The best books on immigration and identity

The Books I Picked & Why

The Sympathizer: A Novel

By Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Sympathizer: A Novel

Why 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. 


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Alfabet/Alphabet

By Sadiqa de Meijer

Alfabet/Alphabet

Why 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.


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

By Madhur Anand

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

Why 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.


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Homeland Elegies

By Ayad Akhtar

Homeland Elegies

Why 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.


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Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language

By Eva Hoffman

Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language

Why 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.


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