The best novels about displaced people

Why am I passionate about this?

A combination of things led me to this topic: My father was forced to leave his home in northern India during partition and was therefore a child refugee. In 2016, I was filming in Ukraine and became hugely interested in what was happening there. I have looked for a way to help ever since then. Discovering Monica Stirling’s novel about refugees from East Europe, I realised that here was an opportunity to help give voice to the refugee experience; to help raise funds for Ukraine, and to help bring back to life an incredible story written by an author who deserves to be rediscovered.


I edited...

Sigh For A Strange Land

By Monica Stirling, Irfan Shah (editor),

Book cover of Sigh For A Strange Land

What is my book about?

I have edited a new version of a forgotten classic, the novel Sigh For A Strange Land, by Monica Stirling. This edition will help to raise funds for Ukraine and has been done with the support of Stirling’s surviving family.

Fleeing from the violence of revolution, Resi, Boris, and the redoubtable Aunt Natasha find themselves adrift in Europe with just their wits - and their love for one another - to sustain them. Resi, in the throes of adolescence, must navigate the physical and emotional turmoil of her life whilst discovering the truth about her past from her eccentric but devoted aunt. First published in 1958, Sigh For A Strange Land is as fresh, powerful, and timely as ever.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Exit West

Irfan Shah Why did I love this book?

The book is a dizzying mix: the grim realities of displacement are intertwined with speculative fiction – fantasy even.

A love story of two migrants, Saeed and Nadia, who traverse the globe to escape conflict and try and find a way to be together. Oftentimes, they find their way across borders through a series of ‘doors’ – a device reminiscent of CS Lewis (in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe) and one which takes the protagonists across the world. Elegant, spare prose; brutal realities, and electrifying flights of fancy – Exit West has it all.

One reason I like the book is that the author, Mohsin Hamid, has found a way to bring the desperate, timely topic of refugees out to a wider audience. His previous book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was made into a film and Exit West is being adapted for Netflix.

I feel it’s important for more novels about refugees to break out of niche markets and speak to as many people as possible – a good way to help change attitudes. 

By Mohsin Hamid,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Exit West as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A BBC 2 Between the Covers Book Club Pick - Booker Gems

THE NEW YORK TIMES AND SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER
SHORTLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2017
WINNER OF THE ASPEN WORDS LITERARY PRIZE

'Astonishing' Zadie Smith
'Stunning' Spectator
'Extraordinary' TLS

An extraordinary story of love and hope from the bestselling author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist

All over the world, doors are appearing.
They lead to other cities, other countries, other lives.

And in a city gripped by war, Nadia and Saeed are newly in love.
Hardly more than strangers, desperate to survive, they open a door and step through.…


Book cover of In the Sea There Are Crocodiles

Irfan Shah Why did I love this book?

When his mother disappears, ten-year-old Enaiatollah Akbari embarks on what would end up being a five-year journey that would take him from Afghanistan, through Iran, Greece, and Turkey, and eventually to Italy where he would meet and be befriended by the family of the book’s author, Fabio Geda. 

This is a novelisation of a true story – one that beggars belief as young Enaiatollah works dangerous jobs and has to deal with unscrupulous people-traffickers as well as making perilous crossings across several borders. This is a story, nevertheless, of hope and so I feel it is something that will inspire as well as inform, and yes, entertain.

By Fabio Geda,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In the Sea There Are Crocodiles as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What would you do if, when you were ten, you were left to fend for yourself, and, in order to survive, you had to undertake a harrowing journey all the way from Afghanistan to Italy?
 
In early 2002, Enaiatollah Akbari’s village fell prey to the Taliban. His mother, fearing for his life, led him across the border. So began Enaiat’s remarkable and often publishing five-year ordeal—trekking across bitterly cold mountains, riding the suffocating false bottom of a truck, steering an inflatable raft in violent waters—through Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, and Greece, before he eventually sought political asylum in Italy, all before…


Book cover of The Night Diary

Irfan Shah Why did I love this book?

A children’s book that adults will enjoy, The Night Diary is the story of twelve-year-old Nisha, half-Muslim, half-Hindu, and caught up in the tragedy of partition – where Pakistan and India separated in the aftermath of India’s independence from Britain.

Nisha is about to experience the disorientation and fear that comes when a family decides to flee for safety. Nisha’s story is told through a series of letters to her mother as she leaves what is now Pakistan, to find a home and an identity. Her predicament – that of a desperate search not just for physical safety but for hope - reminds me of that of Resi, the main character in Sigh For A Strange Land, who wants nothing more than to find that "'tomorrow' is not a threatening word."

By Veera Hiranandani,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked The Night Diary as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 8, 9, 10, and 11.

What is this book about?

It's 1947, and India, newly independent of British rule, has been separated into two countries: Pakistan and India. The divide has created much tension between Hindus and Muslims, and hundreds of thousands are killed crossing borders.

