7 Novels About Immigrant Mothers Who Defy Societal Expectations

Asale Angel-Ajani recommends stories about women with children who pursue their own independence, dreams, and desires

A woman and a child running
Photo by jurien huggins on Unsplash

There are no greater political pawns than immigrant mothers. In some circles, their bodies are seen as threatening. In other circles, they are spoken of as victims, fleeing circumstances, or subjected to state or legislative violence thanks to conflicts or draconian and cruel immigration policies. Around the world, wherever there are mothers traversing borders, despite their differences and individual experiences, immigrant mothers are flattened and stripped of their humanity.   

It’s in the retelling by first-generation children that we get closer to seeing a different side of immigrant mothers. Whole comedy specials are written about overbearing, opinionated, and excessively maternal immigrant mothers. On social media, first-generation kids impersonate or complain about their mothers who don’t quite see the need for personal privacy and professions in the arts, or understand the concept of depression. In literature, it seems that when immigrant mothers make it onto the page, they are often the tireless (or tired) parent who only exists for the sake of their narrator/protagonist child. 

I knew I was writing against the grain in my novel, A Country You Can Leave. It’s a story that centers on the lives of Lara, a biracial Afro-Cuban-Russian girl, and her Russian mother, Yevgenia. Lara, the narrator of the story, has to grapple with the fact that her mother is objectively a terrible parent in addition to being an ungrateful immigrant. Yevgenia is a woman who refuses the maternal role and is deeply dedicated to her sexual freedom, her intellectual pursuits, and going wherever the road leads her next.  

The list below takes seven novels that turn the trope of “sacrificial” mothering on its head. These are stories of immigrant mothers who refuse to play by the rules. 

The Son of Good Fortune by Lysley Tenorio

There isn’t a better novel to keep you company if you love the outrageous single immigrant mothers who defy societal expectations. Excel and his mother, Maxima, are undocumented Filipinos making their way ​in​ the U.S. While Excel does his best to stay out of the glare of immigration officials’ long reach, Maxima, a former B-movie action star in the Philippines, is now running an online scam siphoning money from men. The novel haunts their frayed relationship, where Excel blames his mother for the limitations in his life, especially as Maxima dominates the page with her humor and vitality. 

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

Unlike other books on this list, the mother protagonist of this novel, Nazneen, isn’t the object of longing by a child attempting to understand her. She is the narrator of her own story, making life choices that challenge the strict confines of being a stay-at-home mother in a new country, far from her family and former life in Bangladesh. And just when a reader starts to feel the walls closing in on Nazneen, the promise of freedom knocks on the door. And like all the mothers on this list, she chooses herself and follows her desires, while society and her children look on. 

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

In this novel, Deming Gou’s mother, Polly—a dynamic and sharp-witted woman with a foul mouth—doesn’t return home from work one day. For much of the novel, Deming, who gets adopted by a white couple, works hard to remember his mother—not as a woman who merely worked to make his life better than hers, but as a complex individual who had dreams of her own. In the chapters narrated by  Polly,​ readers see beyond the abandoned immigrant mother trope to get a fuller picture of the kind of life that has driven Polly’s motivations. 

Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn

This novel’s beating heart is an immigrant mother, Patsy, who refuses to be boxed into traditional roles or societal expectations. Patsy unapologetically chooses herself by leaving Jamaica for New York in hopes of reconnecting with her first love, Cecily. In order to truly be herself, Patsy leaves behind her daughter, Tru, who Patsy has mixed feelings about. She obviously loves her daughter and feels destroyed by their separation, and yet Patsy isn’t sure if she’s capable of being the mother Tru deserves. Though Patsy’s arrival in Brooklyn doesn’t turn out as she expects, there is a kind of coming of age for Patsy, one that asks readers to stop and pause before they judge a mother for leaving a child behind.   

Mother Country by Irina Reyn

This novel focuses on the life of Nadia, a Ukrainian-Russian immigrant living in Brooklyn, who has made the difficult choice to leave her child behind in a country torn apart by war. Nadia had hoped to bring her daughter to the U.S., but once her papers come through, her daughter Lassika is no longer of legal age to go with her. This forces Nadia to make the decision to pursue her own future, despite leaving her mother and daughter in a war zone. What makes this novel unique is the ways it represents parenting adult children when the family is apart. While Nadia chips away at American immigration laws to reunite with her daughter, she also grapples with the reality of living far from home while loved ones endure Putin’s war of “reunification.”  

The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Joon Kim

When Margot’s mother Mina Lee dies mysteriously, Margot comes back to town only to discover she never knew her mother at all. It’s a novel that’s told in the alternating narratives of the daughter and the mother, and readers are made aware of the fierce and often sad experiences that shaped Mina Lee’s life and, ultimately, her death. Margot is a daughter who didn’t ask too many questions while her mother was alive, and yet it’s clear that Mina wouldn’t have provided the answers anyway. As a mother, her power rests with her ability to hold on to her hurts and control her own narrative, even if it means keeping secrets from her child. 

White Ivy by Susie Yang

This novel is a bit of an outlier on this list, but worthy of inclusion. Ivy’s mother is depicted like most immigrant parents: stern, a bit cold, and preoccupied with her daughter becoming a doctor. But it’s Meifeng, Ivy’s grandmother, who takes Ivy under her wing and teaches her how to get the things she needs—by stealing them. Meifeng’s lessons propel Ivy from yard sale theft to grand schemes and lies that place her at the heart of a wealthy white family who regret the day they opened up their lives to her.  

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