7 Books About Immigrants Encountering the American South
Blake Sanz, author of "The Boundaries of Their Dwelling," recommends stories about finding identity and belonging in a new country
In American fiction, when immigrants and first-gen characters encounter the U.S., they’re often in New York. Or Miami. Or at Harvard. I love many of those stories—works by Jhumpa Lahiri and Ana Menendez, for example, have long been among my favorites, and I’ve got my own Miami short story in that vein—but there are also fictional immigrants who end up in less glamorous places, ones that aren’t as emblematic of a larger ideal of America’s prosperity and opportunity.
What if the land of opportunity isn’t represented by an immigrant’s view of the Statue of Liberty as glimpsed from a ship gliding through New York Harbor, but instead by a Mauritanian kid driven from the Memphis airport to a dusty crop field in Mississippi? What if your welcome to the new world wasn’t a concrete jungle or the gates of Harvard, but a mannered and provincial white lady on a mountain in Tennessee offering tea? Sometimes, fictional immigrants end up in the rural South—or Southern towns like New Orleans or Atlanta—places as rich in literary history as they are infamous for their insularity. It’s compelling to me, the ways that that region has been, for some writers, fertile ground for fictionally exploring the lives of immigrants or first-generation strivers trying to make it in this country.
My book of short stories, The Boundaries of Their Dwelling, explores that terrain, and it emerged from an existing literary tradition, represented here, that feels as if it’s less identified in that way than it could be, even if the books themselves have had a rich life of their own. Here, then, are seven of my favorite books about immigrant and first-generation encounters in the U.S. South:
The Foreign Student by Susan Choi
“[Chuck] studied in all his free moments, but the rate at which he fed himself words was so slow that they weakened and died before having a chance to accumulate, and now, at Sewanee, the rate was too fast. The few words he had were overpowered and swept away. His limited English was mistaken, as it so often is by people who have never been outside their own country, for a limited knowledge of things. But he didn’t bother to dispel this impression. He liked having a hidden advantage.”
In Choi’s novel set in the 1950s, a young Korean man named Chang—who goes by Chuck in America—flees the war at home to attend Sewanee University in Tennessee, where he meets Katherine, a rich young white woman with a history of sexual abuse at the hands of a professor in this small town. Both Katherine and Chuck are written so empathetically and beautifully and with such emotional precision, and as the novel alternates between their entanglement in the present action and their disparate pasts filled with wildly different traumas, it opens up into a larger showcase for Choi’s abilities as chronicler of small-town Southern life and the warscape of Korea. That a writer could be so authoritative on such vastly different worlds and could find such an elegant and heartbreaking way to intermingle them, that is what makes this debut novel such a stunner.
Homicide Survivors Picnic and Other Stories by Lorraine López
“‘Why are those guys so white?’ Roxanne asks in a stage whisper that is maybe a half-decibel lower than her speaking voice . .. . ‘Shush.’ Against her will, Lydia glances over her shoulder. The men, seven or eight in all, are strikingly white from their balding pinkish pates to their glossy patent-leather loafers, and in the sunshine pouring through the plate glass, they are nearly luminous, ghostly. With beaky noses and hunched shoulders, they huddle over their sweet rolls and coffee like celestial buzzards picking over paradisiacal carrion. These men provide such sharp contrast from Roxanne’s dusky skin and kinky jet hair that Lydia’s pupils dilate perceptibly when she turns back to their own table. ‘Maybe they’re in a club or something.’”
In this riotous and tender collection set mostly in the South, Latinos and white people, Japanese foreign students and other outsiders and ne’er-do-wells find themselves up against an assortment of traumas, rendered with humor and wit but never excess irony.
Whether it’s a teenager attending a picnic of homicide survivors to mourn the gang-related death of her sister’s boyfriend, or a struggling junior college professor—Lydia, in the above excerpt—trying to learn on the fly how to raise her cousin’s baby, here are characters that navigate their hard-luck circumstances in maybe not the best of ways, but in ways that make sense, that bind us to them emotionally, sometimes against our better judgment.
That many of these characters are Latino, and that many live in a Georgia which feels akin to Flannery O’Connor’s or Tayari Jones’s, feels both incidental at times and essential at others. What I mean is, you can’t help but feel how a certain lower-middle-class, Southern psychosphere is present in these characters’ worlds, at the same time that that milieu is simply present, without being thrust in your face as somehow steeped in a heavy-handed tradition of Southern writing.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
“Under better circumstances she would have made fun of my car, an oddity to her after years of Alabama pickup trucks and SUVs. “Gifty, my bleeding heart,” she sometimes called me. I don’t know where she’d picked up the phrase, but I figured it was probably used derogatorily by Pastor John and the various TV preachers she liked to watch while she cooked to describe people who, like me, had defected from Alabama to live among the sinners of the world, presumably because the excessive bleeding of our hearts made us too weak to tough it out among the hardy, the chosen of Christ in the Bible Belt.”
They’re not analogs, but there’s something of Faulkner’s Quentin Compson in Gifty, Yaa Gyasi’s Stanford grad student in neuroscience whose Ghanaian-Alabaman family has been beset by a host of tragedies. Gifty’s brother has died from addiction to opiates, and her mother has attempted suicide and remains depressed beyond functioning. But more than anyone in the Compson family, Gifty feels like someone to root for. Why? Perhaps it’s her earnest struggles to balance dedication to neuroscience and her Evangelical faith. The book includes beautiful passages where we see Gifty praying, and later rejecting that faith, given what she’s learned of its inherent racism as practiced in Alabama. It also includes much of Gifty’s disdain for her grad school colleagues, avowed atheists who seem so removed from anything like a soulful life.
