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

Jonny Steinberg Author Of A Man of Good Hope
By Jonny Steinberg

The Books I Picked & Why

I Am David

By Anne Holm, L.W. Kingsland

Book cover of I Am David

Why 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.

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What Is the What

By Dave Eggers

Book cover of What Is the What

Why 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.

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Out of Egypt: A Memoir

By Andre Aciman

Book cover of Out of Egypt: A Memoir

Why 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.

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The Sympathizer: A Novel

By Viet Thanh Nguyen

Book cover of The Sympathizer: A Novel

Why 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.

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We Kissed the Ground

By Mohamed Hussein Geeldoon

Book cover of We Kissed the Ground

Why 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.

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