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‘Finding Home: The Immigrant Experience’

Powell’s Bookstore, in Portland, Oregon, is somewhere I dream of going in future (and preferably with an empty suitcase…).  I peruse their website from time to time, and have come across some absolutely wonderful book lists over the years.  One of their latest showcased shelves is entitled ‘Finding Home: The Immigrant Experience’, which collects together books about people who have moved to many different countries and experienced culture shocks and the like.  Travel is a big part of my life, and I am always interested in reading such accounts, both fiction and non-fiction.  I thought it would therefore be a nice idea to collect together eight of these novels, the first four of which I have read and would highly recommend, and the final four which are high on my to-read list.  You can view the full list here.

97806184852221. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Namesake is a finely wrought, deeply moving family drama that illuminates this acclaimed author’s signature themes: the immigrant experience, the clash of cultures, the tangled ties between generations.  The Namesake takes the Ganguli family from their tradition-bound life in Calcutta through their fraught transformation into Americans. On the heels of an arranged wedding, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli settle in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Ashoke does his best to adapt while his wife pines for home. When their son, Gogol, is born, the task of naming him betrays their hope of respecting old ways in a new world. And we watch as Gogol stumbles along the first-generation path, strewn with conflicting loyalties, comic detours, and wrenching love affairs. With empathy and penetrating insight, Lahiri explores the expectations bestowed on us by our parents and the means by which we come to define who we are.’
2. Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota (review here)
‘In the north of England, a group of young Indian immigrants struggle to begin something new–to support their families; to build their futures; to show their worth; to escape their pasts. An epic for our times, The Year of the Runaways is a stunning work of fiction that explores what it means and what it costs to make a new life, the capaciousness of the human spirit, and the power of humanity in the face of unspeakable suffering.’

3. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (review here) 9780749399573
‘Four mothers, four daughters, four families whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who’s “saying” the stories. In 1949 four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, begin meeting to eat dim sum, play mahjong, and talk. United in shared unspeakable loss and hope, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Rather than sink into tragedy, they choose to gather to raise their spirits and money. “To despair was to wish back for something already lost. Or to prolong what was already unbearable.” Forty years later the stories and history continue.  With wit and sensitivity, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between mothers and daughters. As each woman reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined. Mothers boast or despair over daughters, and daughters roll their eyes even as they feel the inextricable tightening of their matriarchal ties. Tan is an astute storyteller, enticing readers to immerse themselves into these lives of complexity and mystery.’
4. Brick Lane by Monica Ali
‘After an arranged marriage to Chanu, a man twenty years older, Nazneen is taken to London, leaving her home and heart in the Bangladeshi village where she was born. Her new world is full of mysteries. How can she cross the road without being hit by a car (an operation akin to dodging raindrops in the monsoon)? What is the secret of her bullying neighbor Mrs. Islam? What is a Hell’s Angel? And how must she comfort the naïve and disillusioned Chanu?  As a good Muslim girl, Nazneen struggles to not question why things happen. She submits, as she must, to Fate and devotes herself to her husband and daughters. Yet to her amazement, she begins an affair with a handsome young radical, and her erotic awakening throws her old certainties into chaos.  Monica Ali’s splendid novel is about journeys both external and internal, where the marvellous and the terrifying spiral together.’
97814197294855. The Displaced: Writers on Refugee Lives, edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen
‘Viet Nguyen, called “one of our great chroniclers of displacement” (Joyce Carol Oates, The New Yorker), brings together writers originally from Mexico, Bosnia, Iran, Afghanistan, Soviet Ukraine, Hungary, Chile, Ethiopia, and others to make their stories heard. They are formidable in their own right–MacArthur Genius grant recipients, National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award finalists, filmmakers, speakers, lawyers, professors, and New Yorker contributors–and they are all refugees, many as children arriving in London and Toronto, Oklahoma and Minnesota, South Africa and Germany. Their 17 contributions are as diverse as their own lives have been, and yet hold just as many themes in common.  These essays reveal moments of uncertainty, resilience in the face of trauma, and a reimagining of identity, forming a compelling look at what it means to be forced to leave home and find a place of refuge. The Displaced is also a commitment: ABRAMS will donate 10 percent of the cover price of this book, a minimum of $25,000 annually, to the International Rescue Committee, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing humanitarian aid, relief, and resettlement to refugees and other victims of oppression or violent conflict.’
6. The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu
‘Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian Revolution for a new start in the United States. Now he finds himself running a failing grocery store in a poor African-American section of Washington, D.C., his only companions two fellow African immigrants who share his bitter nostalgia and longing for his home continent. Years ago and worlds away Sepha could never have imagined a life of such isolation. As his environment begins to change, hope comes in the form of a friendship with new neighbors Judith and Naomi, a white woman and her biracial daughter. But when a series of racial incidents disturbs the community, Sepha may lose everything all over again.’
7. Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya 9781594632143
‘In this account of two decades in the life of an immigrant household, the fall of communism and the rise of globalization are artfully reflected in the experience of a single family. Ironies, subtle and glaring, are revealed: the Nasmertovs left Odessa for Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, with a huge sense of finality, only to find that the divide between the old world and the new is not nearly as clear-cut as they thought. The dissolution of the Soviet Union makes returning just a matter of a plane ticket, and the Russian-owned shops in their adopted neighborhood stock even the most obscure comforts of home. Pursuing the American Dream once meant giving up everything, but does the dream still work if the past is always within reach?  If the Nasmertov parents can afford only to look forward, learning the rules of aspiration, the familys youngest, Frida, can only look back.  In striking, arresting prose loaded with fresh and inventive turns of phrase, Yelena Akhtiorskaya has written the first great novel of Brighton Beach: a searing portrait of hope and ambition, and a profound exploration of the power and limits of language itself, its ability to make connections across cultures and generations.’
8. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
‘Profoundly moving and gracefully told, Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them. Betrayed by her wealthy lover, Sunja finds unexpected salvation when a young tubercular minister offers to marry her and bring her to Japan to start a new life.  So begins a sweeping saga of exceptional people in exile from a homeland they never knew and caught in the indifferent arc of history. In Japan, Sunja’s family members endure harsh discrimination, catastrophes, and poverty, yet they also encounter great joy as they pursue their passions and rise to meet the challenges this new home presents. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, they are bound together by deep roots as their family faces enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.’

