I have prepared a list of 20 books exploring themes of immigration, belonging and identity related to social class, ethnicity, and nationality. Often the theme of immigration intersects with the theme of belonging and identity. Therefore, I have decided to include all these themes in one list. As usual I have tried to give the examples of books from various literary traditions. I hope you will find this list useful and interesting.
1 THE GERMAN ROOM BY CARLA MALIANDI (ARGENTINA / GERMANY)
“No matter where I go, I’m still broken. And now I’m thousands of miles from home, in a place where I barely speak the language and I have no idea what to do.” The German Room is an exploration of exile, home, childhood, and loneliness. It offers a fascinating and nuanced mediation on the idea of exile: a forced versus a self-imposed exile form own life, taking a refuge in the illusionary idea of own childhood, and far from the current notion of reality. There is this certain feeling of melancholy which is prevalent throughout the story. It evokes the quest for the place we call home, the place where we belong. The protagonist has fled Buenos Aires for Germany to take refuge from her own life. She hopes that her trip to Heidelberg will somehow bring about the feeling of belonging, of not being lost in life, and her life will be back on tracks. This move, however, provides her with further unexpected twists in her life. This wonderful exploration of exile portrays a refuge of any type as something that greatly affects one’s emotional and physical well-being. “Even if I crossed the whole world looking for a place to feel at home, I wouldn’t belong anywhere.” FULL REVIEW
2 EAST WEST STREET BY PHILIPPE SANDS (UK / UKRAINE / POLAND)
East West Street: on the origins of genocide and crimes against humanity by Philippe Sands has particularly a special meaning to me as my late grandparents came from Ukraine and from the same region that Philippe Sands describes. My grandparents also shared that multiethnic, multilingual background of the land that Sands skillfully portrays in the book. ‘East West Street’ is a part-memoir of Philippe Sands and his Jewish grandparents. His family story is interwoven with the story of two remarkable Polish-Jewish men from the city of Lwow (Lviv / Lemberg), Raphael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, who introduced the concepts of ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ into the contemporary human rights law. Both of them gave us a foundation of international human rights law and both of them directly experienced persecution, ethnic cleansing and discrimination. The amount of research that went into writing this book is remarkable. Sands also did the documentary: My Nazi Legacy which is related to his book ‘East West Street’. If you can get a hold of this documentary, I would highly recommend you to watch it in addition to reading this book. This book is also an extraordinary ode to the diversity of Lviv and the multitude of identities that this city has encompassed for the last centuries.
3 OUT OF PLACE BY EDWARD SAID (PALESTINE / EGYPT / USA)
“I occasionally experience myself as a cluster of flowing currents. I prefer this to the idea of a solid self, the identity to which so many attach so much significance. These currents, like the themes of one’ s life, flow along during the waking hours, and at their best, they require ne reconciling, no harmonising. They are ‘off’ and may be out of place, but at least they are always in motion, in time, in place, in the form of all kinds of strange combinations moving about, not necessarily forward, sometimes against each other, contrapuntally yet without one central theme. A form of freedom (…). With so many dissonances in life I have learned actually to prefer being not quite right and out of place.” This is one of the best descriptions of transcultural and multicultural identity. Dr Said was a great advocate for plurality of identities. In his view, people are allowed to be many things, have multiple belongings. ‘Out of Place’ is Dr Said’s memoir with a particular emphasis on his childhood and upbringing in the diverse linguistic and geographical environment with moving descriptions of the relationship with his parents, both so different. This memoir portrays the way all his identities shaped his world and life view. It also provides a glimpse into struggles that a person with multicultural and multilingual background had to face at that time. This is a very poignant exploration of belonging and identity. “I was an uncomfortably anomalous student all through my early years: a Palestinian going to school in Egypt, with an English first name, an American passport, and no certain identity, at all. To make matters worse, Arabic, my native language, and English, my school language, were inextricably mixed: I have never known which was my first language, and have felt fully at home in neither, although I dream in both.”
