These novels deal with the challenges, hopes, and feelings of immigrants. They will often show the difficulty of juggling two different cultures, and trying to live up to the expectations of each.
Novels with Immigrants
The Namesake | Jhumpa Lahiri
Ashoke and Ashima, an Indian couple, have been in America a year and a half when their son, Gogol, is born. Ashoke works as an assistant professor and eventually gets tenure. The family becomes more Americanized as Gogol and his younger sister grow up. Before Gogol goes to university at eighteen, he changes his name to Nikhil. He feels he is playing two roles in life – as Gogol to everyone who knew him before, and as Nikhil at school. He also struggles with his two cultural identities.
Breath, Eyes, Memory | Edwidge Danticat
In 1980s Haiti there is widespread poverty and an oppressive government. Sophie, twelve, lives with her aunt in better conditions than many because her mother, Martine, sends them money from New York. Martine was raped at sixteen, resulting in Sophie’s birth. She left Haiti to escape from her pain. She sends for Sophie to come to the United States. When Sophie grows up she falls in love with a neighbor, Joseph. Her mother “tests” Sophie’s virginity to ensure she hasn’t slept with Joseph.
Bone | Fae Myenne Ng
Lila, Ona, and Nina are sisters. Leila has recently married her long time boyfriend. Ona has just commited suicide, jumping off the thirteenth floor of a building. The narrative continues in reverse order before coming back to the suicide and then the days after it. The Leong family are Chinese immigrants; the father, Leon, came to America when he was fifteen. There is some conflict because the daughters are more Americanized than the parents.
The Dew Breaker | Edwidge Danticat
The narrative consists of nine related stories about either Haitian-Americans in New York, or in Haiti under dictatorial rule. It begins with Ka, who is traveling to Florida with her father to sell a sculpture to a collector. Her father derails the plans and reveals a secret. Next, a man in New York is reunited with his wife after seven years apart.
Typical American | Gish Jen
Ralph Chang leaves China to study engineering in the U.S. When China is taken over by communists, Chinese students are not allowed to return. Ralph loses touch with his family. He also fails to renew his visa and moves frequently to avoid detection. By chance he meets up with his sister Theresa who is studying medicine. Ralph reorganizes his life and marries Theresa’s friend, Helen.
The Tortilla Curtain | T.C. Boyle
Delaney Mossbacher runs into an older Mexican man with his car. Delaney is initially concerned about his car and insurance costs. The man is badly injured. He doesn’t speak English. Delaney settles the matter with twenty dollars, but soon feels bad about the man’s limited options. The injured man, Candido Rincon, is too hurt to work. Along with others, he is living in a nearby canyon. His wife is looking for a job. The narrative continues with each family’s vastly different American experience.
Bread Givers | Anzia Yezierska
It is the 1890s in a Jewish ghetto in Manhattan. The family is poor. The father, according to tradition, doesn’t work as he is a Rabbi. His daughters earn whatever money they can and hand it over to him. He rejects his daughter’s suitors if they cannot pay a sufficient dowry. He also interferes as a matchmaker. His youngest daughter, Sara, is independent-minded and resists her father’s direction. She makes plans to change her life.
Read “The Bread Givers” (Chapter 1)
No-No Boy | John Okada
Ichiro, a twenty-five-year-old Japanese American, returns home after two years in an internment camp and two years in prison for refusing military service in WWII. He regrets his decision not to fight. He has a strained relationship with his mother, who insists that Japan won the war, and with his younger brother, who disagreed with his decision to refuse service. Ichiro is unsure of his place in the world, feeling neither Japanese nor American.
My Antonia | Willa Cather
Jim Burden recollects the life story of Antonia Shimerda. As children, their families moved to rural Nebraska where they became neighbours. They become friends, being close in age, and with Antonia eager to learn English. An upset in the Shimerda family creates some distance between the two. Years later, the Burden’s move in to town and Antonia takes a job nearby.
Giants in the Earth| O. E. Rolvaag
Per Hansa is leading his family over the Dakota plains. They’ve been separated from their travelling party. They need to get to Spring Creek to register a section of land they can farm. The community deals with all the trials of the plains such as land disputes, losing animals, long journeys for supplies, and the weather, among other things.
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