7 Novels About Being a Queer Immigrant
David Santos Donaldson, author of "Greenland" recommends stories about outsiders finding identity and belonging in a new country
Outsiders often perceive truths invisible to the majority. They tend to observe the scene more carefully. Like newborns, they must learn how to fit into a new world.
For me, as with many immigrants, it is not always comfortable to be an outsider. After emigrating from The Bahamas—to the United States, India, Spain—the very idea of “home” has become elusive, forever divided: not there, not here. I relate to the Taiwanese film director, Ang Lee, who says “I’m a drifter and an outsider. There’s not one single environment I can totally belong to.” The Caribbean-English word for a person like me, is Nowherian—a person of no fixed abode.
In addition to being Other (as all immigrants are), being queer places me even further on the outside. Unlike many Black immigrants to the United States and Europe, my reasons for emigrating were not economic, nor was I a refugee. Being gay and “out” in The Bahamas means facing strong social and religious stigmas, the potential loss of a job, family, social status, and most of all, loss of dignity. Yet, having arrived in the gay-friendlier countries, I still find myself an outsider. Being queer means that even among fellow immigrants, I don’t belong. I am Other to the other Others. As both queer and an immigrant, I am doubly removed from the dominant culture. And yet, being a queer outsider is an odd kind of privilege. Poised at an even greater critical distance, our vantage point allows for a bird’s-eye perspective; for visions of novel possibilities—and even for possible novels.
My debut novel, Greenland, is the story of Kip Starling, a young Black author writing a novel about the real-life love affair between E.M. Forster and Mohammed El Adl—in which Mohammed’s story collides with his own. Three of the main characters are queer immigrants struggling to find their own truths while navigating intimate relationships in their new homelands. Each crosses borders of class and race to understand the new territory—with all its burdens and possibilities.
These seven novels collectively give a wide perspective from the queer immigrant’s vantage point. Each has confirmed my own experience, as well as enlightened and inspired me to value this particular and, paradoxically, privileged perspective.
Romance in Marseille by Claude McKay
In this groundbreaking novel, Claude McKay—an icon of the Harlem Renaissance, and a Jamaican queer immigrant—fulfilled my fantasies of Marseille as a seedy but beautiful French port city teeming with a vibrant mix of native Francophones and African immigrants (both North and Sub-Saharan).
In Romance in Marseille, we follow Lafala, a Black African immigrant who stows away on a ship from Marseille bound to the United States. On the ship he is discovered, confined, and then tortured to the point of needing one leg amputated upon arrival in New York. With the luck of getting connected to a white lawyer, Lafala wins a lawsuit against the ship company for his torture. Lafala returns to Marseille with the money he’s awarded. He finds America—with its institutional racism and rampant capitalism—uninhabitable for a Black man. Once back in Marseille, Lafala re-enters the world of local immigrants—an array of colorful characters who work in and around the port. Among them are a lesbian couple (an Arabic and an African woman), a gay male couple, and even the protagonist seems open to bisexuality. Romance in Marseille, written in 1933 but not published until 2019 (initially “unpublishable” due to its queer content), is one of the very earliest novels to represent overtly queer people, and queer people of color. McKay’s conversational tone—often poetic, too—manages to entertain and delight while also being a searing commentary on racism, classism, and homophobia.
Latin Moon in Manhattan by Jaime Manrique
In this rollicking picaresque novel, Manrique’s protagonist, Santiago Martinez, is a young Colombian poet, navigating his way through the turbulent—and often hilarious—trials of being both gay and a newly-arrived immigrant in New York City in the 1980s. From a rural Colombian upbringing (where bestiality is presented as common place for boys’ sexual initiations), to the social world of the drug-dealing rich Colombian families and their literary politics in Queens, to the life a of a lone gay writer living in Times Square (along with its sex workers and their pimps), we fall in love with Santiago and his take on the new worlds he encounters. In Latin Moon in Manhattan, Manrique brilliantly pulls off a novel that is, at once, literary, social critique, comic, tragic, and heartwarming. Quite a feat.
The Pagoda by Patricia Powell
This novel, set in turn-of-the-20th-century Jamaica, tells the most unusual queer immigrant story I’ve encountered. The protagonist, Lowe, is a Chinese immigrant to the island. Since women were prohibited from traveling alone, Lowe has disguised herself as a man to stow away on a Chinese ship bound for the Caribbean. In order to protect her identity, and for safety, she continues to live as a man in Jamaica. The ensuing action is an intriguing byzantine hall of mirrors. Lowe has children who never realize their father (Lowe) is actually their mother. She/he has lovers who are both male and female—but often present as different genders. And all along, Lowe faces being a triple outsider in the new homeland: Chinese among a Black majority, non-white in a British colonial power structure, and queer. Powell’s writing luxuriates with an unhurried musicality that reminds me of being in the tropics. This novel presents a multilayered look at what it means to be a permanent outsider, and how one survives, or even finds refuge, in such a state.