4 OUT OF EGYPT BY ANDRE ACIMAN (SEPHARDIM / EGYPT / USA)
Andre Aciman is an author of books such as ‘Call Me By Your Name’ and ‘Find Me’. ‘Out of Egypt’ is Aciman’s memoir of growing up in Egypt as a young Jewish boy among many languages and cultures. He was born in Alexandria in 1951 to the Sephardic Jewish parents, speaking French at home and English in school. Aciman family lived in Egypt until 1965 when due to political situation they had to leave the country moving first to Italy, France and finally settled in the USA. The world evoked in ‘Out of Egypt’ does not exist anymore. It is a very compelling and rich memoir. It is a great accompanying read along with ‘Out of Place’ by Dr Edward Said. If you are interested in multicultural heritage, identity, belonging, family tales, Jewish traditions, Egypt of the 1950s and 1960s, I am sure you will love this book.
5 THE EMIGRANTS BY W.G. SEBALD (GERMANY / UK)
The Emigrants tells a story of four different immigrants of the Jewish origin from German-speaking community in Eastern and Central Europe some of whom settled in UK. This book explores the theme of alienation, otherness, trauma and memory. One of the characters remains in Germany but he feels alienated from his community due to his Jewish origin. Another character is not Jewish but has close relationship with a German – Jewish family. This is an exploration of different meaning of homeland and how the notion of ‘home’ has impact on our lives especially during the later stages of one’s life.
6 RETURNING TO REIMS BY DIDIER ERIBON (FRANCE)
A large part of this book is dedicated to the issue of shame related to one’s SOCIAL IDENTITY in context of SOCIAL and ECONOMIC INEQUALITIES. ‘Returning to Reims’ is a wonderfully multilayered, somewhat ambivalent, nuanced and well-constructed story. This is not the easiest book; it is not for everyone but definitely it is one of my most interesting and thought-provoking reads in the recent years. It is worth mentioning an innovative form of this book, a strange combination of an autobiography and a sociological research paper with the usage of very different linguistic tools when the author speaks about his own family and personal life in comparison to when he reflects on social norms, taboos and theory. Through showing his personal story of social exclusion, cutting ties with his working class origins, Eribon explores a number of important themes including the history of France over the last 100 years, how France political sphere has changed, how working class people moved from voting for the left-wing to now the right-wing parties. This is a very moving exploration of social identity and belonging. FULL REVIEW
7 THE TILTING WORLD BY COLETTE FELLOUS (TUNISIA / FRANCE)
The Tilting World by the Tunisian – French writer, Colette Fellous is a beautiful, enriching book, an ode to the author’s home country, Tunisia, infused with lyricism, engulfed in a veil of melancholy and sadness, full of profound reflections on the meaning of home, forced exile, belonging, multiple identities, and loss as well as trauma, violence and history shaping one’s life. The form in which This Tilting World is written is unique; it is a combination of an autobiography and a novel, but it is neither just a novel nor just an autobiography. It is an elegy, a witness statement, a memoir, a passage from the history book where the narrator emphatically scrutinises different stages of her life – childhood, adolescence, adulthood – while living in Tunisia, and then in the exile in France. Through giving the voice to people who are already gone, Colette Fellous takes us on a Proustian journey of self-reflection on the meaning of home as well as individual and generational trauma. The Tilting World is also a portrayal of various cultural, social and political changes in Tunisia taking place over the period of a few decades which forced the narrator’s Jewish – Tunisian family (and most if not all Jewish families) to leave Tunisia and seek the place they can call home somewhere else. This book constitutes an exploration of the immense impact that exile can have on the ones who are forced to leave their home, their cultural heritage. The narrator reflects on the impact of becoming ‘a foreigner’ in your own country, a place of your birth, and the realisation that your ethnicity, religious denomination can define you as an enemy, in the eyes of some of your countrymen, despite you being born in the same place like they were. This book is a love and farewell letter to Tunisia and meditation on connections that we create throughout our lives with places, people, food, music, literature, buildings – a sense of familiarity, belonging, simply ‘home’. One comes away from this book with a profound sense of sadness and nostalgia. In This Tilting World the narrator compassionately articulates personal and generational traumas resulting from the forced exile. This book encapsulates the meaning of home, and all the ingredients that make up one’s sense of belonging. FULL REVIEW
