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There is a rich history of literature giving insight into the lives of those crossing the Atlantic or Pacific to America in search of opportunity.
Yes, technically ALL American cultures (except Native Americans) migrated there in fairly recently history (as mentioned in this essay) but this category of literature generally refers to those who have moved to America after the founding of the Anglo-American society that is now the USA.
The genre tends to focus on family, the alienation of the second generation, the difficulties of ‘fitting in’, and the issues surrounding loss of culture and language.
In my opinion, a large proportion of the recent triumphs of the genre have come from American women writers. With sensitivity, humour and skill, these 4 female immigrant fiction authors show us the highs and lows of the modern ‘American Dream’.
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Amy Tan is perhaps the best known author on my list of American female authors, she has written no less than 6 novels on the subject, as well as numerous non-fiction works and a couple of children’s books.
Born in the USA only a few years after her parents left China, she thought her childhood boring and took refuge in reading. However if you read her bio, you will see that her life has been anything but boring.
With family secrets leaving a trail back to China and her own personal rebellions, you can see why she uses a lot of real life characters and experiences in her fiction.
Book Recommendation: ‘The Joy Luck Club’ (1989)
Her most famous work, ‘The Joy Luck Club’ has won, or been nominated for countless awards and spent 43 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List.
‘The Joy Luck Club’ is founded in 1949 by 4 Chinese women recently arrived in America. They all have tragedies in their pasts but they choose to hope instead of despair, and begin meeting to play mah-jong and talk.
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Judy Budnitz writes hybridized fiction, somewhere between fairy-tale and reality, she centres her stories on displaced people.
Budnitz grew up in Atlanta and has Eastern European ancestry (she mentions this in an interview to be found here), which explains perhaps why her only novel begins there.
I include her in this category because despite their fantastical elements, most of her characters are migrants, leaving behind fairy-tale like pasts to come to the big bright lights of America. This is why she deserves her place on my list of women immigrant fiction writers.
Book Recommendation: ‘If I Told You Once’ (1999)
The book begins in a small village in a vast forest somewhere in Eastern Europe. It combines fairy-tale and reality in such a way that the reader doesn’t question it. It is all part of the same story, moving through Europe and across the Atlantic to a new life in America.
4 generations of women from the same family tell their stories in separate chapters. Theirs is a world where men flit into their lives before dying or disappearing, and each of them feels alienated from their mother as they all find their own ways of ‘fitting in’ to American society.
Julia Alvarez was born in New York, but her family moved back to the Dominican Republic for the first 10 years of her life, before moving back to New York (read her own personally written biography here).
She has an intimidating list of publications including novels, short stories, poetry, essays and books for young readers. Most of her novels fit simply and comfortably into the ‘American Immigrant Fiction’ category (unlike complicated Budnitz, above).
She has recently been awarded the 2013 National Medal of Arts for her wonderful storytelling.
Book Recommendation: ‘How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents’ (1991)
The book begins with the 39 year old Yolanda returning to the Dominica Republic. It then works in reverse chronological order and travels back to a youth caught between two countries, two cultures.
It tells the story of how the Garcia sisters are forced to flee the Dominican Republic with their family. They move to New York City, where their parents desperately try to keep some of their old customs and culture. The four sisters however, want to fully assimilate into the big shiny new culture around them and begin forgetting their language and straightening their hair so as to better fit in.
The story is told in a number of different voices, all vying to be heard, all interrupting each other, each with their own distinct writing style. It would be chaos if she wasn’t so damn good.
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Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Shaila Abdullah has firsthand experience of the ‘immigrant’ experience she documents so well. Her work focuses on the idiosyncrasies, strengths and weaknesses of Pakistani women. As with all of the writers on this list she explores how cultures clash or meld, and how people adapt to their environments.
Abdullah has won upwards of 10 awards and grants, and ‘Saffron Dreams’ was named one of the 50 Greatest Works of Immigrant Literature by Open Education Database. She is also involved in educating children about diversity and disability through her picture books (read an interview on the subject here).
Book Recommendation: ‘Saffron Dreams’ (2009)
‘Saffron Dreams’ focuses on Pakistani-born Arissa, a Muslim artist and writer, and her experience of the horror of the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks.
When she loses her husband, who worked in the World Trade Centre, she nearly crumbles. But when she discovers his unfinished manuscript, she uses it, and her unborn son, to try and reconnect with her life.
The ‘American Immigrant Fiction’ genre isn’t a rigidly defined category. It is vast and deep as the Atlantic, encompassing a huge range of nationalities and cultures, characters and situations.
However all immigrant literary characters have in common a feeling of displacement. They feel the loneliness of one far from home, the longing for a new life, but also the desperation to retain some of the old.
In an ever shrinking world, where moving around the globe has never been easier, quicker or more prevalent, this kind of writing is speaking to a larger and larger proportion of the population.
Are you already a fan? Have I missed out your favourite female American immigrant fiction author?