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With the exception of Native American voices, American literature has been written by refugees, colonists, those brought to the United States by force, immigrants, and their descendants. Yet a truly representative diversity of published voices has been, at best, a perpetual work-in-progress. With renewed conflicts over refugees roiling in America and around the world, Booklist offers a selection of recent works of fiction and a few memoirs, with an eye on debuts, by immigrant and refugee writers who have come to the U.S.
American War. By Omar El Akkad. 2017. Knopf, $26.95 (9780451493583).
In this vigorously imagined and gripping speculative novel, El Akkad follows the struggles of a fractured family in the not-too-far-distant future when the South once again attempts to secede from the Union and the ravages of global warming wreak havoc, causing waves of desperate coastal refugees to pour into the Midwest.
Best Worst American. By Juan Martinez. 2017. Small Beer, $16 (9781618731241); e-book, $9.95 (9781618731258).
Martinez offers two dozen short stories driven by a provocative sense of estrangement, suspense, and subtle, absurd humor, delivering truly new ways to read the world.
Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen. By Jose Antonio Vargas. 2018. Morrow/Dey St., $25.99 (9780062851352); e-book, $12.99 (9780062851369).
In his frank and fearless memoir, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Vargas recounts how, at age 12, he was brought to the U.S. from the Philippines without papers, then detained as an adult in Texas, and how he has navigated his life as a son, journalist, gay man, undocumented resident, and advocate, posing, along the way, key questions about “migration and the meaning of citizenship.”
The Distance between Us. By Reyna Grande. 2012. Washington Square, $17.99 (9781451661781); A Dream Called Home. By Reyna Grande. 2018. Washington Square, $17 (9781501171437).
Grande tells her life story in this pair of touching, generous, and, at times, humorous memoirs, from the abuse and deprivation she suffered in a Mexican village after her parents journeyed to the U.S. to her own immigration to California as an undocumented child and her crooked path to a successful literary career.
Famous Adopted People. By Alice Stephens. 2018. Unnamed, $18.99 (9781944700744).
Lisa Pearl, a Korean-born, Bethesda, Maryland–raised, transracial adoptee, is the protagonist in transnational, interracial adoptee Stephens’ debut, a darkly comic, sharply irreverent, and undeniably wise “Great Adoption Novel.”
The Far Field. By Madhuri Vijay. 2019. Grove, $27 (9780802128409); e-book (9780802146373).
In Vijay’s engrossing debut novel of love and grief, politics and morality, college graduate Shalini leaves her Bangalore home for Kashmir to seek a long-ago friend of her recently deceased mother.
Freshwater. By Akwaeke Emezi. 2018. Grove, $24 (9780802127358).
Emezi draws on a traditional Igbo myth in her mind-blowing, many-voiced first novel about Ada, a young Nigerian, and turns a tale of mental illness upside-down in ways that will simultaneously challenge and reward readers.
Fruit of the Drunken Tree. By Ingrid Rojas Contreras. 2018. Doubleday, $26.95 (9780385542722).
Set in 1990s Bogotá, Colombia, amid the violence and instability fueled by the drug lord Pablo Escobar, Contreras’ riveting first novel tells the story of an unlikely bond between two girls on the verge of womanhood: Chula, the daughter of a middle-class family, and Petrona, the teenager hired to serve as the family’s maid.
House of Stone. By Novuyo Rosa Tshuma. 2019. Norton, $26.95 (9780393635423).
Tshuma’s ambitious debut dramatizes Zimbabwe’s fractured history through the struggles of a family whose teenage son, Bukhosi, goes missing during a political rally, and whose lodger, Zamani, becomes oddly intrusive in his efforts to help in their search.
Little Gods. By Meng Jin. 2020. Morrow/Custom, $27.99 (9780062935953).
Jin’s skillful debut portrays, from various points of view, an immigrant teenager in America, who was born in China during the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, as she seeks to understand who she is, how she came to be, and how she’ll move forward.
My (Underground) American Dream: My True Story as an Undocumented Immigrant Who Became a Wall Street Executive. By Julissa Arce. 2016. Center Street, $27 (9781455540242); e-book, $13.99 (9781455540259).
In her engaging, forthright, and revealing memoir, Arce describes how, at age 11, she left Mexico to rejoin her parents in the U.S., and navigated a precarious existence as an undocumented immigrant who nonetheless managed to become a vice president at Goldman Sachs, a rare Latina executive.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. By Ocean Vuong. 2019. Penguin Press, $26 (9780525562023).
Poet Vuong’s enrapturing and unnerving first novel is narrated by Little Dog, a Vietnamese refugee who tells his difficult story in a letter to his mother, who cannot read, recounting his covert teen love for a slightly older coworker, Trevor, and revealing the indelible legacy of the Vietnam War.
The Refugees. By Viet Thanh Nguyen. 2017. Grove, $24 (9780801289356).
Nguyen received a barrage of awards, including the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence and the Pulitzer Prize, for his debut, The Sympathizer (2015). His first short story collection portrays Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. in powerful tales of rupture and loss. Nguyen further investigates these experiences as editor of the essay anthology, The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives (2018).
She Would Be King. By Wayétu Moore. 2018. Graywolf, $26 (9781555978174).
Moore explores the complex origins of Liberia in this magic-realism tour de force.
Song of a Captive Bird. By Jasmin Darznik. 2018. Ballantine, $27 (9780399182310).
Darznik fictionalizes with deep knowledge and insight the extraordinarily audacious and revolutionary life of the feminist Iranian poet and filmmaker Forugh Farrokhzad (1935–67).
The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You. By Dina Nayeri. 2019. Catapult, $26 (9781948226424).
In her first nonfiction title, novelist Nayeri recounts her experiences as a young refugee from Iran, and reports on her visits to a refugee camp in Greece.
The Unpassing. By Chia-Chia Lin. 2019. Farrar, $26 (9780374279363).
Lin’s powerful and poetic debut tells the story of a Taiwanese family of six dealing with the quandaries of assimilation compounded by grief and guilt in 1980s Alaska.
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