11 Immigrant Authors Who Are Transforming Literature
In times of nationalist rhetoric and xenophobia — ails that have plagued not only the United States’ most recent election, but elections across Europe as well — it’s critical to continue listening to the voices of those who come from other places, foreign traditions, different religions, unfamiliar social and political structures, diverse ideologies and ways of living, and landscapes dissimilar from our own. Books by immigrant writers (in this specific case, immigrant writers to the United States and the United Kingdom) are essential to not only the beauty, diversity, expansion, and evolution of literature, they’re also integral elements to culture as a whole — reminding us of all the ways we’re different and of what we have in common, expanding the perspectives and frames of reference we’re able to hold in our minds, and creating awareness of the things we might never understand about one another but still have a responsibility to leave space for anyway.
Though all the writers on this list are immigrants to their current places of residence, or come from immigrant families, they’re not simply "immigrant writers". They’re just writers — great ones — for whose work I am a better reader and a more thoughtful person. Here are 11 immigrant authors who are transforming American literature.
1Janine Joseph, author of 'Driving Without a License'
Janine Joseph grew up in Southern California, by way of the Philippines. Many of her poems and essays tell stories about growing up undocumented in America, and her 2016 poetry collection, Driving Without a License, was awarded the 2014 Kundiman Poetry Prize. Driving Without a License is a collection about belonging and un-belonging, about growing up in a culture that says you’re welcome here (generally), yet enables governmental structures designed to alienate and remove you. It’s filled with stories of childhood and family and coming-of-age, immigrant experiences and American experiences and more.
2Porochista Khakpour, author of 'The Last Illusion'
Porochista Khakpour is the author of the novels Sons and Other Flammable Objects and The Last Illusion (the latter ranked in tons “best of 2014” book lists.) The Last Illusion is inspired by medieval Persian mythology, and tells the story of a rural Iranian boy named Zal, whose mother is convinced he’s the devil and raised him from the confines of a birdcage — until he immigrates to New York City, in the years between Y2K and 9/11. Khakpour’s essay How to Write Iranian-America, or The Last Essay, recently featured in catapult magazine, offers readers insight into the experience of not only being a writer, but being an immigrant writer within a literary marketplace that only wants to advertise you as such.
3Donia Bijan, author of 'The Last Days of Café Leila'
Novelist Donia Bijan left Iran as an exile during the Islamic Revolution, attending both UC Berkeley in California and the Cordon Bleu in Paris. Her debut novel, The Last Days of Café Leila, was inspired by her return to Tehran, and tells the story of a woman named Noor who similarly returns to her father’s café in Tehran after many years, seeking answers about her mother’s disappearance during the Islamic Revolution. But life in Iran isn’t easy for Noor’s American daughter, Lily, who is determined to rebel. This multi-generational novel about mothers and daughters explores how coming-of-age experiences change (and, of course, stay the same) through the decades of a family, and how the struggles of both pre- and post-revolution Iran are as personal as they are political.
4Neel Mukherjee, author of 'The Lives Of Others'
Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer living in the UK, whose second novel, The Lives of Others, was a 2014 Man Booker Prize-nominee. The Lives of Others is a winding and meditative read about political activism and family history, and where the two intertwine — sometimes with difficult consequences. In the novel, Mukherjee tells the story of the Ghosh parents, their five children, and their myriad grandchildren who each occupy different floors of the same house, work in the same family-owned business, and harbor a lifetime’s worth of grudges, dramas, and resentments against one another. When the eldest Ghosh grandchild, Supratik, becomes involved in a local, extreme activist group, it threatens Ghosh family politics as much as state. Mukherjee’s first novel is Past Continuous, also published as A Life Apart.
5Jhumpa Lahiri, author of 'The Lowland'
Novelist and short story writer Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London to an immigrant family from India, and moved to the US when she was three-years-old. Her debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2000. She is the author of several other books, including a 2003 novel The Namesake, and the National Book Award-nominated The Lowland. The Lowland is set in both India and America, and tells the story of Subhash Mitra, a young man who immigrates to the United States, but returns to India after his family is torn apart by his younger brother’s sacrifice to political rebellion.
