Immigrant Authors Are Making American Literature Great Again
Here are 12 of the best books of 2016 by immigrants to the US.
Immigrants in the US, and abroad, are under attack. In spite of this, these 12 immigrant authors have contributed some of our best books of 2016. (Numbered without ranking.)
Though immigrant authors make essential contributions to so many cultures (I was especially sorry to leave off deserving books by Helen Oyeyemi, Saleem Haddad, Neel Mukherjee, and Sunjeev Sahota), I've limited the list to focus on stories by immigrants to America in a year where an anti-immigration candidate rode a virulently xenophobic campaign to the White House. Some of these books feature experiences that deal directly with immigration while others do not. The topics range from gun control to adoption, race, gender, class, orientation, "political correctness," music, body image, and sports—in other words, the myriad experiences and negotiations of being in the world. These writers are doing some of the absolute best writing in America on these issues and more.
1. Unbearable Splendor by Sun Yung Shin
In Sun Yung Shin's third book of poetry, she explores the mystery of selfhood through the near-human and almost-human, through ghosts and guests and myths: cyborgs, the minotaur, the adoptee. Shin's hybrid prose pushes boundaries as it leads us to the question, among others, of what language can possibly make of who we are. About her writing, Shin has said: "I don't know that I would be a writer if I weren't an Asian American immigrant, and a person of color raised in a white family. Because growing up and still now, there's no language to express my experiences."
2. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
A New York Times bestseller, Homegoing begins with the story of two sisters, one sold into slavery and one a slave trader's wife. The novel covers enormous ground and takes on the making of America through the slave trade and its legacy as it follows the descendants of the sisters. The epic scope of the book is balanced by an attention to significant details, all told at a breakneck pace. You'll find ambition here that never compromises.
3. 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad
In sharp, beautiful, often funny sentences, Mona Awad tells the story of a young woman growing up in a culture of body shaming and online dating, trying to find her way to self-definition. 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl (excerpted in the VICE Reader) won the Amazon Canada First Novel Award. The 13 chapters are both stories and "ways of looking at a fat girl." You won't be able to put this book down.
4. Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue
Difficult to describe, Álvaro Enrigue's Sudden Death (excerpted in the VICE Reader) centers on a tennis match between the painter Caravaggio and the poet Francisco de Quevedo (which also serves as a duel). Like watching a tennis match, your attention is pulled back-and-forth in associative volleys that make up the game of history. Cortés and La Malinche, Anne Boleyn, the Virgin Mary, Gallileo come and go. Beautifully and painstakingly translated by Natasha Wimmer (translator of Roberto Bolaño's 2666), Sudden Death is fun and audacious and erudite.
5. Look by Solmaz Sharif
In this National Book Award finalist poetry collection, Solmaz Sharif insists, "Let it matter what we call a thing." Look takes on the calling and the things, urging closer inspection. Throughout are words and phrases from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. Language invades language. In an interview with the National Book Foundation, Sharif says: "I wrote Look for the dead. For the displaced. For myself and my own outrage and perceived powerlessness."
6. Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith's fifth novel, Swing Time, is about friendship, race, class, dance, singing, education, fame, and freedom. Its narrator befriends two talented women, one whose inherited inequality limits her success and one whose privilege, money, and success breed a reckless expansiveness. Defined and defining herself by her relationships with these two larger-than-life women, the narrator of Swing Time observes her world with a kind of Fred Astaire–like quality, dancing lightly with a beautiful, floating, intelligent prose.
7. Mercury by Margot Livesey
In Margot Livesey's Mercury, her first novel set in America, a marriage falls apart due to secrets, horses, guns, and changing ideologies. The couple at the heart of Mercury seem to find themselves married to strangers, though perhaps the true strangers are themselves. Donald is an eye doctor who misses what is happening right in front of him, and Viv is an ambitious rider who has finally found the right horse to the neglect of her family. Livesey shows us both sides of this marriage in equally magnetic prose, and the effect of being in the middle is one of gripping tension.
8. Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
Ocean Vuong leaves his heart on the page in his debut collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, which won him a 2016 Whiting Award. These are the kind of poems often called "raw," because they are powerfully emotional, but they are crafted with a close attention to language and the rhythms of the body and the line, turning "bones to sonatas." The New Yorker writes "Vuong has fashioned a poetry of inclusion."
9. The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine
The Angel of History begins with Satan interviewing Death and continues pushing the imagination as it develops the mind of its protagonist, Jacob, a gay Yemeni-born poet living in San Francisco at the height of the 1980s AIDS epidemic. The novel takes place in a single night in the waiting room of a mental-health facility. Dark humor and an intelligent political consciousness drive the book into fascinating territory.
10. Driving Without a License by Janine Joseph
Winner of the Kundiman Poetry Prize, Driving Without a License follows an undocumented immigrant speaker through 20 years of life. The book includes text from naturalization forms and newspaper articles about immigration, plays with multiple forms and lays claim to each. While the speaker is hiding in plain sight, the book is a "coming out" that doesn't shy away from its politics.
11. Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn
Nicole Dennis-Benn captures three generations of Jamaican women in her debut novel, Here Comes the Sun. Dennis-Benn's sure-footed, rhythmic prose explores sex, colonialism, tourism, class, race, and gender. Some of the most compelling writing here is around desire and the questions of how far one would go to get what one wants and how much desire is informed by culture.
12. Style by Dolores Dorantes
Dolores Dorantes's prose poems are magic. Bilingual, with English translations by Jen Hofer, Style employs a plural feminine voice that insists "this book does not exist." War, pain, and dispossession run through this exploration of the styles and systems and borders that shape who we are. The collection was written while its author was awaiting political asylum in 2011.
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Illustration by Jessica Saesue