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New Lives: Immigrant Memoirs

by Mauren O'Connor

*This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of RA News.*

The immigrant memoir is a rich resource for engaged reading, which allows readers to share vicariously in others' unusual experiences and gain insights into unfamiliar cultures and locales. This genre of memoir encompasses several facets of the immigrant experience. The most basic story is one of people who leave their birth country to find a new life in another country.

However, the differing reasons that someone leaves their birth country create many different types of memoirs.

  • Some leave their country out of curiosity, drawn by the lure of another culture. They establish themselves as expatriates among a community of immigrants with similar backgrounds.
  • War, politics, or religion displaces others; refugees are forced to abandon their home country. They must begin new lives in a strange land after sudden, often violent, dislocation.  
  • Still others arrive in a new country at an early age, become fully immersed in it, and only later return to their birth country. It is now that they experience feelings of difference. They are now immigrants in their birth country.
  • Children of immigrants have their own story to tell, with conflicts arising in their families because of the differences in culture between the world in their homes and the world outside their doors.

Whatever the reason for leaving, however, immigrant narratives often share themes of disorientation, dislocation, and disillusionment. If they are unfamiliar with their new home's language, for example, even the simplest tasks we take for granted are incredibly challenging:  reading street signs, banking, taking public transit, or shopping for food. Unfamiliar cultural customs are just as jarring: how does one greet others courteously? What are the regulations for school? How does one look for/apply for a job? It's true that there are agencies to help with these matters, but the process can be intimidating.

Another disturbing sensation is that of dislocation or the feeling of not belonging. The cultural touchstones are not there. If one cannot share a joke, refer to a favorite food, or share familiar stories, the feeling of alienation stings, particularly for immigrants who want to "fit in." Immigrants' children also find that both their current and their parents' former cultural groups view them as if they belong to the other; as a result, they feel they are part of both -- yet neither -- culture. They feel confused and marginalized by this sense of not belonging anywhere.

Disillusionment is also common. Immigrants who were once professionals in their home countries may have to take menial jobs because their qualifications are not recognized. Others fall for an idealized image of their new life in a new country -- from TV, books, magazines -- only to find reality is far less glamorous. The stories of illegal immigrants, aka "alien residents," are far less common, for obvious reasons. Fear of deportation and punishment, or retaliation if returned to their home country, further complicates their lives.

Obviously not all immigrant stories are pain-filled. Immigrants may write to better understand their experiences, to heal their past, and to embrace the challenges of their current lives. Even immigrant stories that begin as tales of harrowing past experiences often end with stories of their new lives, free from the fear that had enveloped them. Their new life provides opportunities where none had previously existed, and these stories share that joy and offer hope. Others make surprising positive self-discoveries that stay with them. These people also want to share their happiness with others by writing of their experiences. Or, they want to tell their new fellow countrymen about the home they'd left behind.

The following immigrant memoirs offer a variety of these perspectives, as helpful starting points for multicultural book displays, programming, and/or other readers' advisory needs. The listed titles reflect the eclectic nature of memoirs, however, offering a wide choice to readers.

