10 Books on the American Immigrant Experience

A reading list by Imbolo Mbue, author of Behold the Dreamers

In my first couple of years in America, I mostly read books about Africans living in Africa — I was homesick and wanted to return to my homeland of Cameroon as often as I could through these books. Over the years though, thanks to time and friendships that offered me a new sense of home, my homesickness diminished and I came to accept my status as an immigrant living in America. I moved away from reading primarily about people and places that felt familiar and began reading books about all humans, regardless of where they lived. With this openness, I discovered new worlds of literature, including literature about immigrants like myself who had left their homelands for one reason or another, to create a new life in a new country.

The books below are by eight authors with roots in eight different countries, telling stories about immigrants in America. While the books explore a myriad of issues including love and family, hope and despair, culture and identity, they also paint a portrait of the joys and travails of the American immigrant experience. — Imbolo Mbue, author of Behold the Dreamers.

1–3. Angela’s Ashes, Tis & Teacher Man by Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt’s trilogy chronicles his life from his birth in New York City to Irish immigrant parents to his childhood of poverty in Ireland and his eventual return to New York City, where he lived as a young Irish immigrant who eventually became a teacher and author. His is a story about poverty and resilience, the bonds of family, and the promise of a better life in America.

4. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

This short story collection is about Indians and Indian Americans seeking love and all things desirable. While all the stories aren’t set in America — some are set in India — those that are, like “The Third and Final Continent,” depict characters living at the intersection of India and America.

5. Little Failure by Gary Shtenygart

In this memoir, novelist Gary Shteyngart writes with humor about his family’s immigration from Russia to America. An only child, Shteyngart and his parents grapple with finding themselves and understanding each other in the strange land they’ve made their new home.

6. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

In Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s novel, Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman, arrives in America to attend college and confronts the realities of being a black person in America. While navigating a quest for love and identity, she maintains a blog where she writes about topics like the racial hierarchy in America, Barack and Michelle Obama, and an embrace of her newfound blackness.

7. The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

This story, told in a lyrical first person plural voice, is about Japanese picture brides who migrate to the US to meet their husbands. The women speak of their marriages to men they barely know, their interactions with Americans they encounter in their daily lives, their raising of American-born children who grow up to be different from them in many ways, and the ways in which their lives changed after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

8. Brother I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

Moving between Haiti and America, Edwidge Danticat’s memoir is about her parent’s migration from Haiti to New York, leaving her and her brother with an aunt and uncle. She and her brother eventually join her parents in New York and her uncle, attempting to escape a volatile situation in Haiti, comes face to face with the underbelly of the American immigration system.

9. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel is a multi-generational story which explores not only the American immigrant experience but also the weight of history, Dominican culture, family, identity, and the quest for love and desperations of an overweight boy nicknamed Oscar Wao.

10. We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

In NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel, a young girl named Darling leaves behind a childhood of poverty in Zimbabwe to live with an aunt in Detroit. There, she encounters a life which while not defined by the kind of utter poverty she’d grown up with in Zimbabwe, is nonetheless full of its share of challenges.

About the Author

Photo by Kiriko Sano

Imbolo Mbue is the author of Behold the Dreamers, her first novel. She’s a native of Limbe, Cameroon. She holds a B.S. from Rutgers University and an M.A. from Columbia University. A resident of the United States for over a decade, she lives in New York City.

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