Category Archives: Immigrant fiction

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli Title: Lost Children Archive
Author: Valeria Luiselli
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0525520610
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 400
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Lost Children Archive is a book that should be read by everyone. I think more so because it is so relevant for the times we live in, and also because it is written with such grace, delicacy, and at the same time rawness that is unfathomable. It is one of those rare books that once you start you don’t want it to end. It is like an experience that is immersive and yet so heartbreaking. You don’t want to read it, and yet you do. The wanting to read is obviously far greater, so you do – you read it, if you are me you also constantly mark, highlight, and annotate. Lines resonate, words linger, emotions are so deep-rooted that even if you haven’t experienced any of them, you feel for the characters, though they are nameless.

In 2017, Mexican-born novelist Valeria Luiselli, published a book called “Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions”. This book was a result of her volunteering as a court interpreter for children – the “illegal aliens” (as they are called), helping them with intake questionnaires that might establish a case for asylum for them. The book is about her experience of also applying for a green card as she fights for the children.

Lost Children Archive, her much-anticipated new novel (and the first one written in English) is about these refugee children and their lives, it is about a family at the core of it – their lives, and ultimately about ties that bind us and the ones that don’t. Luiselli touches on a topic that is so relevant, so utterly terrifyingly heartbreaking that sometimes as a reader, it took me time to digest, assimilate, and then process my thoughts and emotions.

What I must not forget and mention here is that Lost Children Archive is a “road novel” as well. It is a journey undertaken at the start of the novel by a family – a father, a mother, a son, and a daughter. A family that came together when the father and the mother, two single parents fell in love while recording the sounds of New York City. Their marriage is drifting. They are losing grip on who they used to be. The husband plans a new project to travel to the ancestral homeland of the Apaches in Arizona, she decides to go along with her daughter and his son. She plans to document sounds of refugees at the border, and also wants to find two missing, undocumented daughters of her immigrant friend.

Furthermore, there are boxes of the family that travel with them – boxes that are filled and some that aren’t. Boxes that mean something, that are heavy with meaning and emotion, of work documented by the husband and the wife and what remains of their union. Luiselli captures the voices of the children beautifully. The 10-year old son (from the husband) and the 5-year old daughter (from the wife) are seamlessly integrated into the narrative of adults – asking, wondering, sometimes taking pictures (you will learn of this as you read along), and questioning their identity and family as a unit.

Luiselli breaks the mould so many times as she tells the story – over and over again. With the contents of the boxes, the small chapters that integrate, the characters’ voices that seamlessly integrate and also stand-out most often, but above all the last twenty pages of the book are something else – a long sentence that reaches its ending with so much to already chew and mull over, leaving a void in your mind and heart.

Lost Children Archive is most certainly the novel of our times (and sadly as well). It is so many things and yet it is up to the reader what they want to take from it. The story of the refugee children is constantly told from various points of view and done so strangely and beautifully most of the time. Not to forget the character that is the US of A. Home, perhaps. The roads, the motels, the diners, the billboards, and the borders we create are covered with such eye for detail that you wonder if she wrote the book as she travelled. Maybe she did. Maybe she didn’t. It is about family – the breaking of one and where do other families fit in, the ones that have been broken through displacement, still seeking refuge?

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Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini

Sea Prayer Title: Sea Prayer
Author: Khaled Hosseini
Illustrator: Dan Williams
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1526605917
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Fiction, Immigrant Fiction
Pages: 48
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Before I start this review, I would just like to make one thing clear from point of view, a book is a book is a book. Yes, big books and expansive stories make a lot of difference (and I am the kind of reader that loves to read big books and I cannot lie), at the same time, short books (as some might call them and roll their eyes to pay for them) make an impact as well. They have the power to transform and make you introspect the world and yourself in it. “Sea Prayer” by Khaled Hosseini is one such book.

