Coming to America - Immigration Fiction (2018)

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah opens with the main character, Nigerian Ifemelu, on her way to get her hair braided. She lives in Princeton but has to go to Trenton to have her hair braided because "the few black locals she had seen were so light-skinned and lank-haired she could not imagine them wearing braids." She has just finished her fellowship at Princeton and she writes an anonymous life blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. She has an African-American boyfriend named Blaine, but her thoughts are turning toward a young man she loved and left in Nigeria. When the book opens, she is thinking about returning home.

Americanah is told in flashback; we watch Ifemelu as she struggles in America to find a job to support herself as she goes to college. Every perspective employer seems to like her, but no one will give her a job. Thanks to a long-time Nigerian friend, she interviews with a wealthy family and is finally hired as a life-in babysitter. She is not completely alone in America - an aunt and nephew have preceded her there. Although she physically resembles me in no way, shape or form, I found myself identifying with her - the desire to reverse a decision that seemed like the right thing to do at the time but now feels like a mistake, the searching for any mention of my hometown yet being afraid to make another big move, and the feeling of not fitting in with other young women. She has a wonderful sense of humor and an interest in learning about other people.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Kathy Carter, Riverhead Free Library

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

When he is 11-years-old, Deming's mother goes to work one day, and never returns. Deming is soon put into foster care and then adopted. We meet Deming again 10 years later, and struggling with an identity crisis. Does he want to try to be the academic his academic adoptive parents want him to be, or does he want to follow his own love of music and try to make it as a musician? Ko is more than a little heavy-handed in making the reader understand that this is something of a stand-in for his mixed feelings about being an American-born Chinese who spent half of his life in a lily-white upstate New York college town.

This character-driven story will appeal both to readers who enjoy books about immigrants, as well as those about characters searching for their own personal identity. Told through the point of view of Deming (in the third person) and his mother (in the first person), the full story of what happened to Deming's mother, both how she came to America and what happened the day she disappeared, is gradually revealed, sprinkled throughout Deming’s quest to find himself. This is a grim, but ultimately hopeful and redemptive novel that lays out the difficulties of immigration and assimilation without being overly preachy.

Across a Green Ocean by Wendy Lee
Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran
Digging to America by Anne Tyler

Mara Zonderman, Westhampton Free Library

What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera

Ganga grew up in Sri Lanka as an only child of a well-to-do family with cooks, maids, and a gardener. She played with her friends at school and in the gardens and river at home.

Woven through her childhood, the author writes poetically of Ganga being sexually abused, but the reader doesn’t know by whom.

After her father dies, Ganga and her mother immigrate to California, living with Ganga’s cousin and family. All Ganga knows of America is from the Tiger Beat and Teen Beat magazines and clothes that her cousin in California used to send her. She learns to style her hair, shave her legs, and use a knife and fork. Her mother works with the family at their travel agency.

She lives the American Dream, graduating from college, becoming a nurse, and moving to San Francisco. Her cousin accepts an arranged marriage, but Ganga doesn’t date and wants nothing to do with men – until she meets Daniel, an aspiring artist.

They marry and are living happily until Ganga gives birth to a daughter. Then old wounds reopen sending Ganga into a dark tailspin, where Daniel can’t reach her. Separated, she receives a postcard from him that reads: “I’ll never forgive you. I’ll always love you.”

A sad story of mental illness and the terrible things that can happen when not addressed. Much of the writing is lyrical and poetic. An easy read that is slightly suspenseful, which keeps one turning the pages.

Romesh Gunesekera
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
Jhumpa Lahiri
The Gravedigger's Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates

Lori Ludlow, Babylon Public Library

The Mortifications by Derek Palacio

In a violent confrontation with her husband Uxbal, Soledad Encarnacion takes her children and flees Cuba in the Mariel boat-lift of 1980. Her husband remains in Cuba to support the revolution. This is how Palacio’s family saga of an immigrant family begins.

