The best books about exile, refugees and people on the move

Who am I?

In 2010, I met a Somali refugee in Cape Town. His name was Asad Abdullahi. He told the tale of his life with a richness bordering on genius and I was hooked. I spent the next two years tracing his childhood footsteps through the Horn of Africa, looking for anyone and everyone he had encountered. In the course of writing a book about him, I read countless other books about exile, migration, and human beings on the move. My five recommendations are among the books that helped me imagine the experience of exile best. 


I wrote...

A Man of Good Hope

By Jonny Steinberg,

Book cover of A Man of Good Hope

What is my book about?

This book tells the story of a young Somali man, Asad Abdullahi. Separated from his family at the age of seven at the onset of civil war, he spent his childhood roaming the streets of East Africa.

Aged 19, Asad put $1,200 in his pocket and headed down the length of the African continent to Johannesburg to make his fortune. So began an adventure in a country richer and more violent than he could have imagined. A Man of Good Hope is the story of a person shorn of the things we have come to believe make us human – personal possessions, parents, siblings. And yet Asad is an intensely human life, one suffused with desires and a need to leave something of permanence on this earth.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of I Am David

Jonny Steinberg Why did I love this book?

My mother read this book to me over the course of several weekday afternoons. I was nine, maybe ten. The book’s protagonist, David, is a boy who escapes from a concentration camp somewhere in Eastern Europe and walks to Denmark in search of his mother. Lying next to my own mother, on her bed, listening to her voice, cocooned by her love, I identified so very powerfully with this unrooted, solitary, questing boy. It stirred me more than anything else I read as a child. There is something in a refugee’s tale that is so primal, so hard to shake off. There but by the grace of God go I, I thought, every time my mother opened the book to read some more.

By Anne Holm, L.W. Kingsland (translator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked I Am David as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 10, 11, 12, and 13.

What is this book about?

This is the story of a young boy's journey through Europe after escaping from the camp where he has lived all his life. Faced with a host of new experiences, David gradually begins to understand the world around him.


Book cover of What Is the What

Jonny Steinberg Why did I love this book?

As a white man who writes intimate books about black people, I find that this book raises questions that go to the core of what I do. The author is Dave Eggers, a white American. The book’s protagonist and narrator, Valentino Achak Deng, is a refugee from Sudan’s civil war. Eggers offers the book as a novel. Yet Deng is not a fictional character. He is a living person. And when the book came out, he promoted it as his true story. What Is the What was published in 2006. So much has changed since then. Is a collaborative project like Eggers’ and Deng’s still possible, in which the line between fiction and nonfiction, and between a white writer and a black voice, is blurred? Deng’s and Eggers’ collaboration was powerful. I hope it isn’t the last of its kind.

By Dave Eggers,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked What Is the What as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 14, 15, 16, and 17.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The epic novel based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng who, along with thousands of other children —the so-called Lost Boys—was forced to leave his village in Sudan at the age of seven and trek hundreds of miles by foot, pursued by militias, government bombers, and wild animals, crossing the deserts of three countries to find freedom.

When he finally is resettled in the United States, he finds a life full of promise, but also heartache and myriad new challenges. Moving, suspenseful, and unexpectedly funny, What Is the What is an astonishing novel that…


Book cover of Out of Egypt: A Memoir

Jonny Steinberg Why did I love this book?

This is among the most exquisitely rendered memoirs I have ever read. It recounts Aciman’s boyhood in the cosmopolitan world of Alexandria, Egypt, in the 1950s, just before the ethnic nationalism of Egypt’s leader, Gamal Abdal Nassar, swept this world away. Every sentence exudes tender nostalgia for a vanished milieu. It is, profoundly, an exile’s book, mourning and celebrating a life that has been lost.

By André Aciman, André Aciman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This richly coloured memoir chronicles the exploits of a flamboyant Jewish family, from its bold arrival in cosmopolitan Alexandria to its defeated exodus three generations later. In elegant and witty prose, Andre Aciman introduces us to the marvellous eccentrics who shaped his life: the strutting daredevil, soldier, salesman, and spy; the two grandmothers, the Princess and the Saint, who gossip in six languages; and Aunt Flora, the German refugee who warns that Jews lose everything "at least twice in their lives." And through it all, we come to know a boy who, even as he longs for a wider world,…


Book cover of The Sympathizer

Jonny Steinberg Why did I love this book?

The narrator of this novel is a North Vietnamese spy embedded in a South Vietnamese refugee community in California. Full of treachery, duplicity, and betrayal, it is also hilariously funny. More than any other novel I’ve read, it captures the milieu of exile perfectly. Waiters, taxi drivers, and corner-store owners plotting murder in California and counter-revolution back home; wars from across the ocean fought all over again on the streets of Los Angeles. Every modern tale of exile resonates in this novel.

By Viet Thanh Nguyen,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Sympathizer as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE FOR FICTION 2016

It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong. The Sympathizer is the story of this captain:…


Book cover of We Kissed the Ground

Jonny Steinberg Why did I love this book?

Geeldoon is a Somali refugee who told the story of his extraordinary odyssey to Europe to an oral historian. It is a tale rendered without artifice, without an eye for style or craft. The sheer calamity of his experience spills from his mouth. You can tell from the tone of the narrative how urgent, how necessary it was for him to bear witness to his journey, perhaps if only to prove to himself that it really happened.

By Mohamed Hussein Geeldoon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked We Kissed the Ground as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 2015, an estimated 154,000 migrants entered Europe via the Mediterranean from Libya—an increase of more than 1,000 per cent from 2012, while Somalis, most of them young men, were among the top five nationalities crossing the Mediterranean during the first six months of 2015. Although much has been written about the rise in migration to Europe and migrant deaths at sea, little is written about the journey migrants take prior to attempting the crossing. We Kissed the Ground is a first-hand account of a young man’s attempt to migrate to Europe from Somaliland and the hardships of the journey…


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The Alchemy Fire Murder: a Mary Wandwalker Mystery

By Susan Rowland,

Book cover of The Alchemy Fire Murder: a Mary Wandwalker Mystery

Susan Rowland Author Of The Alchemy Fire Murder: a Mary Wandwalker Mystery

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Part-time celt Modern alchemist Myth hunter Jungian

Susan's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

A traditional mystery with a touch of cozy, The Alchemy Fire Murder is for those who like feisty women sleuths, Oxford Colleges, alchemy, strong characters, and real concerns like trafficking, wildfires, racism, and climate change. This book especially works for those fascinated by myth and witches in history. Read for a seventeenth-century alchemist in Connecticut, a lost alchemy scroll stuck in a California Museum, and a blizzard in Los Angeles.

Murder ensues when an intern is attacked after making a momentous discovery with Mary Wandwalker, an inexperienced detective commissioned to recover the treasure vital to the survival of her Oxford college, St Julian’s. When the young man’s brother is falsely accused, Mary has to step in.

The Alchemy Fire Murder: a Mary Wandwalker Mystery

By Susan Rowland,

What is this book about?

Former Archivist Mary Wandwalker hates bringing bad news. Nevertheless, she confirms to her alma mater that their prized medieval alchemy scroll, is, in fact, a seventeenth century copy. She learns that the original vanished to colonial Connecticut with alchemist, Robert Le More. Later the genuine scroll surfaces in Los Angeles. Given that the authentic artifact is needed for her Oxford college to survive, retrieving it is essential.

Mary agrees to get the real scroll back as part of a commission for her three-person Enquiry Agency. However, tragedy strikes in Los Angeles. Before Mary can legally obtain the scroll, a young…


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