There are few things in life as pleasurable as a good book. Add to that a lovely park or a beach with soft sand and a cold beer, sangria, or, why not, a margarita beside you—that’s practically perfection. So as the lists of recommended summer reads start coming out, we thought we’d share our immigration-related ones. Happy summer reading!
This is a perfect summer read—easy to put down and pick up again—and very funny. The author treats us to a buffet of hilarious stories about life growing up as a young child in Iran and her family’s immigration to Southern California before the Iranian Revolution in 1979. She shares stories about her family’s early fascination with boxed and instant foods that dominated American supermarkets in the 1970s and 1980s—and the unwanted effect it had on their waistlines—while giving sumptuous descriptions of the traditional Persian fare that her parents and extended family regularly cooked for each other. She makes light of the chronic mispronunciations of her name (my favorite variation being “Fritzy DumbAss”), and there is no trace of bitterness when she describes how her father lost his job at the national oil company following the overthrow of the Shah, and then found it impossible to get a job in the US during and after the hostage crisis. And that is precisely where her family comes in—this story is as much a celebration of one family’s remarkable achievements, humor, and loyalty to one another as it is a tale of immigration or integration.
Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls
By David Sedaris
I have chosen David Sedaris’ Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls for my immigration summer read. Technically David is an American citizen by birth but he did immigrate to the United Kingdom and in this book of short stories he recounts his experience of returning to the UK after his passport was stolen—a passport that contained his indefinite leave to remain sticker (the UK equivalent of a US Green Card). The border agent questions him so harshly that “it seems she wouldn’t be happy until I was crying.” He can sense the people behind him wondering “what’s with the troublemaker” as he’s done whenever he’s been behind someone taking a long time at the immigration window. When asked what he does for a living that necessitates him leaving the UK before replacing his passport sticker, he tells the agent he is a writer. The agent tells him sternly that “he can write from home.” His silent reply is “not about South Korea!” When the agent finally gets out of her chair to look him up on the computer in order to confirm his status he expects to see skulls dangling from her belt. Eventually he is allowed back into the country, but the experience causes him to contemplate why he had decided to move to the UK anyway and the process that he had to go through just to get his indefinite leave to remain status. Although the book does not focus strictly on immigration issues, it is ultimately about a person who moves to a different country, experiences a new culture for all it has to offer—both good and bad—and humorously comments on our differences and similarities. For anyone who is a fan of David Sedaris’ writing, they will love this humorous book of short stories. I have been listening to David himself read them on an audio book and found myself laughing out loud on the subway.
By Jhumpa Lahiri
Unaccustomed Earth is the second collection of short stories from Ms. Lahiri. While her first collection, the Pulitzer Prize winner, Interpreter of Maladies, focused on the lives of first-generation immigrants, Unaccustomed Earth focuses on the sons and daughters of affluent immigrants from India. Unlike their parents who perhaps cling to the traditions and habits of their homeland, the children attempt to assimilate into American culture with varying degrees of success. In many ways the American children become cultural translators for their parents while the parents cling to dreams of eventually returning to their home, India. The stories are told from the perspective of the children and provide a unique view of the parents’ immigrant experiences. As a second-generation immigrant, like Ms. Lahiri, and as someone fascinated with how foreign nationals assimilate into their new cultures, I was drawn to these stories. Ms. Lahiri uses simple and direct language to communicate the complex emotions of these immigrants including, isolation, disempowerment, the excitement of reinvention, and the attempt to preserve distant customs. For example, “Only Goodness,” tells the story of Sudha, a Bengali-American graduate student in London who receives an unexpected letter from her estranged alcoholic brother, Rahul. In attempting to understand what led him to drink, she says:
Her parents had always been blind to the things that plagued their children: being teased at school for the color of their skin or for the funny things their mother occasionally put into their lunch boxes, potato curry sandwiches that tinted Wonderbread green. What could there possibly be to be unhappy about? Her parents would have thought. “Depression” was a foreign word to them, an American thing. In their opinion their children were immune from the hardships and injustices they had left behind in India, as if the inoculations the pediatrician had given Sudha and Rahul when they were babies guaranteed them an existence free of suffering.
Sadly as many immigrants discover, and as many of these stories convey, geography is no guarantee of security, success, or indeed happiness. The final three stories of the collection are related and follow Hema and Kaushik: the first from Hema’s perspective when they are both young; the second when Kaushik is in college; and the third story is told in the third person when they meet in Rome as adults. While these three stories explore the same themes as the other stories, they also explore the tight bond between immigrants from the same country and the immense comfort found in that familiarity.
Shanghai Girls: A Novel
By Lisa See
Set in a prosperous Shanghai in 1937, Pearl and her younger sister May live a privileged, carefree life. Things change quickly, however, after Japanese bombs begin to fall on their city and after their father gambles away their wealth. The sisters are sold as wives to suitors in Los Angeles, and the novel follows their long journey to and arrival in Los Angeles as they face terrible hardships, heartbreaking choices, and confront a life-changing secret. Although the sisters are inseparable, they do harbor dangerous jealousies and rivalries that test their relationship. Although maybe not the most uplifting subject matter, Shanghai Girls is an easy read and quickly draws you in—you won’t want to put it down. One of the many reasons I love this book is for its strong female characters and how much you become invested in the intricate family relationships that run throughout the book. If you enjoy this, you may also want to read the sequel, Dreams of Joy: A Novel!
Suddenly, A Knock on the Door: Stories
By Etgar Keret
Etgar Keret is an Israeli short-story writer, graphic novelist, and screenwriter who according to People Magazine “can do more with six strange and funny paragraphs than most writers can with 600 pages.” True to this, in this collection of thirty-five short stories (don’t worry, some of them are very short), Mr. Keret goes effortlessly from absurdity to satire to magical realism and back again. One of my favorite short stories in this collection, called “Unzipping,” is about a woman who finds a tiny zipper in her boyfriend’s mouth and unzips it to find a former lover of hers, a singer from Dusseldorf. She lives with the singer for a while (that’s what happens in Etgar Keret’s stories) and after he returns to his home country because he thinks he won’t ever be fully accepted in Israel because of his accent, she finds a little zipper in her own mouth:
Ella fingered it hesitantly, and tried to imagine what she’d be like inside. It made her very hopeful, but also a bit worried—mainly about freckled hands and a dry complexion. Maybe she’d have a tattoo, she thought, of a rose. She always wanted to have one, but never had the nerve. She’d thought it would hurt a lot.
This book is a fascinating glimpse into Israeli life and culture and deals with many contemporary issues, including immigration (ahem, relevant to this blog post) and also terrorism and the loneliness of modern life. Even so, as a summer read it’s perfect: a short wonderful and entertaining book that will only be better with a beer or glass of wine on the beach or patio.