Soledad and her children travel north to Hartford, Connecticut rather than settling in Miami, because they have a family contact there. The family adapts to their new surroundings, with an irreverence for the life they left behind. Soledad secures a job as a court stenographer; her son excels in school; and her daughter has a spiritual revelation that steers her towards life in a convent. Soledad meets a local tobacco farmer and begins a torrid love affair that will sustain her through the tumult that is to come—an estrangement from her daughter and a cancer diagnosis. Then a letter arrives from Cuba. Uxbal has tracked down his family. The letter becomes a strong call to home, and one by one the characters are pulled back to their homeland.

The storyline unfolds in a dramatic fashion from the first page. Each character is thoroughly fleshed out, and Palacio employs biblical and mythological references throughout the novel—a familiarity with these themes, though not necessary, can enhance a reader’s experience. The novel ultimately raises the question “can anyone ever really escape the strong ties to their personal past, their family, or their homeland?”

A Free Life by Ha Jin
The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu
Broken Paradise by Cecelia Samartin

Deborah Fermosa, Northport-Eat Northport Public Library

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

Lisa See explores the lives of Li-yan, a Chinese woman and her daughter, Haley, who has been adopted by an American couple. Li-yan lives in a remote village in the Yunnan region of China. The story begins in 1988 and the first revelation is the life of the Akha tea growers in comparison to modern civilization. One of China’s ethnic minorities, they live in primitive conditions in tiny homes isolated from the world outside their village.

When she secretly has a baby out of wedlock, she defies the Akha law which dictates killing the infant. She wraps her daughter in a blanket with a tea cake hidden in her swaddling and leaves her on the doorstep of an orphanage in the nearest city. The tea cake becomes the only key to a reunion many years later.

One day a stranger arrives in the first automobile the villagers have ever seen and finds the rare pu-er tea he has been seeking. Li-yan, one of the few educated girls in the village, translates for the stranger and a deal is made which will lure Li-yan out of her village into the modern world and the business of tea. Li-yan slowly emerges from the security and insularity of her village to encounter modern life while her daughter Haley grows up in a privileged home in California. Despite Haley’s happy home life, she wonders about her birth mother and her origins and Li-yan longs for her lost daughter. Living on two different continents, they begin to search for each other using the only clue they have – the tea cake which Li-yan placed with her infant daughter. A powerful story about mothers and daughters, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane paints an unforgettable portrait of a little known region and its people and explores the bond between parents and children. It is also an exploration of the lives of immigrants. First Haley and other Chinese girls adopted by Americans and then Li-yan, as she takes up residence in the United States.

The pace is slow but necessary to evoke the passing of time. An excellent choice for YA and readers of every age!

The novels of Lisa See

Grace O'Connor, West Islip Public Library, Retired

Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran

Soli​, a young Mexican woman, embarks upon a dangerous journey for the chance of a better life. She narrowly avoids drug traffickers, rides the tops of trains, and endures violence at the hands of callous men before finally arriving at her cousin’s California apartment. There she is set up with work cleaning the home of a well-to-do Berkeley family and caring for their daughter -- when she finds out she herself is pregnant by a boy she barely knew. She later gives birth to a healthy baby son and manages to care for him that first year as she lives under the radar hoping not to be discovered by the authorities.

Kavya ​is a second generation Indian-American woman living relatively comfortably in Berkeley. She finds herself at a point in life where her biological clock hammers away loudly in the foreground. She and her husband, Rishi, do everything they can to conceive until it becomes Kavya’s obsession. After fertility treatments end in heartbreak they apply with the state to be foster parents, hoping to one day care for a child and maybe even adopt him or her as their own.

And then it happens. Soli loses track of her employer’s child. In a search of the area her cousin runs a red light. Sirens, a chase… and she is caught. Ignacio, her baby son, is taken from her and becomes a ward of the state. As Soli enters detention, Kavya receives a call that there is a baby in need of care. The following year traces Soli’s journey through what amounts to a de facto prison system devoid of empathy and oftentimes human decency. Meanwhile, as Kavya and Rishi care for Ignacio they fall head over heels in love with him and can never imagine one day having to give him up. Kavya embraces motherhood wholeheartedly while knowing all the while that “she’d built her love on a fault line” (p351).

