Imagine American Literature Without Immigrants

These 10 authors show how immigrants make American literature great

Americans around the country are going on strike today to highlight the importance of immigrants to American culture, history, and economy. Today’s “A Day Without Immigrants” is a response to the anti-immigrant agenda of the new administration. It also made us think — as we often do — of books. Just as America is the great melting pot, American literature has always drawn strength from immigrants, exiles, and refugees. Here are ten authors who we couldn’t imagine American literature without.

Vladimir Nabokov

While Lolita is a strong contender for the mythical “Great American Novel” title, Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1899. His family fled Russia after the Russian Revolution, going into exile in France and Germany before ultimately settling in the United States in 1940. Here, Nabokov switched from writing in Russian and French to writing in English, producing such stellar works of literature as Lolita, Pnin, and Pale Fire.

Junot Díaz

Born in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, Díaz immigrated with his family to the states when he was six years old. His hilarious and moving fiction tends to focus on the lives on Hispanic Americans, often in the state he grew up in, New Jersey. His 2007 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Jhumpa Lahiri

Lahiri was born in the United Kingdom to parents who were Bengali immigrants. Her debut book, the story collection Interpreter of Maladies, focused on the lives of immigrant Americans and won the Pulitzer Prize. Her 2003 novel The Namesake was adapted into a film starring Kal Penn.

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Continuing our string of Pulitzer Prize winning-novelists, the most recent Pulitzer went to Viet Thanh Nguyen for his debut novel The Sympathizer which takes place during the Vietnam war. His story collection, The Refugees, is out this month. You can read one of the stories, “Black-Eyed Women,” in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading.

Jamaica Kincaid

Born in 1949 in St. John’s, Antigua, Kincaid has been a major voice in postcolonial literature and studies for the past several decades. Her works of fiction and non-fiction have won plenty of awards, including the Lannan and Guggenheim.

Art Spiegelman

Arguably the most celebrated graphic novelist alive, Spiegelman is one of the central comic creators who helped raise the medium’s critical reputation. His breakout graphic novel Maus about the Holocaust made critics realize that graphic novels could be literature of the highest order. (He also made the incredibly cool Garbage Pail Kids.) Born Itzhak Avraham ben Zee, he emigrated from Sweden in 1951.

Yaa Gyasi

One of the most exciting young American novelists, Gyasi, emigrated from Ghana when she was a young child. Her acclaimed first book, Homegoing, followed the lives of two half-sisters, one living in Africa and one in America. It won her a National Book Award 5 Under 35 award.

Porochista Khakpour

Another one of the best young American writers, Khakpour’s family immigrated to California from Iran. Khakpour’s second novel, The Last Illusion, follows an Iranian immigrant who is raised as a bird and lives in NYC during 9/11. Her memoir Sick is forthcoming from Harper Perennial. (You can read our interview with Khakpour here.)

Gary Shteyngart

Shteyngart’s family left the Soviet Union for the United States in the late 1970s. His hilarious satires often involve immigrants as well as commentary on Russian, Jewish, and American life. When the Trump administration announced their Muslim travel ban, leading to protests at JFK and other airports, he tweeted:

Thomas Paine

It’s basically impossible to imagine what America would be without Thomas Paine. One of the “Founding Fathers” of America, Paine was an influential philosopher, political theorist, and essayist who immigrated to America as an adult only a few years before the American Revolution.

These are just a few of the many immigrant writers who have made American literature great. Immigrants are so central to American literature that we couldn’t possibly list them all. Please add your favorite immigrant authors in the comments below.

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