immigrant experiences in the USA

In an increasingly global society, we still see a trend towards polarisation. Immigrant policies in the USA have become increasingly hostile towards ‘alien’ immigrants. The voices that emerge in immigrant literature occupy the spaces in between. While the immigrant experience may have certain commonalities of displacement and fragmented identities, the social and political policies of the host country impact this experience significantly. Several immigrants are the survivors of trauma and arrive in the USA wherein they have to construct lives in a foreign, and sometimes unwelcoming culture. The form of the memoir is often used as a coming-to-terms with these memories and a representation of the unique experiences of immigrants. The books on this list represent the immigrant experience of 12 nationalities to the USA.


The Girl Who Smiled Beads

Clemantine Wamariya & Elizabeth Weil

Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when she and her 15-year old sister fled from the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years migrating through seven African countries, searching for safety. Finally, at the age of 12, she and her sister were granted refugee status in the United States.Wamariya, who gets adopted, goes on to live the American dream which is juxtaposed with the memories of her brutal past that leave her feeling six years old and, at the same time, 100 years old. This beautifully devasting memoir stands testament to the commitment of moving beyond the victim narrative and constructing life on one’s own terms.

Buy it here.


America Is Not The Heart

Elaine Castillo

Hero lives in a suburb in Milpitas in San Jose, California. She slowly opens up and reveals her past to Rosalyn of how she moved far away from a wealthy childhood in the Philippines to the mountains, where she was a doctor for aguerrilla revolutionary group, to finally making her way to America. The book gives readers an insight into the intricacies of Filipino American society and, as the title suggests, breaks down notions of America being the center. The author mixes languages between English, Spanish and the three native languages of the Philippines, to represent immigrants’ seamless code switching in daily conversation. The novel shows the forging of relationships in immigrant societies that struggle with their hybrid identity, bringing alive the community on the pages of the book.

Buy it here.


Family Life

Akhil Sharma

PEN/Hemingway award winner Akhil Sharma’s second novel made it to the 2014 New York Times Ten Best Books of the Year list. In this semi-autobiographical tale, the book’s protagonist, Ajay Mishra immigrates to the U.S.A. at the tender age of 8. Once there, he experiences his parent’s ‘Americanisation’, issues with settling in, and a tragic accident that leaves his brother brain damaged. It is no surprise that this coming-of-age book was shortlisted for the DSC prize in 2016.

Buy it here.


The Far Away Brothers

Lauren Markham

The Far Away Brothers highlights the human crises aspect of the increasingly hostile American political atmosphere towards immigrants. The book follows the real-life story of identical twin brothers Ernesto and Raúl Flores as they make the decision at 17 to leave El Salvador and make their way to America, defying the odds to settle in Oakland, California. The narrative importantly weaves in the fine print of immigration law and the working of the legal system while setting the historical context of El Salvador.

Buy it here.


Call Me American

Abdi Nor Iftin

Call Me American as a memoir stands for the desire of immigrants to assimilate and to find a home away from home. Abidi Nor Iftin taught himself English by watching movies like Rambo and Commandoon repeat while in Kenya. His love for Western culture gave him the name Abdi American around Mogadishu, which caused him to come under the scrutiny of the radical Islamist group al-Shabaab. With a stroke of luck, Abidi wins the visa lottery to enter the United States under the diversity quota. Iftin says that most of the chapters in his memoir are about a fundamental human desire for survival. 

Buy it here.


Kiyo’s Story: A Japanese-American Family’s Quest For The American Dream

Kiyo Sato

Kiyo Sato, born in 1923 and her family of eight siblings help their parents to build a successful farm in California and live the American Dream until 1942, when President Roosevelt signed the Executive Order 9066 that sent the Satos and 120,000 other Japanese Americans to internment camps. In her 80s, Kiyo writes her memoir of the time and the process of reconstructing their lives after were released from the camp, the struggle to rebuild the farm and the losses that the community faced. Although they were citizens of the country, they were declared illegal overnight, changing their entire identity and security as a family and community. Kiyo’s story stands testimony to a shameful period in American history.