Salvation Army by Abdellah Taïa, translated by Frank Stock
Abdellah Taïa is a personal hero of mine. In 2006, at 33, he became the first openly gay Arab writer—and the only openly gay Moroccan writer. If you have any appreciation of the courage it takes to come out amidst the virulent homophobia in Taïa’s homeland (and by the time you finish this brutally honest autobiographical novel, you will), you’ll understand why Taïa should be considered a hero. If that were not enough, Taïa is also a writer of exquisite skill. His prose is deceptively simple, even seeming naïve. But he is a powerhouse of a stylist.
In Salvation Army—a work often called “autofiction”—Taïa pulls no punches. He shares the truths of growing up gay in Morocco; his early sexual encounters with older men; his lusting after his older brother; his calculated encounters with European men; and finally, the betrayals from European lovers upon migrating to Switzerland and France. This coming out and coming-of-age novel is an essential milestone in queer history. Taïa’s talent also makes it a powerful, unforgettable literary experience.
A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee
Neel Mukherjee may be one of the finest novelists of our day. With his second novel, The Lives of Others, critics compared him to Leo Tolstoy, because of the breadth and depth of his work.
A Life Apart, his first novel, tells the story of Ritwik Ghosh, a gay Bengali man who immigrates to England after the death of his mother. The theme of being orphaned from his family and his home run throughout the novel, both losses ladened with ambivalences. But this novel is not somber. The absurdity and comedy of life with its gritty (often disgusting) details are constantly at play. Mukherjee especially spares no details of Ritwik’s sex life—mostly “cottaging” in London’s public lavatories, or in the cars of anonymous men. But the novel is not pornographic either. The layers are increased by the novel-within-the-novel being written by Ritwik—a mirror to his own migration: the story of an older woman who has emigrated from England to live in India.
In London, Ritwik finds himself “at home” among other immigrants and outsiders. A Life Apart is as complex and layered as the reality of a queer immigrant. In other words, it provides the paradoxically privileged perspective—one capable of revealing some universal truths about the tragicomedy, and sometimes base sensuality, of being alive.
Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta
In Chinelo Okparanta’s debut novel, a coming-of-age lesbian story set during the Biafran war in Nigeria, the protagonist, Ijeoma, makes an unusual kind of migration. After her father is killed in the war, and her mother so traumatized she can no longer raise her daughter, Ijeoma is sent off to live with a family in the safety of Nnewi, a town to the south.
Ijeoma’s migration is not from one country to another, yet it is quite another reality into which she is thrust. When she meets a similarly war-displaced Hausa (Muslim) girl, (Ijeoma is Igbo and Christian), they begin a first romance that catapults them into a world of their own—a world they must keep secret since it is not only taboo but punishable by imprisonment or even death. Through the girls’ relationship and its evolution over many decades (being forced to part when discovered, reuniting, marrying men to stay safe), Okparanta gives us a detailed depiction of the myriad difficulties facing queer persons in Nigeria. It is a powerful illustration of what it is like to be an eternal outsider in your own home, forever an immigrant, never truly belonging.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
In this widely acclaimed masterpiece, Ocean Vuong has written an autobiographical novel that is as gorgeous and yet brutal as its title suggests. The paradoxes are plentiful: the story is written as a letter to a mother who cannot read; and the narrator is bound by a love to mother who is also his abuser. “You’re a mother, Ma. You’re also a monster. But so am I.”
Vuong’s narrator, Little Dog, is the son of a biracial Vietnamese woman and an American G.I., born after the Vietnam War. After years of trauma in war-torn Saigon, Little Dog’s mother emigrates to the United States with her son and mother. They all move to Hartford, Connecticut, where they live on the fringes of society in poverty.
This novel is slim but dense—both linguistically and with ideas. Two dominant themes are: the complex relationships to mother and motherland (especially when both have been brutalizing and yet sustaining); and the ramifications of being a “monster,” in society’s eyes, and the subsequent tragedy of internalizing that idea (in this novel, both for mother and son). And yet, in a first adolescent sexual relationship with a white American boy—Trevor who lives with his alcoholic father in a trailer—Little Dog experiences moments of surprising tenderness and finds beauty, even in himself. Trevor eventually abandons the relationship, not wanting to be a “fag.” But with this unique story from a queer immigrant, we are left with a deeply human question: Can the beauty and freedom often experienced in youth ever be sustained? This is a book to savor.