8 THE BEEKEEPER OF ALEPPO BY CHRISTY LEFTERI (SYRIA / UK)
Christy Lefteri portrays the journey of Syrian refugees in a realistic, emphatic, and respectful manner. The Beekeeper of Aleppo tells a story of Nuri, a beekeeper from a beautiful ancient Syrian city of Aleppo and his wife, Afra, who worked as an artist. Before the war, they led a peaceful family life surrounded by their loved ones and friends. Then suddenly everything changes; they lose their son, Sami due to the bomb blast in their garden; they witness beheadings, killings, tortures. Due to the blast and shock after losing her child Afra becomes blind. They are forced to flee Syria to survive. We accompany Nuri and Afra as they travel through Turkey, Greece in order to reach the shores of England where Nuri’s cousin, Mustafa lives. We observe the broken world that Nuri and Afra must pass through in order to find a new ‘home’. The themes of human trafficking, emotional and physical abuse that refugees are subject to, severe depression, post-traumatic stress disorder that most people fleeing war, conflict, ethnic cleansing experience, child trafficking, unaccompanied child refugees, uncertainty encountered in new countries, dealing with inhumanity of asylum application in the UK as portrayed in the book are explored here. Christy Lefteri offers an immensely powerful storytelling for the readers to understand better the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers. FULL REVIEW
9 ELSEWHERE, HOME BY LEILA ABOULELA (SUDAN)
Leila Aboulela is a Sudanese writer living in Aberdeen, Scotland. She was born in Cairo, grew up in Khartoum and moved to Scotland in the 1990s. Her books often deal with the experience of being ‘an outsider’, an immigrant and she also frequently touches on the subject of religion: Islam and what it means to be a devoted Muslim woman in today’s world. Elsewhere, Home is a collection of vignettes about immigration, loss, alienation, crossing different cultures, what it means to be ‘third culture’ child. Those stories explore human relationships with a great deal of empathy. They offer a very nuanced, complex picture of immigration. This collection evolves around immigration in the UK, with a special focus on Scotland. We meet a variety of characters from different social backgrounds across all age groups, mainly coming from East Africa and Middle East. Elsewhere, Home is a thought provoking book and I highly recommend it to those who wish to have a glimpse into what it takes to build a new life in a foreign land as an immigrant.
10 THE REFUGEES BY VIET THANG NGUYEN (VIETNAM / USA)
The Refugees by a Vietnamese – American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen highlights the journey that many refugees, immigrants have to take in quest for a better life. This beautiful collection of short stories explores the meaning of identity, home, belonging, aspirations, how one connects with their ‘new’ country and their ‘old’ country. This is also a profound meditation on how one’s human life is defined by the circumstances that one is born into and how social norms and politics define their entire existence, often without any option to change it.
11 MICHEL THE GIANT BY TETE-MICHEL KPOMASSIE (TOGO / GREENLAND)
Michel the Giant by the Togolese writer and adventurer, Tete-Michel Kpomassie is an extraordinary book about a long journey that Michel took from his home in Togo via Europe to reach Greenland, the land of eternal ice he had become fascinated with as a child and dreamt of visiting. In 1950s when he was a teenager, Michel finds a book in one of the church bookshop in Togo and this book is titled The Eskimos from Greenland and Alaska. He becomes extremely interested in the remote lands and in 1958 as a 17 year old boy he starts his journey, first along western coast of Africa reaching Marseille in France in 1963 and then heading for the land of ice that he reached in 1965. Once in Greenland he immerses himself in the life and customs of the local people for next two years. During his time there he finds out that Greenland is not just the land of happiness as he initially envisaged. It is a place like any other with its problems and issues which was somehow exoticized by the young Michel. Undoubtedly, Michel the Giant is a love letter to Greenland, its people and their way of life from the perspective of a Togolese explorer and adventurer. I highly recommend it – this is a truly fascinating read and exploration of belonging and identity.
12 FRENCH LESSONS BY ALICE KAPLAN (FRANCE / USA)
“I have been willing to overlook in French culture what I would not accept in my own for the privilege of living in translation.”
