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5 books about the immigrant experience

Posted by Melissa Eisenmeier on

Immigrants, and immigration in general, are topics near and dear to my heart: I grew up around immigrants, and as a kid, some of my good friends were from immigrant families. I've lost touch with some of those friends, but I've since made new ones that immigrated to America. I've also known for awhile that some of my not-so-distant ancestors immigrated here, and probably faced problems similar to what modern immigrants face. Since immigration is important to me, I like reading stories about the immigrant experience. Here are some of the ones I've read.
Americanized: Rebel Without a Green Card by Sara Saedi is one of the best ones I've read recently. It's a memoir geared to the modern, 2019 teen, although the author was a teenager herself approximately twenty, twenty-five years ago. Ms. Saedi was born in Iran and immigrated to America as a toddler with her family. About ten years later, she found out that she was in the country illegally, along with her sister and parents. Her brother, Kia, was an American citizen, having been born in the country after his parents and sisters had immigrated to the United States. I really liked the writing style; it felt intelligent but still really funny and approachable, like something I'd recommend to my best friend's 18-year-old niece. There's pictures of the author, by herself and with family members, along with the random picture of relatives by themselves, accompanied with captions and jokes about how selfies were harder in the nineties. Used, $3.99
Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Journey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldberg by Paul Avrich is the true story of Alexander "Sasha" Berkman and Emma Goldman. They were both Russian Jews, born in the late 19th century, and as such, faced discrimination and other problems in their home country. Sasha likely would have faced conscription in the Russian army and harder service than his gentile peers. After immigrating to America circa 1900 (about the time as three of my ancestors), both Sasha and Emma were radicalized and became anarchists and the early twentieth century version of social justice warriors, fighting for a better life for the masses. The really cool thing is my hometown has a bookstore and cafe named after Emma- Red Emma's is a radical, worker bookstore and vegan/vegetarian cafe and coffee shop. New, $14.99
Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas is another one of the best books about the immigrant experience I've read recently. Like Sara Saedi, Mr. Vargas was brought to America as a child illegally and didn't realize he was in the country illegally until later, when he attempted to apply for a driver's license. He was born in the Philippines to a poor family. When he was 10, his mother sent him to America by himself on an airplane and he lived with his extended family so he could have a better life. I really liked Undocumented because it offered a somewhat unique perspective, in that the author went to college, became a journalist, and is gay and out. It seems like it's a bit rare to hear stories about gay immigrants or openly admitting they're in the United States illegally. It also challenges the narrative that illegal immigrants come to America via South America. Used, $0.99

The Balance of Fragile Things, by Olivia Chadha, is the outlier here- it's a novel, instead of nonfiction, but still relevant. Paul grew up in India and his wife, Maija, is Latvian. When their son Vic finds a dead butterfly in his upstate New York town, he thinks it's out of place and that something is horribly wrong. However, Vic's too busy dealing with school bullies and the pressure to live up to his father's Sikh traditions to investigate the environmental oddities. When Paul's father and Maija's mother move in with the family, it upends their fragile balance. I thought it was kind of cool to see Latvian and Indian cultures blended in the book. New, $13.99

 

Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David von Drehle is the true story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. There's a lot of backstory behind the fire, including how a lot of the workers were Jewish immigrants looking for a better life and how a lot of shirtwaist factories like Triangle started in sweatshop-like conditions. The book also goes into detail about how it was suspected that the owners of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory started two previous fires at the factory to collect payments and didn't modernize the building in case the building "accidentally" caught fire again. I thought Triangle was beautifully written. There were stories of some of the individuals employed at the factory in addition to the larger story, which I felt added to the poignancy of the book. Used, $0.99

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