6Art Spiegelman, author of 'The Complete Maus'
Cartoonist, graphic novelist, and Pulitzer Prize-winner Art Spiegelman was born in Stockholm to Polish Jewish parents who fled the Holocaust, and later moved to the United States, when Spiegelman was three. He’s the author of the serial comic, Maus, which has since been published in two volumes that document Spiegelman's interviews with his Jewish father, about his experience during the Holocaust. Though some of the images and depictions have been controversial, Maus was one of the first comics to ever be studied as “serious” literature — paving the way for the genre of graphic novel that we all now know and love.
7Nicole Dennis-Benn, author of 'Here Comes the Sun'
Nicole Dennis-Benn is a Jamaican novelist writing from New York City, whose debut novel, Here Comes the Sun, was named a "Best Book of the Year" by the New York Times. Here Comes the Sun takes readers to the idyllic landscape of Jamaica, where the lives of many locals are often anything but. The story centers around two sisters: Margot, a young woman who uses her earnings from prostitution in order to send her younger sister Thandi, to medical school. But both women have secrets. For Margot, it’s the fact that she’s in love with a woman — one who is already ostracized in a community where homosexuality is taboo. For Thandi, it’s the fact that she doesn’t want to go to medical school in the first place, despite her family’s devastating sacrifices.
8Yaa Gyasi, author of 'Homegoing'
Another moving and eye-opening story about sisters, Ghanaian-American novelist Yaa Gyasi’s novel, Homegoing, traverses the 300 years between 18th-century Africa and 21st-century America, introducing readers to Effia and Esi, sisters born in different African villages at the same time — sharing the same father, but unknown to one another. Their divergent paths lead one into a life of slavery, the other into marriage to an Englishman, though their paths cross in an unexpected way. From the civil war in 18th-century Ghana to 20th-century Harlem, this novel takes readers around the world and back, through the lives of Effia and Esi and into the ways their own lives informed those of their descendants.
9Ocean Vuong, author of 'Night Sky with Exit Wounds'
I’m beyond obsessed with this debut collection by Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong. A New York Times Top 10 Books of 2016, nominated for numerous awards including the Lambda Literary Award, and winner of both the 2016 Whiting Award and the 2017 Publishing Triangle's Thom Gunn Award, Night Sky With Exit Wounds is a collection of poetry about war and cultural upheaval, written with language that conveys a visceral sense of loss, exposes violent undertones, and grapples with love, desire, grief, conflict, and disruption. It is filled with imagery that will both disturb and heal, and reading it once is seriously just not enough.
10Rabih Alameddine, author of 'The Angel of History'
Rabih Alameddine is a Lebanese-American writer whose most recent novel, The Angel of History, takes readers through a single night in the waiting room of a San Francisco psych clinic, where Jacob, a gay Yemeni-born poet is living during the height of the 1980s AIDS epidemic and, throughout the course of this one night, is reliving the events of his life from his childhood spent with his mother in an Egyptian whorehouse through his journey to the United States. The novel begins with Satan interviewing Death and through various turns of imagination transports readers from San Francisco to Beirut, Cairo, Sana'a, and Stockholm.
11Helen Oyeyemi, author of 'Boy, Snow, Bird'
Helen Oyeyemi is a Nigerian-British novelist who often explores retellings of classic fairy tales and fables in her novels. In her much-celebrated 2014 title, Boy, Snow, Bird, Oyeyemi tells the story of Boy Novak, a woman who, after marrying a small-town widower, becoming step-mother to his daughter Snow, and giving birth to her own child Bird, finds herself unexpectedly succumbing to the stereotype of the "wicked stepmother". Layered on top of the traditional narrative is a discussion of skin color and the difference between what one sees in the mirror and who one is in the world.