World Refugee Day: Ten Books on Refugee and Immigrant Voices
Every year on the 20th of June, World Refugee Day is celebrated internationally as it is a day where we respect and honour the most vulnerable members of our society who constantly risk their lives in hope that they can find safety.
It was started in the year 2000 and it was noted that 2001 would be the first annual refugee day as it would mark the 50th anniversary of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in which the convention defined who qualified as a refugee and what it meant to be seeking refuge in another country. Every year, there is a different theme for World Refugee Day and last year, in 2019, it was 'Take A Step on World Refugee Day'.
In literature, refugees and immigrants have been prominent figures of empathy and change. What we're going to have a look at today are ten books that I think really show us the struggles and toils of these people in different ways. There will obviously be more than ten books you can read on refugee voices and immigrant voices but I think these illustrate the point well.
So, without further introduction - let's take a look at ten books on refugees, migrants and the struggle of the immigrant to assimilate for World Refugee Day:
10. On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
A book published in the last five years, this is the story about a Vietnamese family who now continue their lineage in America. Written in the form of a letter from 'Little Dog' to his mother, it goes through the collapse of Vietnam during the mother's schooling when she was young, all the way through to the love life of 'Little Dog' and the tragedy it entails. All along the way, we get a reflection of the culture and lifestyle that resonates underneath, bubbling below the surface - something that continues still after three generations.
9. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos
Set in the 1950s in New York, it's about two brothers from Cuba who are immigrants but also musicians. Whilst their music becomes popular, their culture collides both emotionally and politically with the American audience they perform to and results in surprising situations. I read this book last year and it is absolutely amazing. The identities of the two brothers (Cesar and Nestor) are just so empathetic - even though they do transgress sometimes, you cannot help but feel their pain as well.
8. The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
Told through the perspectives of Alma and Mayor, this book shines a fascinating light on the migration of Latin American people to the USA and exactly what struggles that entails. It really isn't as easy as people think it is since Alma is filled with guilt about her children's safety and Mayor is outcasted because his parents are foreign and from Panama. This book shows both the financial toils (as both aren't exactly well off) and the emotional guilt, horrors and torments that an immigrant goes through in the want for a better life for themselves and their family.
7. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
From Japan and Korea to the USA, this book tells the story of a family saga in which a migration happens that is much more difficult than happy. The language of this book, I admit, heightens the cultural perspective through the small fishing village and the orthodoxy of some of the characters. It is because of this that eventually, assimilation becomes far more difficult than once intended. It is a beautiful story that I only caught on to recently.
6. My Antonia by Willa Cather
Told from the limited perspective of the opposite side, we take a look at what it means to watch on to an immigrant in Cather's novel. The maids are immigrants and a European woman is watched intently by an American man who thinks she has strange mannerisms and character. Identities clash and cultures collide in this novel that really shows us what the other side is thinking and feeling. It is both shocking and written fantastically.
5. Maus by Art Spiegelman
Possibly one of the most famous Holocaust Novels of all time, this story tells us about assimilation, migration and culture a lot more than most other books on the same topic out there. We have first and second generation migrants who are now struggling in their own country due to racial discrimination and as war edges forever closer, they are in more imminent danger than ever. A great masterpiece of survival, this is a stellar graphic novel.
4. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
When I first read this book not only did I feel physically sick, but I turned vegetarian for about three weeks until I could get it off my mind. This book shows us the poor and terrifying working conditions of the immigrant in the early 20th century in America. The opportunities are so low and dangerous that not only do you feel sorry for the character, but you also feel bad that anyone would ever have to work in these conditions. The abattoir can be a clean place, but not in this novel it isn't.
3. The Enigma of Arrival by VS Naipaul
This is about an Indian boy who migrates from Trinidad to England and requires to assimilate. He finds it far more difficult than initially thought and we see through his eyes, the wonder that he sees when he looks at the landscapes of the country. The fascination with England is something we don't find so often in fiction and this book is possibly the perfect lesson in how emotional assimilation and the failure of it can either make a person or break their confidence.
2. Small Island by Andrea Levy
I absolutely loved this book when I read it. There are four characters that you should be paying attention to: Hortense, Queenie, Gilbert and Bernard and the book is all about the migration from Jamaica to England during the economic collapse in Jamaica and the Second World War in England. So you can only imagine how difficult life is going for these people. The best thing about this book is that it interchanges between character narratives in order to tell their stories leading up to the war. It's a brilliant book and deserves all the awards it has gotten over the years.
1. Call it Sleep by Henry Roth
This book is about a Jewish Immigrant family who live in the East Side of New York in the early 20th century. At first, the story tells of when they first arrived in the USA and believed that they'd find the American Dream. But, in the end, their lives turned out very differently. They ended up living in a ghetto and struggling to feed their children. They retain orthodoxy and religion, but are outcasted by non-Jewish Americans. Through all of this, a family drama is unfolding in which nothing is what it seems and nobody seems to be who they say they are.