Half-Muslim, half-Hindu twelve-year-old Nisha doesn't know where she belongs, or what her country is anymore. When Papa decides it's too dangerous to stay in what is now Pakistan, Nisha and her family become refugees and embark first by train but later on foot to reach her new home. The journey is long, difficult, and dangerous, and after losing her mother as a baby, Nisha…


Book cover of Of Mice and Men

Irfan Shah Why did I love this book?

This classic novel is, if you think about it, absolutely about refugees – or to be specific, economic migrants, or more specifically, and because they travel within one country (the United States), they are IDPs – Internally Displaced Persons.

So many possible labels – put simply, they are the Dispossessed. Of Mice and Men is a story, set during the American Depression, of two migrant workers, George Milton and Lennie Small, who travel from job to job, sustained by their devotion to one another and by Lenny’s dream of owning a farm and looking after rabbits on it.

The book is a fierce railing against injustice and a tribute to friendship. It is also as moving now as it was when first published in 1937.

By John Steinbeck,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Of Mice and Men as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Introducing Little Clothbound Classics: irresistible, mini editions of short stories, novellas and essays from the world's greatest writers, designed by the award-winning Coralie Bickford-Smith.

Celebrating the range and diversity of Penguin Classics, they take us from snowy Japan to springtime Vienna, from haunted New England to a sun-drenched Mediterranean island, and from a game of chess on the ocean to a love story on the moon. Beautifully designed and printed, these collectible editions are bound in colourful, tactile cloth and stamped with foil.

Drifters in search of work, George and his childlike friend Lennie have nothing in the world except…


Book cover of Wandering Souls

Irfan Shah Why did I love this book?

A brutal but beautifully told fiction based on true events, it explores the aftermath of America’s withdrawal from Vietnam – folding into the narrative, such horrific events as the Koh Kra massacre. 

The protagonists are 16-year-old Anh, her 13-year-old brother Minh and their 10-year-old brother Thanh. During an ill-fated sea crossing to Hong Kong, they are separated from their parents and siblings. After passing through camps and detention centres, they find themselves in the Britain of the 80s.

What follows is a clear-eyed, often heart-rending look at the immigrant experience. Pin’s writing style is precise and understated – and perhaps the more powerful it. Among the many elements that make the book so beguiling is the addition of Dao, one of the siblings’ lost brothers narrating parts of the story from limbo.

By Cecile Pin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Wandering Souls as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2023

“A deeply humane and genre-defying work of love and uncompromising hope.” ―Ocean Vuong, author of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and Time Is a Mother

There are the goodbyes and then the fishing out of the bodies―everything in between is speculation.

After the last American troops leave Vietnam, siblings Anh, Minh, and Thanh journey to Hong Kong with the promise that their parents and younger siblings will soon follow. But when tragedy strikes, the three children are left orphaned, and sixteen-year-old Anh becomes the caretaker for her two younger brothers overnight.

In…


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The Woman at the Wheel

By Penny Haw,

Book cover of The Woman at the Wheel

Penny Haw Author Of The Invincible Miss Cust

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Storyteller Dog walker Dreamer Runner Reader

Penny's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Inspiring historical fiction based on the real life of Bertha Benz, whose husband built the first prototype automobile, which eventually evolved into the Mercedes-Benz marque.

"Unfortunately, only a girl again."

From a young age, Cäcilie Bertha Ringer is fascinated by her father's work as a master builder in Pforzheim, Germany. But those five words, which he wrote next to her name in the family Bible, haunt Bertha.

Years later, Bertha meets Carl Benz and falls in love—with him and his extraordinary dream of building a horseless carriage. Bertha has such faith in him that she invests her dowry in his plans, a dicey move since they alone believe in the machine. When Carl's partners threaten to withdraw their support, he's ready to cut ties. Bertha knows the decision would ruin everything. Ignoring the cynics, she takes matters into her own hands, secretly planning a scheme that will either hasten the family's passage to absolute derision or prove their genius. What Bertha doesn't know is that Carl is on the cusp of making a deal with their nemesis. She's not only risking her marriage and their life's work, but is also up against the patriarchy, Carl's own self-doubt, and the clock.

Like so many other women, Bertha lived largely in her husband's shadow, but her contributions are now celebrated in this inspiring story of perseverance, resilience, and love.

The Woman at the Wheel

By Penny Haw,

What is this book about?

Inspiring historical fiction based on the real life of Bertha Benz, whose husband built the first prototype automobile, which eventually evolved into the Mercedes-Benz marque.

"Unfortunately, only a girl again."

From a young age, Cacilie Bertha Ringer is fascinated by her father's work as a master builder in Pforzheim, Germany. But those five words, which he wrote next to her name in the family Bible, haunt Bertha.

Years later, Bertha meets Carl Benz and falls in love-with him and his extraordinary dream of building a horseless carriage. Bertha has such faith in him that she invests her dowry in his…


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