In recent years, immigration has become one of the most talked-about issues both in the United States and around the world. Questions of how to treat and view borders are asked by politicians and public intellectuals on a regular basis; the effect of a changing population on a nation’s identity is also something that many elected officials and voters have pondered, with a variety of results.
The eight books on this list are fiction, but the questions with which they grapple are the same ones that can be read about in news stories from a variety of locations. Some of these writers tackle their subject with a stark realism, while others take a more stylized approach to illustrate these themes. In the end, reading them can have a similar effect – they show the reader another side of an issue, provide a gripping story, and prompt them to look at these discussions in a different way.
Not all of the stories in Daniel Alarcón’s collection The King Is Always Above the People touch on the subject of immigration directly. That said, in choosing to open this book with a tale of people on the move, arriving in a new space and finding themselves at odds with the local government, he establishes those themes as one of the first things readers will encounter, and so sets the stage for a series of ruminations on identity, history, the threat of violence, and the nature of motion.
Richard, the central character of Jenny Erpenbeck’s empathic novel Go, Went, Gone, is a recently retired academic, still focused on his work with the literature of a bygone age, and learning to see the world around him in a new way. The arrival of a group of refugees near his home causes him to re-examine the ethics by which he has lived his life, and also provides a means by which he (and Erpenbeck) can ponder the changing character of Germany over the course of many decades.
In the early pages of Mohsin Hamid’s novel Exit West, the author tells the story of a man and a woman meeting and falling in love, even as the nation around them succumbs to infighting and an increasing sense of authoritarianism. And then he introduces a touch of magical realism into the narrative: doors that connect places around the world, offering this couple a means of escape–even as their destinations prove to have their own complex dynamics.
Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel
Mount Gurugu, located near the Spanish territory of Melilla (itself located near Morocco), has become a place where people from across Africa have gathered en route to seeking a better life in Europe. In Juan Tomas Ávila Laurel’s novel The Gurugu Pledge, he tells the story of how several people have come to be there, charts the quotidian aspects of their days, and discusses the fears that many of them wrestle with. The result is a moving, polyphonic work.
In Atticus Lish’s award-winning novel Preparation For the Next Life, he chronicles the love story between a traumatized veteran and an undocumented immigrant living in New York City. While Lish doesn’t shy away from dealing with urgent issues in the pages of this novel, it never feels overly rhetorical or didactic. Instead, the novel feels decidedly lived-in and empathic, giving a powerful sense of the daily lives of its characters.
Several of Bae Suah’s novels explore questions of national identity, borders, and what it means to live in an increasingly globalized world. In her haunting novel Recitation, a group of travelers encounter a woman who appears to be an actress. Throughout the novel, the exchange of stories allows the author to demonstrate the contradictions of the contemporary world, and to probe questions of identity in unpredictable, unsettling ways.
The border between the United States and Mexico – and those who traverse it – has been a source of literary inspiration for writers from both nations. In Yuri Herrera’s masterful, surreal novel Signs Preceding the End of the World, a young woman crosses into the United States in search of her lost brother – even as a host of strange and apocalyptic imagery illustrates the dangers she faces along the way. This novel feels both archetypal and urgently contemporary, to stunning effect.
Among the complex issues facing nations today is the notion of guest workers – people from one country working in another for a set period of time. This can lead to questions of exploitation and human rights; it’s this milieu that Deepak Unnikrishnan explores with his collection Temporary People. In these stories, Unnikrishnan tells the stories of guest workers in the United Arab Emirates, and does so in a host of styles ranging from realism to the fantastical.