In French Lessons Alice Kaplan elaborates on such themes as living life through an acquired language and its impact on one’s course of life; the reasons as to why people want to adopt a different culture, the question of acceptance by so-called ‘native speakers’ but also there is a question as to who defines who is a ‘real’ native [speaker]. The book also discusses the reasons related to French intellectuals being attracted by fascism during the 1930s and 1940s and it explores the idea of freedom of speech and ethics related to it. French Lessons depicts the quest by the foreigner for the acceptance among so called ‘native speakers’ and how this quest can be used by racists and xenophobes against any person who is trying to find a new home in a new country. The book refers to the example of Maurice Bardeche, a fascist intellectual, whom Kaplan interviewed for her research work in the 1970s. Bardeche tried to use that notion of ‘acceptance’ against Alice Kaplan in his letter to her following their meetings, just to de-humanise her. This book is an extremely interesting exploration of identity seen through the prism of language as well as how one’s ability to speak the given language can impact one’s identity and sense of belonging. FULL REVIEW
13 IN OTHER WORDS BY JHUMPA LAHIRI (ITALY / USA / INDIA)
In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri constitutes an astonishingly beautiful discourse exploring the subjects of identity, the meaning of exile, belonging, cultural displacement, alienation, mixed and ‘third’ culture background, as well as learning a foreign language, and the quest for a place called ‘home’ and the language called ‘mother tongue’. We witness the author’s anxieties, her self-imposed linguistic odyssey into the depths of Italian language in order to reshape her own personal identity. Lahiri’s thoughts on the idea of exile are multifaceted, and so enthralling. Exile, here, is not only defined as being exiled from own country, culture but also from the language, or more precisely, not having own language, not feeling comfortable in any language due to this complex, mixed background, and due to others ignorantly defining people through their physical appearance, their accidental place of birth, or their parents’ cultural background. Throughout her life, she has been often considered ‘foreign’ in the United States, as well as in India, because of her appearance or her accent seemed to sound foreign to some people. She was never fully accepted in her country of the United States where she spent most of her life, and neither in the country of her parents, India. In Other Words portrays the importance of multiplicity of identities and belongings. FULL REVIEW
14 EXIT WEST BY MOHSIN HAMID (PAKISTAN)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is a tale about migration through places, time, cultures. The story of the main protagonists, Nadia and Saeed, explores many intersecting themes including the position of women living independently in a patriarchal society, a portrayal of destruction and mass violence caused by wars, the meaning of home, belonging, being a refugee, migrant through time and places, a portrayal of grief after losing the loved ones and over relationships ending, a relation with one’s family, culture, the significance of our personal dreams and objects in one’s life and its association with the lives of others, the meaning of religious and cultural rituals, a portrayal of loving and nurturing relationship between parents and their child and the list goes on. Being ashamed of your own language or accent is interestingly portrayed in the book when Saeed helps the immigrants with very pale skin (possibly the reference to many Eastern European immigrants coming to the UK) who feel ashamed to speak their own language even with one another. But that feeling of shame for displacement is a common feeling among many refugees and immigrants, regardless if one is from the Middle East, Africa or Eastern Europe. It forces the reader to reflect on the notion of the refugee, immigrant and “the other”. The tale of Nadia and Saeed asks us to pay attention to the universality of human experience and to the similarities between us rather than differences. Exit West reminds us that people have multiple layers of being in them. They are not just one thing, they are many things at the same time, and they should not have to be forced to choose only one belonging, one idea of home, one type of being. There is also compassion and understanding for people living in one place experiencing the arrivals of the newcomers who are very different to them. It is referred to as a migration through time and should be a source of further questioning. “We all are migrants through times”. The intersection of all the themes is well executed and I am glad that they all have been included in this relatively short book as the human experience and human life is complex in itself and it is never just one thing, it is multitudes of thoughts, ideas, homes, cultures and belongings. FULL REVIEW
15 FOR TWO THOUSAND YEARS BY MIHAIL SEBASTIAN (ROMANIA)
“I have always believed in my right to have a locked door between me and the world, and to hold the key myself. Now look at it, kicked open. The doors are off their hinges, the portals unguarded, every cover blown.”
