10 Great Novels of Exile and Dislocation
A Reading List from Patricia Engel
The phrase “the immigrant experience” has never sat right with me — reductive, focusing on foreignness rather than on humanity — even though it’s regularly used to describe my work. For all its elasticity, the English language is limited in its ability to convey the migratory journey of geography and of the interior, and the spectrum of related traumas that transcend generations, imprinting itself on both the individual and on the collective. For now, let’s simply call this disassembly of the heart and excavation of a new identity in an unknown place irrespective of the events that lead up to it,exile, which comes to us not only in the social and political sense but in the emotional, the spiritual, the familial; the virtual undoing of the self in order to exist in a new life. And let’s add to it dislocation, the most specific descriptor of what occurs when one abandons one life, by choice, by force, or by circumstance, and is thrust into an unknown landscape.
My new novel, The Veins of the Ocean, approaches transnationalism and immigration in different ways through its two protagonists, who’ve arrived in the United States from opposite ends of the Caribbean: one, who came from Colombia with her family as a baby, and the other, a newly arrived solitary Cuban defector. What I am often interested in exploring in my fiction is how exile and dislocation engender bonds specific to the condition of being uprooted and othered.
I’ve assembled here a list of some of my favorite novels of exile and dislocation; rather than focus on the individual, these are novels that depict the forming of new communities and relationships as a reaction to displacement.
1. The Life Before Us by Romain Gary
I’ve given this book as a gift more times than I can remember. Momo, the child narrator whose own origin is a mystery to him recounts the plight of Madame Rosa, the woman charged with caring for the abandoned children of prostitutes in a Paris banlieue and the various Arab, African, and Jewish immigrant communities within it that come together when crisis strikes.
2. The Halfway House by Guillermo Rosales
This book was originally published under the title Boarding Home and tells of a young Cuban exile abandoned by his family in a ramshackle residence for the mentally ill in Miami. The prose is piercing and almost hallucinatory, and it’s a devastating portrait of people exploited for profit while descending further inward and away from all that was once familiar to them.
3. The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat
Often with immigration, the individual will divorce themselves from their old life with the force of a guillotine. The Dew Breaker shows how in exile, we can escape our former lives yet also find ourselves later confronted by them in unexpected ways. Here, Ka learns her gentle and loving father was a military torturer in Haiti, and other characters lend their voices in heartbreaking testimony.
4. Paradise Travel by Jorge Franco
Two young lovers from Medellín arrive in Queens but Marlon gets lost and separated from his girlfriend on his first day and the rest of the novel is his story of homelessness and survival in the city. With the help of other immigrants, he struggles to cobble together a new life and eventually find his way back to his lost love, though their reunion is not what he expects.
5. Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami
This is a harrowing account of several characters who’ve sacrificed nearly everything including their safety by taking a boat from Morocco to Spain in hopes of a better life. The brilliant structure allows us to go deep into the hearts of each character within the perilous journey across the sea that binds them together.
6. Lila Says by Chimo
Narrated by an Arab teenager raised by a single mother in a rough neighborhood in Marseille, he tells of his infatuation with a white French girl left in the care of a relative, their sexual and romantic exchanges amid the racial and religious tensions that prevail in a community where identity seems as fixed as a badge on the sleeve, and nearly everyone is rootless.
7. Broken Glass Park by Alina Bronsky
Sacha, a young Russian girl living in a housing project in Germany, deals with the trauma of immigration by overachieving in school, but finds its consequences extend well beyond the expected alienation and loneliness. This is a powerful novel about how families carry each other yet must also sometimes leave pieces of themselves behind in order to survive.
8. The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour
The mythic yet crushingly realistic tale of a boy raised among birds in Iran, rejected by his mother and then eroticized and objectified to no end in his new life in New York. The pain and joys of Zal are both shocking and tender, something most anyone displaced by immigration understands all too well.
9. Book of Clouds by Chloe Aridjis
This is the perfect novel of dislocation and the unsettled spirit of exile. A young Mexican woman is alone in Berlin, a city that conjures visions and prompts her to forge unexpected connections with other people, equally adrift. I read this novel years ago and it still haunts me.
10. Adios, Happy Homeland by Ana Menéndez
In this exceptionally original work, the individuals, a group of Cuban exile writers, find their community on the page, and the voices compete and rise and go to battle in beautiful ways. The language is exquisite and Menéndez blows apart the map of wounds of immigration and sculpts something entirely new.
About the Author
Patricia Engel is the author of The Veins of the Ocean (Grove Press, 2016), Vida, and It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris.