From the moment that we wake up to a sense of our own place in the world, we are forced to grapple with the question of belonging. Where our adolescent selves willingly turn our entire sense of identity over to the emotional landscape of our favoured groups – skaters and emos being the most popular factions of my teenage life – adulthood means accepting that our identities are far too complex and manifold to truly serve the reductionism of choosing any one group for allegiance. We are defined by so many things – our career choice, our relationship status, our gender identity, our hobbies. While we may be more willing to accept and celebrate some of these labels than others, it is the case that, much as with our teenage years, our sense of self stems almost completely from the complex web of groups into which we have placed ourselves.
One group into which I never expected to stray was that of ‘the immigrant’. Although I have a long relationship with life across borders, my early experiences with homesickness – as well as the knowledge that my sense of self is strongly tied to my culture – meant that I fully expected to spend my life contentedly fixed in the UK. One chance meeting and a lengthy love affair later, however, I found myself married and once again resident in the US. This time permanently. To say that the transition has been challenging would be a drastic understatement. Two years on, I am still preoccupied by the absences that my life in the US has not been able to fill. But perhaps one of the most challenging elements to life as an immigrant is the fact that it is one of the few groups unified by a sense of not belonging. While there is no truly universal experience of life as an immigrant and privilege exists even within such minority groups, feelings of exclusion and difference – present as much within the group itself, as without it – are some of the few unifying traits with which almost every immigrant will have some experience.
Living as an immigrant is perhaps one of the most peculiar experiences it’s possible to have. Although I identify as many things, the constant sense of standing out means that ‘immigrant’ is the label most determinedly present in my everyday experience. Each time I open my mouth, I draw stares, comments, and questions. While I am certainly fortunate that my particular nationality has not opened me to the discrimination that is present for so many, the inability to easily belong is an ongoing struggle for anyone who, like me, would rather blend in than stand out. Given the unique nature of the immigrant experience, it’s no surprise that literature would provide an invaluable resource to those looking to connect with immigration in its countless forms. Since moving to the US, fiction written by immigrants has been one of my primary means for shifting perspective and, most importantly, for feeling less along.
This list presents some of the best literature written by immigrant authors, with some of the most impressive takes on what it means to belong through a lack of belonging.
1. Inland by Téa Obreht
One of my literary obsessions for 2019 has been with the American-Serbian author, Téa Obreht. Born in Belgrade, Obreht’s childhood was characterised by movement to escape the violence of the war in the former Yugoslavia. As a child, Obreht was moved first to Cyprus and then to the US, where the author subsequently settled and continues to live. Anyone who has read Obreht’s stunning debut, The Tiger’s Wife, will understand the ease with which this author deals in questions of heritage and belonging. Yet it is her most recent novel, Inland, that offers the most profound insight into the nature of home and place. Told against the backdrop of America’s wild west and attempts to settle the country’s harshest environments, Obreht diverges from conventional takes on this era by telling her story through the eyes of a woman and an immigrant. Where such characters would typically find themselves positioned on the fringes of narratives that play heavily on masculinity, Nora Lark and Lurie Mattie unsettle stereotypes of life in the American West. It is a powerful story and one that repositions popular notions of heroism on the American frontier.
2. Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov
There is perhaps no author that has better drawn on his own experiences as an immigrant than Vladimir Nabokov. Although best known for his popularly misunderstood novel Lolita, much of Nabokov’s work deals expertly in the profound discomfort that typically walks hand-in-hand with life outside of one’s own borders. In Pnin, Nabokov mirrors his own experiences through the narrative of a bumbling Russian-born academic, Timofey Pnin. Throughout the novel, Pnin is mocked by his American contemporaries for his accent, his mispronunciations, and the behavioural quirks that are – to the reader – very clearly a product of cultural differences. Yet Pnin ceaselessly works to ingratiate himself with his colleagues and find his way to some sense of permanency in a country that never quite feels like home. Although aspects of Pnin’s experience are undoubtedly particular to his life as an educated academic, the tensions that exist as he attempts to navigate his blurry world of cultural taboos will feel eminently relatable to anyone who has lived or travelled outside of their own country. Pnin is steeped in compassion for the strangely disjointed realities of the immigrant experience and is a must-read for anyone looking to engage with an authentic account of difference.
3. Milkman by Anna Burns
Although a little late to the party with 2018’s Man Booker Prize winner, Anna Burns’ Milkman is absolutely my favourite read of 2019. My reasons for loving this novel are manifold – and I dealt with them at length in my review from earlier this year. As a book written by an Irish immigrant to England – and dealing in the jarring enmity of life during Northern Ireland’s Troubles – this novel alone excels. When reviewing my favourite read from last year – Tommy Orange’s There There – I spoke a little about that novel’s stunning reflection on the nature of split-identity. There There explores the tensions of life as a contemporary Native American, with a particular focus on those in the community who were born of relationships between white Americans and the native population. The trouble in reconciling these disparate parts of oneself – as a product of both the oppressor and the oppressed – is something with which I’ve grappled as the child of a Catholic, Irish father and an English mother. Although my own cultural identification is almost fully tied into a wholly English upbringing, these tensions are something that Anna Burns’ novel casts into an impressive spotlight – but with a mind to the violence born in these identities coexisting as two separate communities. It is an incredible study of belonging in a time of civil violence.
4. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I first read Americanah in the midst of one of my transcontinental moves and it has remained a touchstone for my battles with homesickness ever since. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a master at conjuring the particularities of cultural difference that so often exacerbate – and feed from – feelings of homesickness. In Americanah, Adichie considers two transcultural moves. Set primarily in Lagos, Nigeria, Ifemelu and Obinze are two teenagers in love. As political strife threatens their futures, however, both Ifemelu and Obinze look to escape. Ifemelu leaves for the US as a student, finding herself subjected to the particular kinds of racial distinctions and racism that exist – both explicitly and as products of systemic prejudice – in America. Obinze is unable to follow her. He instead moves to the UK, living illegally once his initial visa expires. Here, Obinze is subject to a different kind of cultural experience – living on the fringes, with the shame imposed by a society unprepared to make space for him. Americanah is a stunningly multifaceted and authentic account of contemporary immigration and the many issues that are born from wilful prejudice.
5. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
When asked about my favourite contemporary writers, I have no hesitation in placing Marlon James firmly on that list. James has the kind of unique narrative authority that comes once in a generation, allowing him to work across genres with an ease that is truly astounding. His newest release, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, is certainly one of 2019’s most impressive books. In his Man Booker Prize winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings, James launched himself into the light of global critical acclaim for a novel so epic that one could easily spend years exploring its layers. It is certainly James’ own experience as an immigrant from Jamaica to the US that allowed him to write with such honest integrity about one of the most complex periods of Jamaica’s history – a time characterised by the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, active CIA involvement in Jamaican politics, and mob rule over distinct parts of the Jamaican ghettos. A Brief History of Seven Killings travels from Jamaica to the US, engages with a truly impressive array of narrators, and even treads in the realm of the supernatural, all to paint a breathtakingly courageous picture of a country about which the author clearly feels a complex series of emotions.
If you’ve read any of the books on this list or have any of your own favourite books by immigrant authors, be sure to leave your thoughts down in the comments. I’m looking forward to hearing your opinions and recommendations!