For Two Thousand Years’ by the wonderful Romanian Jewish writer, Mihail Sebastian (1907 – 1945) was first published in 1934 causing a lot of controversy. It portrays a rise of antisemitism among the members of society, including artists, writers, teachers, politicians.N one was immune to bigotry. It is heart wrenching how easily the acts of violence towards Jewish members of the society were accepted as a norm. The protagonist, a Jewish student, learns that his oldest friends are in fact anti-Semites, that he is not really considered a Romanian by them. He is not allowed to define his own identity; others do it for him. This book depicts the danger of using language to scapegoat one group of people and how reductionist definitions of belonging, race, ethnicity and religion fire up racist and xenophobic attitudes. For Two Thousand Years covers the period of around ten years between 1924 and 1934. It shows how words, language, not speaking up, indifference and lack of empathy can lead to the unimaginable atrocity. This book constitutes a multifaceted exploration of national identity and belonging to the place where one is always perceived as ‘The Other’.
16 A HOUSE OF MY OWN: STORIES FROM MY LIFE BY SANDRA CISNEROS (MEXICO / USA)
“I feel fortunate at least to open books and be invited to step in, if that book shelters me and keeps me warm, I know I’ve come home.”
A House of My Own is an amazing memoir which consists of a collection of various essays, interviews, articles written by Cisneros between 1984 and 2014. The vignettes included in the book reflect her journey to find a sense of belonging and constitute the quest to find a place called home. All texts are accompanied by numerous black and white pictures which add to the richness of the reading experience. This book depicts so many subjects. There are references to many writers that Sandra met in her life, the exploration of the world through travel while she was constantly short of money, the expectations towards women in certain cultures not only because of outside social norms but also expectations imposed by one’s family. Reading this memoir, we travel the world with Sandra; we go to Chicago, the place of her birth, to Hydra in Greece, to Mexico where her dad was from and where her mum’s ancestors came originally from; we go to Sarajevo in the former Yugoslavia, we go to France, and Spain. There are wonderfully evocative descriptions of the Mexican folklore, insightful reflections on women’s position in the society. The idea of coming from many different cultures, different to the ones that your parents came from and making connections through language, food, and traditions is portrayed in such a rich, multi-faceted manner. It is a wonderful soul-soothing read. FULL REVIEW
17 THE LOST SHORE BY ANNA LANGFUS (POLAND / FRANCE)
The Lost Shore[Les Bagages de Sable] has at its centre a Polish-Jewish refugee woman called Maria, a Holocaust survivor, who tries to build her life again in France after her entire family had been exterminated during the Holocaust (similarly to author’s own experience). Langfus explores the subject of the suffering of a singular woman, a survivor who tries to learn to live but she is unable to. The Lost Shore depicts internal struggles to overcome memories of loss, cruelty, death and at the same time the impossibility to portray the past in order to live again. Maria must deal with a lot of indifference from people including her own extended family who wants her not to mention her experiences during the Shoah. At some point, Maria meets a much older man who initially seems to care for her well-being. Maria exists in the world inhabited by the ghosts of the past and finds impossible to relate with others or rather others are unable to relate to her pain. She also questions the true meaning of her relationship with the older man and if it is only her youth that was attractive to this man and not her as an individual. Maria asks herself if she were an older woman, would she receive the same level of attention? In the end, an old man becomes ill, and his estranged wife comes back. Maria is asked to leave, and she is yet again alone in this world in a state of continuous numbness and no hope. Langfus’ writing is lucid and delicate, multi-dimensional with layers of unsurpassed depth and profound emotional maturity. This is a nuanced exploration of complex identity and trauma associated with it. FULL REVIEW
18 THE DISTANCE BY IVAN VLADISLAVIC (SOUTH AFRICA)
The Distance is a profoundly moving study in family relations during the political and social changes offering a very intimate insight into snippets of the South African society of the 1970s, as well as that of the present day. The story features the variety of themes including love, memory, loss, immigration, our own perception of who we are and its impact on how we perceive the world, race relations in the 1970s and a present-day South Africa and the limitation of language. The story evolves around two narrators, voices – brothers, Joe and Branko Blahavić, originally from Pretoria who are of Croatian descent (like Vladislavic himself). In the book, they tell their childhood story, alternating between the two versions. We follow them as they grow up in the 1970s Pretoria and then their later adult selves. There is also a third silent protagonist, a famous boxer of that era, Muhammad Ali (also Cassius Clay). The ‘distance’ in the book carries a multitude of meanings: that of the language as mentioned above, that of often seen in the complex family relations; that of the persona of Muhammad Ali and his previous self, Cassius Clay and his relations to the surrounding world he lived in; that of Joe’s perception of the world and his attempt to find his own path; that of the immigrants (in this case of Croatian descent) living apart from the apartheid society in the 1970s South Africa. The Distance is like a literary museum of individual childhood memories contrasted with the reality of living in a complex society. FULL REVIEW