Which are your favourite books about the immigrant experience?  Have you read any of these?

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First Novels

I often find that when reading through the oeuvres of my favourite contemporary writers, I often do not begin with their first books.  Whilst I do not make this choice intentionally, I find it fascinating to read later efforts, and then go back to the beginning to see how a particular author’s style has changed over time.  With that said, I thought I would showcase five first novels by some of my favourite contemporary authors, all of which (aside from the McGregor) I read when already familiar with a lot of their other work.

  1. Like by Ali Smith (1997) 9781860493171
    ‘There’s Amy and there’s Ash. There’s ice and there’s fire. There’s England and there’s Scotland. Ali Smith evokes the twin spirits of time and place in an extraordinarily powerful first novel, which teases out the connections between people, the attractions, the ghostly repercussions. By turns funny, haunting and disconcertingly moving, Like soars across hidden borders between cultures, countries, families, friends and lovers. Subtle and complex, it confounds expectations about fiction and truths.’
  2. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (2004)
    The Namesake is the story of a boy brought up Indian in America. ‘When her grandmother learned of Ashima’s pregnancy, she was particularly thrilled at the prospect of naming the family’s first sahib. And so Ashima and Ashoke have agreed to put off the decision of what to name the baby until a letter comes…’ For now, the label on his hospital cot reads simply ‘BABY BOY GANGULI’. But as time passes and still no letter arrives from India, American bureaucracy takes over and demands that ‘baby boy Ganguli’ be given a name. In a panic, his father decides to nickname him ‘Gogol’ – after his favourite writer. Brought up as an Indian in suburban America, Gogol Ganguli soon finds himself itching to cast off his awkward name, just as he longs to leave behind the inherited values of his Bengali parents. And so he sets off on his own path through life, a path strewn with conflicting loyalties, love and loss… Spanning three decades and crossing continents, Jhumpa Lahiri’s much-anticipated first novel is a triumph of humane story-telling. Elegant, subtle and moving.’
  3. 9780747561576If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor (2002)
    ‘On a street in a town in the North of England, ordinary people are going through the motions of their everyday existence – street cricket, barbecues, painting windows… A young man is in love with a neighbour who does not even know his name. An old couple make their way up to the nearby bus stop. But then a terrible event shatters the quiet of the early summer evening. That this remarkable and horrific event is only poignant to those who saw it, not even meriting a mention on the local news, means that those who witness it will be altered for ever. Jon McGregor’s first novel brilliantly evokes the histories and lives of the people in the street to build up an unforgettable human panorama. Breathtakingly original, humane and moving, the novel is an astonishing debut.’
  4. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (1985)
    ‘This is the story of Jeanette, adopted and brought up by her mother as one of God’s elect. Zealous and passionate, she seems destined for life as a missionary, but then she falls for one of her converts. At sixteen, Jeanette decides to leave the church, her home and her family, for the young woman she loves. Innovative, punchy and tender, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a few days ride into the bizarre outposts of religious excess and human obsession.’
  5. Everything You Know by Zoe Heller (1999) 9780141039992
    ‘The women in Willy Muller’s life are trouble. His mother insists he eat tofu. His dopey girlfriend, Penny, wants him to overcome his personal space issues – while Karen, his other, even dopier, girlfriend, just wants more sex. Meanwhile, his oldest daughter, Sophie, wants him to finance her husband’s drug habit. But it’s his youngest daughter, Sadie, who’s giving him the biggest headache. Just before committing suicide three months ago, she sent Willy her diaries. Poring over the record of her empty life, he feels pangs of something unexpected …remorse. But isn’t it a bit late for such sentimental guff? Set in London, Hollywood and Mexico, Everything You Know is a supremely witty take on love, death and the age-old battle of the sexes.’