Brotherhood: Dharma, Destiny, and the American Dream by Deepak Chopra, Sanjiv Chopra
ISBN: 9780544032101
Deepak and Sanjiv Chopra came to America for postgraduate medical studies. Their life in India was a privileged one, with their father one of the first western-trained cardiologists in India. Once in America, however, despite racial barriers and cultural conflicts, they chose to stay. This dual memoir describes how they embraced their new world and came to prominence in their fields: spiritual healing and teaching as a gastroenterologist at Harvard. 
The Cooked Seed: A Memoir by Anche Min
ISBN: 9781596916982
Anchee Min's first memoir, Red Azalea, told the story of her life as a member of the Little Red Guard in Mao's China. Here, she describes life in the US as one of millions of immigrants trying to adjust, assimilate, and enjoy her new opportunities and freedoms. In China, Min had felt she could only be "a cooked seed," with no chance to grow or fulfill her dreams. But in America, holding down as many as five jobs at a time, she pursues her dreams of art and writing, resulting in the rich and fulfilled life she lives today. 
The Distance Between Us: A Memoir by Reyna Grande
ISBN: 9781451661774
Grande entered the US as an undocumented immigrant child. Benefitting from an amnesty offered by the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, she and her family gained US citizenship. Working towards a career as a writer, Grande's first wrote semi-autobiographical fiction, but then she turned to the memoir, relating the story of how their brutal life in Mexico haunts the entire family, particularly her alcoholic, abusive father. But Grande's memoir affirms the benefits of living an immigrant life. It enabled her to move from being born in a shack in Mexico to being published by a pre-eminent publisher in the United States. 
Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant by José Angel N.
ISBN: 9780252079863
Born into abject poverty in Mexico, "José N." escaped to the US where, by both hard work and a fake Social Security card, N. earned first his GED and ultimately a graduate degree in Hispanic Studies. Restaurant work initially provided him with a living for many years, but the discovery of his undocumented status has forced him to leave his last job as a translator. He and his American wife now face an unthinkable burden: the loss of their life together. 
An Intriguing Life: A Memoir of War, Washington, and Marriage to an American Spymaster by Cynthia Helms
ISBN: 9781442221314
Cynthia Helms fought as a British Wren in World War II and came to the US after the war with her first husband. Her memoir begins on the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, with the dissolution of that marriage, and continues with the tale of her new life in America, a life completely changed by the tumult of the 1960s and by her marriage to Richard Helms, at one point the head of the CIA. 
Little Failure: A Memoir by Gary Shteyngart
ISBN: 0151014248
Shteyngart began his career by describing his life in highly acclaimed autobiographical novels; humor allowed him to gloss over the painful realities that inspired them. In his memoir, Shteyngart describes his dysfunctional, inept parents who referred to him, a sickly child, as "The Little Failure." Shteyngart's medical woes worsened after the family came to America, where he was subjected to a botched circumcision. While some memoirs detailing an unhappy childhood, painting the author as a victim are often called "misery memoirs," Shteyngart's story is far from that. He shows great empathy, putting himself into the hearts and minds of those who taunted or abused him, understanding the source and recognizing how formative it all was for him. 
My Journey: A Memoir by Olivia Chow
ISBN: 9781443428293
When Olivia Chow and her family left a comfortable life in Hong Kong in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, they found themselves in Toronto in 1970, unable to find employment at the economic and educational level they had left behind. The challenges this created for Olivia stood her in good stead in her ensuing political life, forming the beliefs she shared with her husband, Jack Layton. Her memoir is not solely political, however. She also describes for the reader how welcome she felt and how she learned to assimilate herself into a new Canadian life. 
Purpose: An Immigrant's Story by Wyclef Jean, Anthony Bozza
ISBN: 1573227889
Musician, producer, and actor, Wyclef Jean describes growing up in Haiti so poor, he actually ate dirt.  Coming to New Jersey at nine, Jean was bullied throughout school for his Haitian background. Music became his refuge: spirituals at church, where his harsh father was a preacher; jazz and band music in school; and, later, rap and hip-hop with his friends.  A founding member of The Fugees (whose 1996 album The Score sold over 15 million copies), Jean has remained politically and charitably involved in Haiti's affairs. His memoir takes him through the turmoil of immigration, but also through the fairly common trials of a son trying to gain approval from his father. 

These are only a few memoirs from a wide range of stories told by writers from all over the world, offering many opportunities for both passive and active Readers Advisory: booklists, displays, book discussions, reading maps. The countries of origin are so diverse, the experiences left behind (war, slavery, captivity, disenfranchisement, etc) so remarkable that much can be done to engage and enlighten the reader. 

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Maureen O’Connor is a retired librarian and a freelance writer and editor. She is the author of Life Stories: A Guide to Reading Interests in Memoirs, Autobiographies, and Diaries and co-author of Canadian Fiction: A Guide to Reading Interests. She is also English-language chair of Taste Canada—The Food Writing Awards.