Buy it here.


Enrique’s Journey

Sonia Nazario

Enrique travels from Honduras to the USA, in search of his mother, 11years after she left to find work to support her family. The void his mother’s absence creates is very hard to fill as he is shuffled between relatives’ homes. He finally makes the arduous journey to America, where the narrative unfolds the often under-reported consequences that women who move to the USA from small villages face in order to provide for their families back home. Nazario is critical of America’s immigrant policies towards undocumented workers that fuel an economy dependent on cheap immigrant labour and confines them inside America as much as outside.

Buy it here.


Girl In Translation

Jean Kwok

When Kimberly Chang and her mother move from Hong Kong to Brooklyn, she must learn to straddle a double life between school in the morning and working in a sweatshop at night. She not only translates the language but also the vast differences between the worlds of what her family wants and what she desires. When Kimberly secretly falls in love with a factory boy, who shares none of her ambitions, she must learn to translate herself once again between the worlds. Jean Kwok’s writing beautifully brings the Chinese immigrant experiences that thread the line of being lost in translation to readers.

Buy it here.



Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah traces the life of a young Nigerian woman and paints a poignant picture of an African immigrant living in America. Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love, separate and find themselves reunited after 15 years. Americanah is an intricate story about Obinze and Ifemelu’s lives together with a subtle examination of the conditions of race and class in the USA. Despite having a male protagonist in the book, the story mostly revolves around Ifemelu and her struggles with racism in America and her return to a newly democratic Nigeria.

Buy it here.


Behold The Dreamers

Imbolo Mbue

Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant, comes to live in Harlem, America with his wife Neni and their six-year-old son. He cannot believe his luck when he lands a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at the Lehman Brothers. Clark’s wife also offers temporary work to Neni at their Hamptons home. However, the banking world holds not only great power and privilege but also deep secrets and trouble soon kicks up with the 2008 financial collapse of the Lehman Brothers. All four lives are upturned, when Clark loses his job and Jende and Neni’s loyalties are divided putting both the marriages to the test. The novel does not pitch the immigrants versus the privileged banking class but rather shows the play of power between the two and the immigrants caught between the two worlds .

Buy it here.


The Book Of Unknown Americans

Cristina Henriquez

Arturo and Alma Rivera have lived their whole lives in Mexico but when their 15 year old daughter sustains a terrible brain injury, they make their way to America in order to get the best resources to help her recover. As they set up new lives in the Hispanic-occupied run-down apartment building, the poverty and isolation they face is narrated from the perspective of Maribel’s mother, Alma, and Mayor, a lonely neighbour boy who falls in love with Maribel. Told from multiple first-person points of view, the novel weaves together testimonies of men and women who have immigrated from Latin America to the USA by giving voices to the ‘unknown faces’.

Buy it here.


The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

Dinaw Mengestu

Sepha Stephanos owns an Ethiopian grocery store in agentrified Washington, D.C. neighbourhood in the 1970s. He lives a life of isolation save for his two friends, also African immigrants who share his longing and nostalgia for home. Sepha has almost lost hope when Judith and her biracial daughter, Naomi, move into the house next door. As a friendship develops between Sepha and Judith, there is also a growing racial tension in the neighbourhood that hangs over them. The novel is heartrending with the banter of friends and a series of letters from Sepha’s uncle to Jimmy Carter, pleading that he respect “the deep friendship between our two countries”.

Buy it here.

Rhea has completed her Masters in English at SNDT Women’s University. Her key research interests are post-colonial studies, mainly focussing on women’s narratives and their experience of citizenship.  Her other interests are Dalit literature in translation. She also sings in a choir. 

Rhea is the social media manager at The Curious Reader. Read her articles here.