The best books on immigration and identity

Who am I?

I’m a language scientist and a writer, but most of all, a person who is smitten with language in all its forms. No doubt my fascination was shaped by my early itinerant life as a child immigrant between Czechoslovakia to Canada, with exposure to numerous languages along the way. I earned a PhD in linguistics and taught linguistics and psychology at Brown University and later, the University of Calgary, but I now spend most of my time writing for non-academic readers, integrating my scientific understanding of language with a love for its aesthetic possibilities.

I wrote...

Book cover of Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self

What is my book about?

Memory Speaks relates a tale that is as familiar as it is painful: as a child immigrant to Canada, I quickly absorbed the English language and lost much of my ability to speak my own mother tongue—and with it, a deep connection to my elders and my own cultural origins. A linguist by training, I set out to understand the science of language loss and the potential for renewal, weaving together a rich body of psychological research with my personal story of language loss.

I challenge the view that linguistic pluralism splinters loyalties and communities, arguing that the struggle to remain connected to an ancestral language and culture can bring people together, as people from all backgrounds recognize the crucial role of language in forming a sense of self.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Sympathizer

Julie Sedivy Why did I love this book?

A bisection of the self is at the core of immigrant identity. Anyone whose life and sense of self have been split between two cultures will immediately identify with the protagonist of this gripping novel, a person who is fundamentally divided in his own soul. “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces,” announces our main character in the opening lines. “I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.” The protagonist muses that this dual perspective is perhaps his only talent—and then wonders whether it’s a talent at all. “After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you.”

Nguyen structures his entire novel around this sense of duality, a psychological union of unlikely oppositions: The protagonist’s parents are a Vietnamese woman and a French priest. He grows up in Vietnam but goes to college in the United States. As an adult, he becomes a North Vietnamese mole embedded in the South Vietnamese army, but he can’t help but feel attached to the military personnel upon whom he is spying. During the fall of Saigon, he leaves Vietnam and moves to Los Angeles; he is eventually hired as a consultant to a Hollywood film director and is charged with providing a Vietnamese perspective during the filming of a movie about the Vietnam War. Even the novel’s climax hinges on double perspectives and the protagonist’s ability to shift perspectives and meanings. 

This is a compelling story that will captivate anyone, but what really stayed with me was the way in which the plot serves as a metaphor for the struggle experienced by anyone who is trying to make a new life while carrying within them an old one, and how the character of the spy—a person of divided loyalties and therefore not to be trusted—is an embodiment of any newcomer who must cope with competing loves and the distrust of those who do not understand the true nature of a divided self. 

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?


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 Alfabet/Alphabet

Julie Sedivy Why did I love this book?

Lovers of language will be entranced by this slim volume. The book contains 26 short pieces, each centered around a Dutch word beginning with a different letter of the alphabet and its English translation. Each segment is a poetic meditation on some aspect of the author’s transition from her first home in the Netherlands to her second home in Canada, and with it, her transition from the Dutch language to English. 

The author explores themes such as how English speakers perceive her mother tongue as alien, the profound emotional connection she feels for Dutch, which she describes as “my pulse music, my bone resonator, my umbilical ligature,” and the paradox of her identification with a mother tongue whose speakers do not always welcome her complicated ethnic identity. 

This is not a book to read quickly. It’s a book to be savored, ideally in the small, intense doses provided by each of the pieces within it. I found it to be an intellectual and sensory delight, and the time I sat down with it was often the highlight of my day. It’s a book I’ll be re-reading again and again, and dipping into my favorite pieces whenever I need to connect with the beauty of the English language and nostalgia for a mother tongue now rarely spoken.

By Sadiqa de Meijer,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Alfabet/Alphabet as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

alfabet / alphabet is the record of Sadiqa de Meijer?s transition from speaking Dutch to English. Exploring questions of identity, landscape, family, and translation, the essays navigate the shifting cultural currents of language by using an eclectic approach to storytelling. As such, fellow linguistic migrants to anglophone Canada will recognize elements of their experience in alfabet / alphabet, while lifelong English speakers will perceive their mother tongue in a new light.

Book cover of This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart: A Memoir in Halves

Julie Sedivy Why did I love this book?

This is one of the most innovative and intriguing memoirs I have read. Its structure is inspired by the visual image of the line that runs through the Punjab region, partitioning Pakistan from India. The book is separated into halves: one half relates the stories of the author’s parents, who were born on opposite sides of the line, and the other presents the author’s own experiences and observations as a second-generation immigrant. Nothing about the design of the book indicates which half should be read first—a hint that the reader will be invited to consider the resonances running in both directions across the generations.

The theme of fragmentation and division is, paradoxically, the glue that binds the various elements of the book together. The author explores the arbitrary lines, imposed by historical and cultural forces, that divide people from each other and that split their selves into parts. The portrait of the parents’ marriage is one in which two people are unable to cross the barriers that have been erected between them. The account of the family’s settlement in Canada is riddled with encounters in which discriminatory attitudes keep them apart from the majority culture of their adopted country. In her account of her own life, the author—who is both a poet and a professor of ecology—portrays her own internal life as having the nature of a kaleidoscope, composed of separate pieces whose patterns shift moment by moment depending on the perspective one adopts. 

The result is a lyrical and rewarding volume, as well as a challenging one. This is not a book in which the various pieces are neatly tied up for the reader, or in which a tidy integration takes place. Instead, readers are invited to experience for themselves the process of making sense of a life of seemingly disconnected pieces, a process that is familiar to many immigrants who have felt the effects of radical discontinuities in their lives.