19 THE HALFWAY HOUSE BY GUILLERMO ROSALES (CUBA)
In The Halfway House we follow Guillermo Rosales’s alter ego, William Figueras, a victim of his unfortunate circumstances and times during which he lived. We find out that William’s book was suppressed by the regime in Cuba, and it had a degrading impact on his life. He arrives in Miami 20 years later dejected, beaten by the life and circumstances. William was a “toothless, skinny, frightened guy who had to be admitted to a psychic ward that very day”, so-called the halfway house. He had a history of mental illness (similarly to Rosales) and is placed in the home for people suffering from mental illness – the halfway house located somewhere in Miami. Rosales’s criticism of Cuba is not merely a condemnation of totalitarianism, it is also a stand against what totalitarianism does to sheer humanity of the individual. The Halfway House illuminates the failures of believing blindly in the American dream which is not granted to all the exiles. Most people will struggle through most of their lives dealing with trauma of fleeing the repressive regime, leaving their families behind, their culture, traditions, and all they have been accustomed to. Rosales questions the ethics of other Cuban immigrants’ attitude towards their own countrymen in need. With a few exceptions, there seems to be no kinship between William and other Cubans he encounters in Miami’s Little Havana. In his own words, he is ‘a total exile’, exiled from Cuba as well as from the Cuban community in the USA. Rosales portrays a very different account of the lives of the Cuban exiles to the one often shown on TV and in literature. In general, the life of immigrants in the USA is depicted through the prism of either being successful or more or less successful when it comes to financial stability. Even though many exiles found basic notion of freedom in their adopted country, the existence for many of them fleeing totalitarian regimes is hard, depressing and sad. The ones who are not up for so called success are ostracized by other exiles, often including their own families. Rosales also poses the question about the indifference of the community for allowing the existence of brutal regime in Cuba on one hand, and on the other the existence of infernos like those halfway houses in Miami. Rosales puts guilt and responsibility on the community which is only focused either on getting power like in Cuba, or only focused on achieving the American dream at all costs like in Miami. This is a multifaceted exploration of devastating realities of forced exile. FULL REVIEW
20 10 MINUTES 38 SECONDS IN THIS STRANGE WORLD BY ELIF SHAFAK (TURKEY)
What 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World does is an attempt to re-humanise individuals who end up as a statistical number. Leila’s story brings back the humanity to the ones whose lives have been forgotten and whose names have been turned into numbers. The inspiration for 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World was a series of scientific research where the doctors observed a persistent brain activity for a few minutes after patients’ heart stops beating. What happens to a human brain during this time became a basis for the story of Leila. We know from the first sentences that the main character, Leila, is dead. At the time of her death, she is in her 40s and has worked as a prostitute in Istanbul. We find out at the very beginning of the book that Leila was brutally murdered, and her body was dumped in the garbage bin as a final insult to her humanity. Although Leila’s heart stopped beating, her brain is still working. As Leila remembers the important moments from her life during these few minutes, we take on a journey through her life and also through the story of her homeland, Turkey. As we travel with Leila, we listen to the stories told through the eyes of the outsiders, people from the peripheries of the society including Leila herself and her ‘water family’ consisting of her friends. The tale of Leila and her friends is life-affirming. It celebrates the diversity; inclusion and it places a special value on friendships, solidarity and empathy reflected in the emphasis on the shared values that people hold rather than on the differences they might have. I would recommend 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak to everyone who is interested in entering the world of “the other” for some time, laying aside the views and values one holds without bias and prejudice and to see how different this world might look like through the eyes of another human being with different values and life experiences. It is a soul-soothing exploration of belonging and identity. FULL REVIEW
This is such a great list. I have recently added Sebald’s The Emigrants to my TBR list, and I cannot wait to dive into it. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is also a moving account of one Korean family living in Japan.
Thank you so much! I hope you will enjoy The Emigrants. Pachinko has been on my TBR list forever. Hopefully I’ll get to it soon 🥰🙏🤍