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American Literature Month: Short Story Collections

I thought that I would take the opportunity to recommend some wonderful short story collections during American Literature Month.  Whilst not all of these stories are set in the United States, all of the authors have American nationalities, and there is sure to be something of interest here for every reader.  For each, I have copied the official blurb.

1. Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger (1961)
“The author writes: FRANNY came out in The New Yorker in 1955, and was swiftly followed, in 1957 by ZOOEY. Both stories are early, critical entries in a narrative series I’m doing about a family of settlers in twentieth-century New York, the Glasses. It is a long-term project, patently an ambiguous one, and there is a real-enough danger, I suppose that sooner or later I’ll bog down, perhaps disappear entirely, in my own methods, locutions, and mannerisms. On the whole, though, I’m very hopeful. I love working on these Glass stories, I’ve been waiting for them most of my life, and I think I have fairly decent, monomaniacal plans to finish them with due care and all-available skill.”

2. The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor (1991)
“The publication of this extraordinary volume firmly established Flannery O’Connor’s monumental contribution to American fiction. There are thirty-one stories here in all, including twelve that do not appear in the only two story collections O’Connor put together in her short lifetime–Everything That Rises Must Converge and A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

3. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (2000) 
“Mr. Kapasi, the protagonist of Jhumpa Lahiri’s title story, would certainly have his work cut out for him if he were forced to interpret the maladies of all the characters in this eloquent debut collection. Take, for example, Shoba and Shukumar, the young couple in “A Temporary Matter” whose marriage is crumbling in the wake of a stillborn child. Or Miranda in “Sexy,” who is involved in a hopeless affair with a married man. But Mr. Kapasi has problems enough of his own; in addition to his regular job working as an interpreter for a doctor who does not speak his patients’ language, he also drives tourists to local sites of interest. His fare on this particular day is Mr. and Mrs. Das–first-generation Americans of Indian descent–and their children. During the course of the afternoon, Mr. Kapasi becomes enamored of Mrs. Das and then becomes her unwilling confidant when she reads too much into his profession. “I told you because of your talents,” she informs him after divulging a startling secret.”

4. The Collected Stories by Eudora Welty (1980)
“Including the earlier collections A Curtain of GreenThe Wide NetThe Golden Apples, and The Bride of the Innisfallen, as well as previously uncollected ones, these forty-one stories demonstrate Eudora Welty’s talent for writing from diverse points-of-view with “vision that is sweet by nature, always humanizing, uncannily objective, but never angry” (Washington Post).”

5. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories by Carson McCullers (1951)
“In The Ballad of the Sad Café, a tale of unrequited love, Miss Amelia, a spirited, unconventional woman, runs a small-town store and, except for a marriage that lasted just ten days, has always lived alone. Then Cousin Lymon appears from nowhere, a little, strutting hunchback who steals Miss Amelia’s heart. Together they transform the store into a lively, popular café. But when her rejected husband Marvin Macy returns, the result is a bizarre love triangle that brings with it violence, hatred and betrayal.”