7 Books About Families in Exile

Books about lost homes and the stories passed from generation to generation

On the beach in Cuba. (Photo by Ivan Perez)

All my life, I heard stories about Cuba. From my father, from mis abuelos on my mother’s side. We made a home in Miami, from stories about the home in Cuba that was lost before I was even born. Our Sunday night dinners, talking about a place where I had never been, where my father and mis abuelos had never been back, felt like home—because I had no home that didn’t include stories of Cuba, a place I wouldn’t see or smell or touch until I was in my 20s. Once I did visit, it became my job to tell the stories to my father and mis abuelos every time I returned, about the home they hadn’t seen, besides in their dreams, for decades.

These stories of home are especially important to the exile. In its most basic form, exile literature focuses on how people cross from one country to another—the physical and emotional toll it takes. But exile literature tells not only the stories of exile, but of homes left behind, and the hope of constructing a new home in the future, safe from the dangers fled. In other words, exile is not a story that can be told through just one generation.. This is true in fiction and in nonfiction.

The books on this list show how stories of the lost homeland affect every one of us who is a product of exile, not only the people who originally left home. They range from stories about the exiles themselves, to those who are generations away from the exile but who still fight with their displacement. (A great example of this dynamic of telling stories between sons and their fathers and mothers would be the recent Recommended Reading story “Pestilence” by Jonathan Escoffery.) These are books that helped shine a light on the importance of these stories to me, to exiles, to everyone.

The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata

In so many ways, The Lost Book of Adana Moreau is a story about stories. It follows two protagonists and goes through multiple storylines and migrations. Saul tries to carry out his grandfather’s dying wish of delivering a manuscript to the long deceased author’s kin. He has to uncover the steps, interviewing people and chasing down their stories. One line in the novel in particular embodies exile literature: “Incan history breathed, and I breathed too because of it. At some point, he said that maybe in a way were both right, that ‘history casts itself across our existence like a shadow of another world.’” The history of these characters breathes into the present, fleshing out the present, for a beautiful climax of intertwined storylines and homes.

Brother, I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat

Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

Brother I’m Dying is a story about two brothers, Danticat’s father and uncle, who take turns raising her. The book starts with one brother calling the other, whispering, “Brother, I’m dying” on the phone. The story follows Danticat from childhood to adulthood, from Haiti to New York and Miami, as she tells her own story, and of the two men who helped raise her. Danticat’s memoir in and of itself is the telling of a story of her family, of their exile. The fact that the brothers write each other notes and send each other letters only makes it more of an act of exile. Danticat writes “Exile is not for everyone. Someone has to stay behind, to receive the letters and greet family members when they come back.” For an exile, there has to be a place, a family, to go back to. A story to be told, from the land left behind, to the land that received you.

The Distant Marvels by Chantel Acevedo

Maria Sirena, the protagonist of Chantel Acevedo’s The Distant Marvels, is a lectora, or a reader of stories to the cigar rollers. The story follows her and a group of women who hide out in a fort during Hurricane Flora near Santiago de Cuba in 1963. Maria Sirena is “a marvelous storyteller, as well, as is true of many Cubans, for whom it seems the knack of weaving a tale comes naturally.” This ability is so important for an exiled people.

Maria Sirena ends up telling stories to the women, about her mother, and about her child, slowly telling more and more of her story that she has hid from the world, and tried to hide from herself. The stories spanning multiple wars and generations. Near the end of the novel, Sirena says “I am dying. The stories will die with me.” By telling the stories, she hopes they can survive another generation, hoping her stories can reach the generations she has lost.

The Veins of the Ocean by Patricia Engel

Patricia Engel’s The Veins of the Ocean: A Novel follows Reina, a Colombian-American, as she tries to keep some semblance of home through stories. She visits her brother Carlito, who is in prison, as she tries to share stories with him so that they can stay as connected as possible. Carlito is the closest to a home Reina has, and telling him stories is her greatest sense of purpose in the beginning of the novel.Stories are also an important part of her relationship with Nesto, who is an exile from Cuba she meets in Florida. They both trade stories of their families, of their homes, before she goes to her home, Cartagena. She then visits Nesto and his family in La Habana. But stories are important to these characters, and vital to the novel, even when they aren’t the most truthful, which becomes apparent when Reina says how her mother talks about “going back to Cartagena to live, as if this North American life were just some interlude and we ended up here by accident.” Even if that story is a retelling of a falsehood, or a half-truth, it is what the mother needed in order to continue on with her story.

The Book of Lost Saints by Daniel José Older

The Book of Lost Saints plays off the ghost story trope, by having the ghost both tell its story, and want to learn more of her own story. Marisol has to haunt Ramon, who has been pushing aside his Cuban heritage, in part because of his own skepticism of the fantastical family histories he was told as a child. It is the only way she can get her story across to him, and get him to investigate the parts of the story that she herself is unsure of. But Older plays off the importance of heritage and family history, as Ramon not only must hear a story told to him by Marisol, but discover a story to tell his own ghost, the story being important to generations in multiple levels.

In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd by Ana Menéndez 

Ana Menéndez’s In Cuba I was a German Shepherd plays off the joke, “Here in America, I may be a short, insignificant mutt, but in Cuba I was a German shepherd.” It’s a common joke among Cuban exiles who live in Miami and elsewhere in the United States, who mostly only have their stories (and sometimes, their embellishments) of who they were and what they had in Cuba. These eleven short stories share the theme of self-mythologizing, and how people can keep a part of their home (and pass on something of their home to the next generation) through stories.

Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz

Jaquira Díaz’s Ordinary Girls follows Diaz and her family as they move within Puerto Rico, and eventually to Miami Beach, after her family deals with some traumatic experiences in their home. Díaz is young when they move, and she idolizes her father. She writes down how when she tries to go back to Puerto Rico as an adult, to her old school and neighborhood, a child tells her to leave, that “You don’t belong here.”

The importance of stories to Diaz is clear to the reader from the beginning, as she fantasizes about her dad telling her “all his secrets, all the stories not meant for children…And I would write it all down, determined to remember. Prohibido olvidar.” Díaz knows this as she says, “how quickly a home can drop you.” So she tells her story, about her family (both blood and chosen), and herself, not only for herself, but for her girls, and the girls to come.

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