By Carole Reedy
For centuries, men, women, and children have been roaming our planet, relocating for a variety of reasons, from hunger and safety to gainful employment. The immigration phenomenon is grist for writers who guide us in our understanding of human nature and desire. Here is a sprinkling of notable literary works relating the wide-ranging experiences of immigrants.
Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, by Steven Crane
Crane’s short first novel, the 1893 Bowery tale Maggie: A Girl of The Streets, is considered to be the first work of American literary naturalism. It is packed with the dialect of the neighborhood where Crane lived in 1864, causing this reader a bit of distress in deciphering the vernacular.
In the 1700s, the Lower East Side of Manhattan – the Bowery – was farmland for a Dutch immigrant population (Bowery is derived from bouwerij, the Dutch word for farm). Later, with the rise of the meat industry and other businesses, the area became citified, a place where grand mansions for the rich stood proudly. But the neighborhood changed once again in the 1800s, when the mansions were converted into houses of prostitution as the population grew.
From 1850 until 1900, thousands of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and then Italy settled in the Bowery to find their American Dream. It is this later Bowery about which Crane writes, populated by poor immigrants who struggle through life day to day.
As the title suggests, the story follows young Maggie, a victim of parental alcoholism, abuse, and poverty. Her life, like the novel, is short as well as violent, the tragic tale of many immigrants trying to survive in a new country.
The Tortilla Curtain + East Is East, by T. C. Boyle
Thomas Coraghessan Boyle, prolific narrator of American mores via his numerous novels and dozens of short stories, wrote The Tortilla Curtain in 1995. It sits prominently on my top-ten list of literary masterpieces. The plot takes place in Topanga Canyon, a ritzy area of Los Angeles, where we encounter the sharply wrought juxtaposition of wealthy residents living behind gates and walls contrasted with the surrounding poorer Mexican inhabitants who are trying to eke out a living in the land of plenty.”
To give you an idea of the magic of T.C. Boyle: in Understanding T.C. Boyle (2009), critic Paul William Gleason writes, “Boyle’s stories and novels take the best elements of Carver’s minimalism, Barth’s postmodern extravaganzas, Garcia Marquez’s magical realism, O’Connor’s dark comedy and moral seriousness, and Dickens’ entertaining and strange plots and brings them to bear on American life in an accessible, subversive, and inventive way.
Fortunately for Boyle’s loyal following, he has written not only many novels, but novels on a wide variety of subjects. The Road to Wellville (1993, turned into a film in 1994) dissects the Kellogg family phenomenon, while The Women (2009) explores the significant women who influenced the life of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. An activist for environmental protection, Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth (2000)is the one to read on this topic.
In keeping with the immigration theme of this issue, I need to mention another of his outstanding novels, East Is East, also one of my favorites. The immigrant in question here is a refugee of Japanese descent, the action taking place in the unlikely setting of a spa in Georgia. His characterizations of the immigrant and those he encounters, including a Jewish “princess,” are so evocative that 20 years later I can still conjure up the main characters of this novel.
‘Tis: A Memoir, by Frank McCourt
‘Tis: A Memoir, published in 1991 on the heels of McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Angela’s Ashes, continues McCourt’s immigrant story. In Angela’s Ashes we read about his impoverished childhood in Ireland (McCourt was born in Brooklyn, but his family returned to Ireland during the Great Depression in the US). In ‘Tis, this follow-up narrative, we accompany McCourt while he adjusts to the America to which he returns as an Irish immigrant.
The Irish-American story is significant in US history, and McCourt has been widely recognized for his explorations of it. In July 2011, his brother Malachy McCourt opened The Frank McCourt Library in Limerick, Ireland. Housed in the former school of Frank and Malachy, it showcases the 1930s classroom of Leamy School as well as a collection of memorabilia.
Malachy McCourt is also a writer. My favorite of his writings is his memoir A Monk Swimming, the title a play on words from the Catholic prayer phrase “Blessed are you amongst women,” which Malachy as a child misunderstood as “a monk swimming.” The memoir is as entertaining and humorous as the title. He writes with a much lighter hand than his brother Frank.
What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng: A Novel, by Dave Eggers
Like T.C. Boyle, Dave Eggers is, to my mind, a Renaissance Man. Here are two men with enormous talent of expression that they apply to a range of subjects concerning the human condition. Through their words they create characters and situations that take the reader into unknown worlds.