Lucky Boy explores how love and the bonds we form can bring us both unfathomable joy and devastating loss. It portrays an immigration system that glances over the humanity of the people caught within it, and speaks to the indifference of our institutions. Halfway through it becomes truly compelling as events begin to accelerate. Both of the main female characters live in a sense on borrowed time, and the bittersweet ending, while not tragic, leaves one with mixed feelings about who deserves the reader’s sympathy. Written by turns in lyrical language and a quirky, relatable tone, Lucky Boy is a novel for all readers, and especially those interested in themes of motherhood and immigration.

We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
A House for Happy Mothers by Amulya Mallado
The Same Sky by Amanda Eyre Ward

Christine Parker-Morales, Comsewogue Public Library

Mango Bride by Marivi Soliven

This story caught my interest from the very first, shocking opening scene, and the “how’s” and “why’s” of that event reverberate throughout the story as the reader meets all Soliven’s characters and comes to understand the connections between them. And their secrets. We meet Manila’s very affluent Duerta-Guerrero clan, as well as the servants who make it possible for them to lead privileged, indulgent lives, lives that cause great harm to others. One of these damaged others, Amparo, is exiled, by her family, when she becomes pregnant by a scion of another wealthy Philippine family who chooses not to marry her. The other central character, Beverly, becomes a mail order bride (the mango bride of the book’s title) to escape the desperate poverty in to which she is born. Amparo and Beverly’s lives intersect in California, uniting several plot lines and revealing major secrets.

Soliven is a wonderful writer: rich, descriptive detail of scenery and cultural life make the Philippines come alive on the page. Émigré life and the longing to recover connection are both beautifully evoked. Even the minor characters feel real, enlisting the reader’s empathy. I hope we can expect a sequel from this talented author!

“The Mango Bride” would make a fabulous choice for a book club specializing in women’s issues or matters of social justice. A very helpful feature is an excellent, well thought-out Conversation Guide created by the author which includes some great questions for discussion.

America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo

Suzanne McGuire, Commack Public Library

The Same Sky by Amanda Eyre Ward

Carla is six when her mother leaves to try to make it to America leaving Carla and her younger twin brothers with their grandmother. Now age twelve, we learn of Carla’s hard life, the fear every time she leaves the house and the once-a-week phone calls with her mother, who sends some clothes and as much money as she can to try to help. After her mother pays for her brother Carlos to be brought across the border and her grandmother gets sick and passes away, Carla must figure out a way to save both herself and her remaining brother Junior and get them out of a town where it’s not safe to leave the house and everyone has taken to sniffing glue to get through the desperation of day-to-day life.

Meanwhile, Alice has a nice life in Austin, Texas with a loving husband and a barbecue restaurant that’s beginning to make it big. However, the one thing Alice really wants, but can’t have due to having cancer in college, is a baby. Alice and her husband Jake have just suffered the loss of adopting a baby boy and having him for one night before needing to give him back when the birth mother changes her mind. Alice is at a crossroads having so much love to give and no outlet to share it.

Told in alternate chapters, The Same Sky is the story of Carla, who is trying to escape the poverty and desolation of her small village in Honduras and of Alice, who is unable to have children but wants one with all of her heart. Each has a strong will and has to endure many hardships before there is any chance at happiness and each one does with as much grace as possible given the difficult situations they are in. The story is not a happy one, but there is happiness and hope throughout. Alice is easy to relate to while Carla is easy to sympathize with and the novel is written in a simple language that keeps the reader turning the pages to find out how each character’s story will end. This book would be great for book groups and readers who like authors like Jodi Picoult and Sue Miller.

Little Bee by Chris Cleave
We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Azuree Agnello, West Babylon Public Library