“The Displaced Person” from A Good Man is Hard to Find & Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor
“She was sorry that the poor man had been chased out of Poland and run across Europe and had had to take up in a tenant shack in a strange country, but she had not been responsible for any of this. She had had a hard time herself. She knew what it was to struggle. People ought to have to struggle. Mr. Guizac had probably had everything given to him all the way across Europe and over here. He had probably not had to struggle enough.”
This is O’Connor’s tale of a Polish Holocaust survivor, Mr. Guizac, “the displaced person,” who finds himself working for a genteel Southern lady in rural Georgia named Mrs. McIntyre. Told in a limited third person that shifts between two white ladies with complex, racist attitudes toward the displaced person that make you wince, this novella reveals the nuanced oddities and mysteries of bigoted white Christians trying to come to terms with the presence of a competent outsider in their midst.
This lesser-anthologized of her works holds up disturbingly well in today’s times, and it’s easy to see a kinship that other writers on this list have with her and her sensibilities. Change Mr. Guizac to a Haitian refugee sent to Georgia from the Mexican border, and this story could easily pass for fiction of our times.
The Celestial Jukebox by Cynthia Shearer
“A girl he didn’t know took him by the arm. You can’t wear the same thing every day. This is America.
America was the burning imprint of a girls’ hand on your arm. America was your one lucky suit of parachute cloth shrinking your skin, burning you.
America was a tinny, watery Sousa march through a tired trumpet in sixth period, and Boubacar attempting to answer it with cascading ripples on a xylophone, to collapse the melody into itself and play it fast, several times, so it could be repeated more often, after the fashion of a Cape Verde band he liked.”
Imagine a Mississippi town where, in the lead-up to 9/11, a Chinese grocer has a crush on a Honduran employee, and a Mauritanian boy—depicted in the quote above—stumbles upon the wonder of the Delta blues, while a Black Ivy League student returns here to find out the story of her great grandmother’s life, and a white landowner tries to help his longtime neighbor quit a gambling addiction fed by the local casino (the new business that threatens the livelihood of the whole area’s population). This is Shearer’s imaginary town of Madagascar, and these are only a few of the characters and situations that populate this wondrous and lush book, a panoramic Mississippi novel that recalls the best of canonical Southern fiction while also insisting that that tradition enter the 21st century, with all its modern complaints and entanglements.
The Radius of Us by Marie Marquardt
“Q. Mr. Flores Flores, where do you presently reside?
A. At 3422 Ivywood Circle in Atlanta, Georgia.
Q. Is that your permanent residence?
A. No, ma’am.
Q. And what is the address of your permanent residence?
A. I don’t have a permanent residence. I mean, not right now. My brother and I are from Ilopango, in the region of San Salvador, El Salvador.
Q. And when did you leave your home?
A. On September sixteenth of last year.
Q. Why did you and your brother decide to leave Ilopango?”
In this YA novel, Phoenix Flores Flores—a Salvadoran boy of 18—has traveled north through Mexico with his brother and ended up in Atlanta, where he’s battling uphill against a deportation case (depicted above), while his brother remains in a detention facility in Texas. In Atlanta, Phoenix finds unlikely friendship in the husband-and-wife owners of a tattoo parlor that, as one Black character notes, might be the kind of place to fly a Confederate flag.
The main story revolves around the burgeoning relationship between Phoenix—named so because his mother, who left to find work in Phoenix, Arizona, wanted to be reminded of him in what she saw every day—and Gretchen, a white teen who’s been assaulted by a Latino gang member and is working through the trauma related to that experience. As those two dance around their interest in each other, Marquardt explores the contours of a migrant life on the edge. It’s a tender and authoritative story, one that shows Marquardt to be attentive to the larger cultural and legal forces at work in the lives of so many outsiders who find themselves ensnared in the penal system upon arrival in the US.
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
“‘You should be scared,’ Ahmad said. ‘This one could be for real.’
Zeitoun was skeptical but paid attention. Ahmad was a ship captain, had been for thirty years, piloting tankers and ocean liners in every conceivable body of water, and he knew as much as anyone about storms, their trajectories and power. As a young man, Zeitoun had been with him for a number of those journeys. Ahmad, nine years older, had brought Zeitoun on as a crewman, takin him to Greece, Lebanon, South Africa. Zeitoun had gone on to work on ships without Ahmad, too, seeing most of the world in a ten-year period of wanderlust that eventually brought him to New Orleans and to his life with Kathy.”
Zeitoun is a strange book of nonfiction to read in the wake of what’s happened with the titular character since (feel free to go down that rabbit-hole on your own). But there’s no denying how compelling Zeitoun’s story is made here, how emblematic it is of how a confluence of factors—cultural norms on immigration and the war on terror, unnatural natural disasters—can funnel down into a single, potent blow delivered to those least in a position to withstand it.
Zeitoun, a Syrian with a severe case of wanderlust, ends up in New Orleans. Through hard work, he establishes a house-painting business. During Katrina, he stays in New Orleans to “hold down the fort.” Beyond the first days in which he rows through flooded streets like an angel of mercy saving people from the flooding tombs of their houses, much goes wrong. He’s detained at gunpoint. Imprisoned. Given no means to contact his family, who think he’s died amid the hurricane’s ruins.
The story pivots adroitly between those gripping scenes and memories from Zeitoun’s life before New Orleans, when he was still in Syria, when he was a young man working as a deckhand as his father once had, sailing the world from port to port, trying to find his place, in a time before he could’ve conceived of a life in a place as fraught and beguiling as the South.