Summer Books

6 Summer Books That Explore the Immigrant Experience

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In America, immigration has historically been revered to the point of fetishization. The national dialogue is obsessed with the right way to immigrate, and meting out punishment for those who seek the wrong way. But other voices complicate the traditional narrative. Authors of these new releases eschew the American fantasy of the up-by-the-bootstraps striver for something more nuanced. These stories are often of families, and the ways we touch each other’s lives without realizing it: A man flees his home country to save his only daughter; a Holocaust survivor passes his scars down to his first born; a family trying to protect their fragile son accidentally pushes him away. Each illustrates just how little we can control in our lives, especially when pushing forward into new worlds. Reading these stories, one is reminded that our concepts of right and wrong are as fragile as borders themselves.

Half Gods by Akil Kumarasamy
These loosely connected tales center on a family who have settled in New Jersey after fleeing the Sri Lankan Civil War. Kumarasamy is a shape-shifter, transitioning from the voice of a disaffected teenager watching the end of the war from afar to a lonely Angolan butcher hoping to fall in love with a kind patron. Each story connects with the others in subtle ways, offering a sense of unity between characters who often feel alone. “Do you know the smell of thousands of books burning? The same as a pile of corpses, because fire is the great equalizer,” so says the patriarch of the family on his deathbed, remembering the events that led up to him fleeing Sri Lanka with his only surviving child. Cruel and poetic lines like these populate Kumarasamy’s writing, buttressing the indignities her creations are forced to suffer with some beauty. Even then, she leaves us with a sense that a larger world, full of possibility, exists somewhere out there.
Half Gods is out June 5. 

 

The Lost Family by Jenna Blum
The Holocaust haunts two generations of a glamorous New York City family in this easily digested read from Jenna Blum. Peter is a German Holocaust survivor who’s dedicated his life to running Masha, an Upper East Side restaurant named for the wife he lost in the war. When he meets June he thinks he can finally love again, but his refusal to examine his psychological scars only begets more trauma for his new wife and their teenage daughter, Elsbeth. Readers are granted rich descriptions of decadent foods and New York nightlife through the ages, alongside brutal descriptions of self-sabotage. The novel spans three decades, from the Sixties to the Eighties, but Blum’s sense of tension and mystery drive the plot forward at a delightful pace. She takes on the difficult task of rendering generational trauma visible, and does it with such humor and empathy, you can’t help but be swept along for the ride.
The Lost Family is out June 5.

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza
This affecting debut follows an Indian-American Muslim family as they assimilate into U.S. culture. Layla and Rafiq have raised their three children in a close-knit religious community, hoping to instill the values of home in a complex new world. The narrative is primarily tethered to the oldest sister, Hadia, and youngest brother, Amar. The golden child in every way, Hadia has finally broken with tradition to have a love marriage. The prodigal Amar, always a bit of a rebel, has been estranged from his family for years and has only returned for the momentous occasion. They, along with their mother and father, reflect on their childhoods in the moments leading up to a dramatic reunion. Through these narrators, Mirza’s expansive novel tackles everything from 9-11 to addiction, each moment offering a sliver of explanation as to how a family can become so fractured. Mirza writes about her characters with an incredible amount of tenderness, keeping readers invested for the entire 400-page affair.
A Place for Us is out June 12.

Ayiti by Roxane Gay
Gay’s debut short story collection features fifteen punch-you-in the-gut stories that center around Haitians and Haitian immigrants. Her narrators are sharp and curt. Each has to make peace with their own demons: A teenager, new to America, learns the cruelty of school children in one story, while in another, a woman navigates the fear around living as a lesbian. With winks to fantasy and magical realism, Gay manages to capture the alchemical nature of trauma, as in stories like “In the Manner of Water and Light,” which traces one woman’s family history back to Rafael Trujillo’s murderous expulsion of Haitians from the Dominican Republic. “My mother was conceived in what would ever after be known as the Massacre River,” she says, “The sharp smell of blood has followed her since.” Gay often seems to be responding to a foreign gaze, twisting sensationalist tropes about mud-eating, abduction, and violent soldiers into otherworldly tales of longing and regret. An impeccably readable antidote to the patronizing news coverage Haitians have received in the past two decades.
Ayiti is out June 19.

Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li
Running a Chinese restaurant is hard, especially under the thumb of a criminal. That’s what Jimmy Han realizes as he tries to step out from the shadow cast by his father and older brother. The recently deceased (and seemingly disreputable) patriarch of the Han dynasty opened the Duck House, a thriving Chinese-American restaurant, but Jimmy wants more than the kitschy joint can offer. As a result of his aspirations, his family and family friends become enmeshed in an increasingly dangerous plot. Li has crafted a compelling character in Jimmy, whose hubris and impulse lead him to bad decision after bad decision. His compatriots are no better, each motivated by their own selfish needs, and it’s delightful to read. Li humanizes cruelty. Where another would look away, she dives under a microscope, determined to see it clearly. The result is a wonderfully honest portrait of what it takes to make it in America.
Number One Chinese Restaurant is out June 19.

How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs
Arthurs’s debut collection of short stories is an impressive, fully realized work that grapples with Jamaican womanhood. Her mission is clear from the first story, “Light-Skinned Girls and Kelly Rowlands,” which looks at two Jamaican-American students from radically different backgrounds who bond over art, family, and their shared heritage. In another, “Island,” a woman finally returns to the island with several other Jamaican-American friends, only to feel isolated from them by her newly found interest in women. While critical, Arthurs never condemns as she explores the nuances in fraught intra-community subjects like depression, assimilation, and ethnic tensions. “Maybe our kind doesn’t have time for soft words,” one narrator wonders in “We Eat Our Daughters,” an exploration of motherhood. Arthurs offers a compassionate response with these tender portraits of hard women, lost girls, and the people who love them.
How to Love a Jamaican is out July 24.

 

The Village Voice is celebrating the summer’s literary scene throughout the week. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Summer Books page.

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