One of my goals for the coming year is to read more books focused on refugees and immigration. I’ve gotten a head start on it with this group, and I thought you’d enjoy them. They’re a fittingly diverse bunch, and they touch on a number of different issues with modern immigration. Exit West is a political thought-experiment, and Refugee is a YA novel that compares teens seeking shelter from the Nazis, Fidel Castro, and Bashar al-Assad. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is also YA, and while not exclusively about immigration, is heavily influenced by its long, dark shadows. Finally, Tell Me How it Ends is a series of essays drawn from interviews with unaccompanied minors arriving in the US. Any one of these is fabulous, but together they paint a complex portrait, one I’m interested in expanding in the new year. Any suggestions?
Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
This is one of those books where a one-sentence summary truly does sell it. What if a series of magical doors opened throughout the world, and people were able to instantly escape war-torn, poverty-stricken countries and pop up somewhere new?
Focused on two characters, Nadia and Saeed, from an unnamed, rapidly deteriorating country, the novel explores and expands on the complexities of refuge. It asks important questions about borders, procedures, and the very idea of a nation itself. The novel focuses on Nadia and Saeed’s journey but it also flashes around the globe, imagining other refugees emerging in other places. The magic of the doors is not explained or questioned by the characters, which I thought was brilliant. At first, chaos and hatred meet the refugees, but what I appreciate is that Hamid doesn’t leave us there, but pushes past, finds the humanity, the resettlements. I feel I lost some of my passion for the characters in the end, but it remains a novel I will continue ponder in these cold winter days.
Refugee, Alan Gratz
Three intertwined storylines, three narrators, three separate times, all refugees. A brilliant look at the refugee crisis and especially its impacts on children, this YA novel is more suited to older readers.
Josef is a Jewish boy trying to flee Nazi Germany, who sets sail on the ill-fated St. Louis, denied refuge around the world and eventually returned to Europe. Isabel is living in the early 90’s and flees Fidel Castro, trying to escape to the US on a not-quite-boat. Mahmoud is trying to flee Bashar al-Assad’s reign of terror in Syria in 2015, fleeing with his family in hopes of reaching the sanctuary of Germany.
Following all three stories allows for universalities of the refugee experience to emerge. I especially appreciated that it ties a subject kids already read a lot about – the Holocaust – to other, more recent and ongoing humanitarian crises. Less “never again” and more “what can we do now?” Compelling and fast-paced, your heart aches for these characters.
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Erika L. Sánchez
Juliá is the immensely likable protagonist of this fast-paced YA novel. She is smart, acerbic, of Mexican descent living in Chicago, and recently bereaved. This is not a combination you come across often. Her older sister Olga was killed in a freak accident, and her parents’ grief is suffocating. Juliá spends the first half of the book investigating secrets from Olga’s life, trying to understand someone she realizes too late she doesn’t know at all.
But then the book expands. This almost 400 page novel delves into every conceivable YA issue – grief, friends, trouble in school, sexual harassment, racism, classism, being an immigrant without papers, sexual assault, losing your virginity, suicide, unintended pregnancy, self-harm… etc. Juliá even goes back to Mexico and encounters drug cartels, cute boys with limited future options, a wise grandmother and horses.
In the end, I did feel like this book tried to shove too much into one story, but there are plenty of teenagers who would adore every word of it. It is well written and interesting, and included in this list because of the impact of immigration on the characters, especially in the second half.
Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, Valeria Luiselli
Valeria Luiselli finds herself working as a volunteer translator for the government, interviewing refugee children who have come, unaccompanied, to the US. These children have fled and experienced war, poverty, and horrific violence, and it is the translator’s job to get their stories. She must convince them to trust her with their nightmares, so that the lawyers can advocate for asylum.
Luiselli tells some of the children’s stories here, interwoven with her own immigrant story and some utterly depressing statistics. Her greatest triumph is in describing the movement of these unaccompanied minors firmly in refugee terms. She explains how they are fleeing a hemispheric war in which the US has never been an innocent bystander, but instead an aggressor and participant. She points out that we have created many of the very conditions these children are forced to flee. I’ve never seen it put quite so cogently, and I applaud her efforts here. A truly important book, and slim and quick enough to hand to everyone. If you read only one, read this one.