By Madhur Anand,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


“Wondrously and elegantly written in language that astonishes and moves the reader…This is an important book: an emotional and intellectual tour de force.” —Jane Urquhart

An experimental memoir about Partition, immigration, and generational storytelling, This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart weaves together the poetry of memory with the science of embodied trauma, using the imagined voices of the past and the vital authority of the present.

We begin with a man off balance: one in one thousand, the only child in town whose polio leads to partial paralysis.…

Book cover of Homeland Elegies

Julie Sedivy Why did I love this book?

This book calls itself a novel, but it is deeply intertwined with the author’s own life and experiences as a second-generation immigrant from Pakistan. The chapters often read more like incisive personal essays than segments advancing the plot of a conventional novel, as the author grapples with the economic obsessions and spiritual poverty of contemporary American culture, the experience of everyday racism and the rage it provokes, and the feelings of alienation that many immigrants feel from both their country of origin and their adopted home. 

The central preoccupation of the book is the difficulty of living as a complete, nuanced, self-contradictory individual in a world that forces you to choose—between cultures in conflict with each other, between absolutist world views that permit no ambivalence, between economic success and authenticity. It is a tension that may be especially pronounced in an immigrant’s life, but one that entraps everyone and results in a dangerous fragmentation of the self and society.

This a beautifully written book, but more than that, it is a vitally important book for anyone who wants to understand the cultural undercurrents that manifest themselves in pathological extremes, whether it is religious fundamentalism, jingoistic nationalism, or the rise of toxic populism.

By Ayad Akhtar,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This "beautiful novel . . . has echoes of The Great Gatsby": an immigrant father and his son search for belonging—in post-Trump America, and with each other (Dwight Garner, New York Times).

One of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year 
One of Barack Obama's Favorite Books of 2020
A Best Book of 2020 * Entertainment Weekly * Washington Post * O Magazine * New York Times Book Review * Publishers Weekly * NPR * The Economist * Shelf Awareness * Library Journal * St. Louis Post-Dispatch * Slate
Finalist for the 2021 Andrew Carnegie Medal for…

Book cover of Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language

Julie Sedivy Why did I love this book?

This book is a classic memoir of migration. It follows a traditional, chronological structure, but stands out for its luminous prose and its trenchant, precisely articulated insights. Hoffman is an introspective writer, offering an intimate and rich rendering of the inner life of a young woman who is forced to leave her native Poland as a teenager and recreate herself on a new continent.

Much of the book deals with the intimate connection between language and self. What does it mean when your first experiences of love took place in one language, and you now have to learn to love in another? How do you reconcile the parts of yourself that quarrel with each other, often in different languages? How does an immigrant assimilate into a national identity that is itself fragmented and laden with the “blessings and terrors of multiplicity”?

Hoffman is both analytical and poetic, self-examining and attuned to the cultural forces around her. She writes of internal and external conflict, but by the end of the book, the reader has the feeling that they have spent a few hours in the company of an integrated mind that is as much at peace with itself, regardless of its divided nature, as a human mind can ever be.

By Eva Hoffman,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Lost in Translation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A marvelously thoughtful book . . . It is not just about emigrants and refugees. It is about us all." -The New York Times

When her parents brought her from the war-ravaged, faded elegance of her native Cracow in 1959 to settle in well-manicured, suburban Vancouver, Eva Hoffman was thirteen years old. Entering into adolescence, she endured the painful pull of nostalgia and struggled to express herself in a strange unyielding new language.

Her spiritual and intellectual odyssey continued in college and led her ultimately to New York's literary world yet still she felt caught between two languages, two cultures.…

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The Blighted Mission

By E. Chris Ambrose,

Book cover of The Blighted Mission

E. Chris Ambrose Author Of The Mongol's Coffin

New book alert!

Who am I?

As an art school drop-out who'd been majoring in sculpture, I'm fascinated by material culture—artifacts created by early peoples that reveal their cultural values. Often, the relics and sites that engage both archaeologists and readers suggest unexpected depths of knowledge that show human ingenuity through the ages. I strive to incorporate the details of an artifact or monument's creation into the clues and descriptions in my work, hopefully illuminating a little-known historical realm, if only by torchlight as the adventure unfolds. The fact that I get to explore so many exotic locations, in research if not in person, is a definite plus!

E. Chris' book list on weaving adventure and history

What is my book about?

Disgraced British anthropologist Nigel Rowe hopes his YouTube adventure channel will be just the treat to redeem him, but vengeful treasure hunters have other plans! Seeking a legendary Jesuit mission in Baja, Nigel saves his producer’s life when the man takes a bullet meant for him. 

When an ex-Marine strolls up for a bodyguard interview, and dresses him down for his lax security, she might be precisely what he needs, or the last face he'll ever see. They plunge into the desert in search of fame, fortune and viral footage. Will he survive long enough to work out who's after him or meet a sticky end in the mountains of Mexico? All he can hope is that his new partner's doesn’t pull the trigger herself.

The Blighted Mission

By E. Chris Ambrose,

What is this book about?

A disgraced British anthropologist hopes his YouTube adventure channel will redeem him, but vengeful treasure hunters have other plans.

From the author of the internationally best-selling Bone Guard archaeological adventures!

On the trail of a legendary Jesuit mission in Baja—and the treasure it may contain—Nigel Rowe leaps into action to save the life of his producer when the man takes a bullet meant for Nigel. Alas, the list of those who might wish him dead spans the globe and ranges from American treasure hunters to Russian mobsters to his own dear brother, with their mother's consent if not her explicit…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in immigrants, Holocaust survivors, and communists?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about immigrants, Holocaust survivors, and communists.

Immigrants Explore 159 books about immigrants
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