What Is the What? is indeed penned as a novel, but, as are many of Boyle’s and Eggers’ novels, is based on fact and real occurrences. What is the What? is the story of the Lost Boys of Sudan, the boys who roamed the fields of Africa from Sudan into Ethiopia to escape the violence in their own country. It is told from the point of view of one of the boys, Valentino Achak Deng, one of 4,000 Lost Boys who eventually finds his way to the US.
Tell Me How It Ends + Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli
Valeria Luiselli, a Mexican woman who has lived in Costa Rica, South Korea, India, and South Africa (her father was the first Mexican ambassador to South Africa), celebrated her 36th birthday this month and her short adult life has been lived so far as a successful author of narratives. Just recently she wrote her first novel in English, Lost Children Archive (2019), which is long-listed for this year’s Booker prize. Lost Children Archive is receiving rave reviews from the women in my Mexico City book club as well as from prominent reviewers in the New York Times and The Guardian.
It tells a Kerouac-style tale of a broken family crossing into the US, each of the parents pursuing a different goal, the father in search of the life of Geronimo and the mother writing about the Latin American children held at the southern US border.
Many of us enjoyed Luiselli’s humorous-yet-touching novela, The Story of My Teeth (2015), as well as her lengthy essay Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions (2017). The latter is her personal story of the time she spent as an interviewer and translator in New York City for Central American child refugees who, after crossing the southern US border, are sent to NY for processing. Luiselli tells her own children these immigrant stories, to which her children plead, “Mama, tell us how it ends; what happens to the children?”
Luiselli has a remarkable talent for engaging the reader in thinking about some of the most pertinent issues in our modern world. She has expressed surprise at the number of translations, awards, and recognition she has received as a young Mexican woman.
DP: Displaced Person, by Margarita Meyendorff
Meyendorff finds her autobiography (published in 2016) among the most prestigious of writers about immigration. Her story gives us yet another perspective: the tale of a family forced to leave their ancestral home in Russia and of the daughter who then travels the world looking for peace of mind and body.
Although Meyendorff’s Russian baron father danced with Anastasia in the Czar’s Russia, Margarita herself was born in a camp for displaced persons in Germany after WW2. The memoir follows her difficult, yet adventurous life. Reader reviews on Amazon place this book among the most engaging of immigrant stories.
The Namesake + The Interpreter of Maladies + The Lowlands, by Jhumpa Lahiri
Many of us are distressed by recent news that our beloved Jhumpa Lahiri has ceased to compose novels in English in order to pursue her study of Italian and to write only in that language. You can read about this decision in her book In Other Words, in which she discusses identity and language. Lahiri is an Indian-American writer, born in London.
Lahiri leaves us with a memorable collection of novels and short stories written in English, most of which tell different tales of being “the other” and the immigrant experience. Here are three of her most popular books:
The Namesake (2003) is Lahiri’s first novel, and it focuses on the divide between Indian immigrants and their Americanized children. It was subsequently made into a successful movie.
The Interpreter of Maladies (1999), nine short stories about the Indian immigration experience, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, making Lahiri the first Indian-American to win that prestigious award. This may be Lahiri’s most popular book. Even those of us who prefer novels to short stories were surprised that these stories left us as satisfied as her novels. This book gave me the impetus to pursue enjoyment in other short-story collections as well.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, The Lowland: A Novel (2013) is an emotionally charged novel that tells the story of two brothers, born just before the 1947 Partition in India. We follow their childhoods, growing up attached to one another, followed by an adulthood spent in different countries, separated by continents and oceans and philosophical ways of living. As always, Lahiri’s manner of telling the tale is as engaging as the topic itself.
Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid
This 2017 novel takes place in vastly different unnamed locations where refugee couple Nadia and Saheed find themselves, chapter by chapter, rather abruptly placed. For many readers this technique is effective, but it left me confused and dissatisfied. (The same approach, however, of unnamed people and places is used in Milkman, the recent Booker Prize-winner by Anna Burns, where I found it integral to the emotions the novel intends to portray.)
Hamid, a Pakistani writer, also authored The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), which some readers found more satisfying than Exit West. The Guardian called it one of the books that define a decade. Exit West is Hamid’s fourth novel and was named by the New York Times one of the Ten Best Books of 2017.