As immigration debate roils, new novels about immigrants are especially timely
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Not long before Election Day in 2016, Samira Ahmed completed the first draft of her novel “Internment,” a dystopian narrative about the rounding up of Muslim-Americans.
As the news came in that Donald Trump had been elected president, Ahmed recalls getting a text from a friend who’d read the manuscript and wondered whether Ahmed had produced a work of prophecy.
“She said, ‘I hope you’re not Cassandra,’ ” Ahmed says.
Like immigration, novels about immigrants are a longstanding, central part of American culture.
Now, books that were conceived before Trump’s rise to power are arriving with a certain timeliness, as the president, who has called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and advocated for a Muslim travel ban, has shut down the federal government over his insistence on funding for a wall along the country’s Mexican border. He has pushed back on assertions that he is anti-immigrant, saying that controlling immigration is key to national security.
New fiction about immigrants is set everywhere from Virginia to California. The books confront the American dream narrative of assimilation and upward mobility.
Laila Lalami’s novel “The Other Americans,” which comes out March 26, is among them.
“While current headlines give readers timely coverage of immigration, fiction offers deeper and more complex explorations of the issue,” says Lalami.
Other works include Valeria Luiselli’s “Lost Children Archive,” which tells of young immigrants separated from their families, and Nicole Dennis-Benn’s “Patsy,” about a Jamaican woman’s discovery that the United States is nothing like what she had imagined.
“I think there’s been a real blossoming in novels about immigration,” says Barnes & Noble fiction buyer Sessalee Hensley, who cites works such as Jean Kwok’s “Searching for Sylvie Lee,” which is about a family of Chinese immigrants. “Publishers have really been making an effort to bring in a wider range of voices.”
Devi S. Laskar’s first novel, “The Atlas of Reds and Blues,” follows the disheartening experience of a woman — born in America to Bengali immigrants — as she moves her family to an Atlanta suburb. Laskar started work on the book before Trump was elected but says she found its narrative fit with the current time.
“We are all experiencing the current administration together,” Laskar says. “This story ends in 2010, but I feel like the seeds of what is happening started way back when.”
Angie Kim began her first novel, “Miracle Creek,” several years ago. But as she finished the final draft of her story about a Korean immigrant family at the center of a Virginia murder case, Trump had been elected. Kim began adding, though not consciously at the time, material on immigration.
“At first, I was writing about language and the frustrations for people who think of themselves as smart and knowledgeable but find themselves in a place where they don’t speak the language, and they feel like a child again,” she says. “But when I write some new scenes, in January and February of 2017, they were all centered around racism.”
Lalami has written four novels, including the Pulitzer Prize finalist “The Moor’s Account,” that draw on her native Morocco. In “The Other Americans,” she writes of a Moroccan immigrant’s suspicious death on a California road. She started the book in 2014 in response to a health scare involving her father and to a recent wave of hate crimes against Muslims.
“A lot of people are interested in immigration because of Trump,” says Lalami, a creative writing professor at University of California at Riverside. “He has brought a sense of urgency. But, as far as I’m concerned, the story would have been the same, although readers might find it more timely.”
As several authors note, their stories seem contemporary because the issues raised by the president’s stance have been around for much of the country’s past, whether the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II or the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 or the racist Immigration Act of 1924.
“All of American history leads up to what’s happening now,” Ahmed says.
Luiselli, a native of Mexico City, has written fiction and nonfiction. She spoke with children facing deportation for the 2017 publication “Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions.” She began her novel in 2014, “long before Trump was part of this panorama.”
“Thousands of children had arrived alone and undocumented at the border, fleeing gang violence and other circumstances of unspeakable violence and abuse. The Obama administration was not particularly humane in their treatment of undocumented minors,” according to Luiselli, adding that she didn’t need to make any major revisions once Trump took office.
“The thing is, the crisis was already there by then.”