and the personal transformation that takes place when one lives in a different culture, while others pick up on the characters already living in their new country but being identified as immigrants. Before doing what every modern writer does – browsing a subject online – I considered my own list of favourite immigration novels. The firsts to come to mind were My Antonia by Willa Cather about a Czech community settling in Nebraska and Native Speaker by Chang Rae Lee about Koreans in California. I confess that the Lee book might be particularly memorable as I read it when I was living in South Korea, experiencing the flip-side. Also on my personal list are Jhumpa Lahiti’s The Lowland, Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban, Andrea Levy’s Small Island and David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars.
When I searched online for immigration literature I found books from my list alongside some unlikely choices – Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (I guess it’s immigration though within one country) and Nabokov’s Lolita (Humbert being the immigrant, though hardly the point in my opinion). Another book that appeared on one list was Husseini’s The Kite Runner, which I struggle to see immigrant fiction. So much of it takes place in Afghanistan and it doesn’t stick in my mind as a story about culture clash or transformation.
I’m sure I’ve left books out, and I am aware of the tendency of such lists, including my own, to be about people moving to countries like America and Britain. Immigration literature could include westerners moving to other lands – that’s another blog, as is immigration poetry.