The best books that are not your grandfather’s immigration story

Who am I?

Like many of you, my ancestors were immigrants. Mine were Eastern European, some from villages now in Ukraine. Growing up, I heard stories of relatives fleeing the Cossacks, the pogroms, and basically getting out while the getting was good, all for the promise of a better life. Some didn’t make it—they died in gas chambers and work camps. Some didn’t survive the hardships of their new worlds. The ones who thrived were tough, worked hard…yes, some were bitter, but they all had hope. This hope, despite everything, is universal, yet very personal, which is why I’m so drawn to these refugee and immigrant stories from all over the world.


I wrote...

Boychik

By Laurie Boris,

Book cover of Boychik

What is my book about?

It’s 1932. Eli, the son in Abramowitz & Son Kosher Delicatessen in Brooklyn, dreams of becoming a Hollywood screenwriter. Evelyn, the daughter of a mobster and his Polish mail-order bride, carries the weight of family traditions but longs for escape and a life where she can do some good in the world. But a chance meeting could make trouble for everyone, and could put both their lives in danger. Boychik is a story about hope, love, and finding the courage to chase your dreams even when they run counter to family obligations.

The books I picked & why

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The Beekeeper of Aleppo

By Christy Lefteri,

Book cover of The Beekeeper of Aleppo

Why this book?

My favorite stories crook a finger and draw me deep into the characters and their worlds. The world of refugees from the Syrian civil war is filled with horror, grief, and pain, as you might expect, but this book…this book is beautiful, and it’s among the best novels I’ve read. A beekeeper and his wife – a blind artist flee Aleppo for a chance of survival and the ever-dwindling hope of a new life in the UK. Threads from past and present weave seamlessly around each other like a bee from flower to hive to flower. I ached for these characters, but I also felt so present it was like walking through the fields of lavender and tasting the honey. My stepfather kept bees, so I also enjoyed that connection.


What Is the What

By Dave Eggers,

Book cover of What Is the What

Why this book?

An American author wrote an autobiographical novel about the journey of a refugee from the Sudanese civil war? Skeptical red flags going up all over the place. But the story is based on actual refugee Valentino Achak Deng (he and Dave Eggers are friends), and the proceeds go to a foundation birthed in Deng’s name. Which Deng now uses to fund schools in his native South Sudan. But then I read it. And it’s good. Like, really, really good. Heartbreaking yet hopeful, and if I forgot about Eggers, I would completely believe that Deng is sitting right in front of me telling his story over coffee.


Middlesex

By Jeffrey Eugenides,

Book cover of Middlesex

Why this book?

Yes, it won a Pulitzer. Yes, it’s been around a while (published in 2002). The world is (finally, hopefully) catching up to the fact that non-binary people are part of it. But in its time, Middlesex was considered astonishing—for its main character (identified as intersex) and the family secrets he reveals. This was and still is one of my favorite stories. The writing is flat-out stellar, for one. I ached with empathy and love for Calliope, later known as Cal, but the harrowing immigration tale of his grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona, seeking escape to America from their tiny village in Greece while the country is being besieged by the Turkish army, pulled me in hard. So, technically it is somebody’s grandparents’ immigration story, but it’s really, really good.


Little Bee

By Chris Cleave,

Book cover of Little Bee

Why this book?

I knew nothing about this book’s author but was immediately hooked by the engaging voice of the young protagonist. I would have followed her anywhere. She led me out of Nigeria, on the run from warlords who burned her village, to a refugee detention center in the UK. Then on the loose, an undocumented young Nigerian woman searching for the one man in London who could vouch for her. What she does find is the man’s widow. And I found a story I couldn’t stop reading. Only later did I learn that the author is a man. And that he’d written the book to shine a light on the cruelty done to Nigerians in the name of oil rights, and the mistreatment of refugees in UK detention centers. Well done, Chris.


The Revised Kama Sutra: A Novel of Colonialism and Desire

By Richard Crasta,

Book cover of The Revised Kama Sutra: A Novel of Colonialism and Desire

Why this book?

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Richard Crasta when he lived in New York, and his novel was a welcome surprise at a time when I needed it. Not all fictional immigrant journeys about hope are harrowing life-and-death tales. Some are funny, like Crasta’s coming-of-age American-dream novel. It’s been called the Indian Portnoy’s Complaint. I get that some might have a problem with that. But I felt for Vijay Prabhu, our young protagonist. He yearns to be a writer and sleep with American women—a dream that American TV and movies have promised him, a dream that’s taboo in his native Mangalore and in his Catholic family, where writing is not an acceptable profession for a man and sex is definitely not discussed. Witty and honest and devastatingly human.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in refugees, Sudan, and World War 2?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about refugees, Sudan, and World War 2.

Refugees Explore 85 books about refugees
Sudan Explore 18 books about Sudan
World War 2 Explore 886 books about World War 2

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Americanah, Other Words for Home, and Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of the Sudan if you like this list.