“Sea Prayer” is a lot of things. It is a cry for comfort, of the known, the familiar and what it means to not know or identify home anymore. What does it even mean to not have a home? To me, more than anything else, “Sea Prayer” is about loss and in a very strange way, a story of hope, as most Hosseini’s stories are. They are hopeful, in times of bleakness. There is some ray of sunshine, something to help people get by and in the case of this book it is the sea – both hopeful and dangerous.

SP 1

“Sea Prayer” is written in the form of a short letter, from a father to his son, on the eve of their journey, far away from home. The book is a portrait of their life in Homs, Syria, before and after the war. The gorgeous water colour and ink illustrations by Dan Williams complement the book in so many ways, that you cannot think of the book without it. The interplay of word and image on every page will leave you breathless, wanting so much more, that you wouldn’t mind rereading (re-watching?) the book over and over again.

SP 2

More than anything else anyone who reads, “Sea Prayer” should be affected by it mainly because of the times we live in. We unfortunately guard our spaces and privacy and boundaries so fiercely that we forget to be humane and compassionate. We have seen enough and more of brutality when it comes to the Trump administration and their stance on refugees and immigrants and on the other, the Rohingya crisis – a people almost forgotten, a people not acknowledged at all. And but of course, at the core of the book is the Syrian crisis.

SP 3

“Sea Prayer” will make you realize your own indifference to everything that goes on around us, and at the same time make you check your privilege. It is the kind of book that seeps through and stays in your subconscious, whether you like it or not. All in all, a read that shakes you up and leaves you more empathetic and kinder.

 

How to Love a Jamaican : Stories by Alexia Arthurs

How to Love a Jamaican Title: How to Love a Jamaican: Stories
Author: Alexia Arthurs
Publisher: Ballantine Books
ISBN: 978-1524799205
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

Some books feel closer. They almost feel like a hug. “How to Love a Jamaican” is one of those books. Every story to me seemed wondrous and not a single plot or theme was out of place. And but of course, the stories are diverse, intricate, and provide a lot of authentic insight into the lives of Jamaicans living at home and out of it. The stories blend into each other – exploring themes of loss, love, personal growth, the immigrant experience and mainly what can be called home.

I was also aware of the number of books written exploring this theme and tactic and yet How to Love a Jamaican seems new and fresh. I think it has to do primarily with the writing. Some stories will obviously strike a chord more than the others, but each one will find a special place in your heart. I am a big one for short stories, so this collection did not disappoint me at all.

What is most interesting that Arthurs doesn’t try and explain the idiosyncrasies used or the words, or the phrases. They naturally flow with the stories and that’s that. It is up to the reader to want to know more, which works for a reader like me. My favourite story is “Slack” which opens with a scene of a tragedy and moves to become something larger, which left me bereft and smiling at the same time. “Shirley from a Small Place” is all about the rootedness to home, not forgetting where you came from, a dominating mother, and of course all the culture, pride and food. It seems as though it has all the tropes, but having said that, they work brilliantly. Like I said earlier, it is all about the writing.

The book reads very fast and yet there are moments that will make you stop in-between the read. Arthurs is also most times funny and extremely empathetic toward her characters. And I am sure most of them are known personally to her, for the book to be so involving and engaging to the reader.

“How to Love a Jamaican” is an unusual collection of short stories. It may seem run-off-the-mill at first place, but do not be fooled by its simplicity. There is so much simmering underneath that facade. Read it to understand the Jamaican experience and a different point of view which is redeeming, emotional and liberating, all at the same time.

Ayiti by Roxane Gay

Ayiti by Roxane Gay Title: Ayiti
Author: Roxane Gay
Publisher: Corsair, Hachette UK
ISBN: 9781472154224
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
Pages: 192
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

We are sometimes (perhaps most of the time or even all the time) lost in our individual bubbles – the ones that we create, the ones that protect us from most realities, so much so that we aren’t even aware of them. I say this because before reading “Ayiti” by Roxane Gay I wasn’t aware of what the Haitians went through or are going through on a daily basis and for that, I have no one else to blame but myself.

Having said that, “Ayiti” (the way Haiti is pronounced by the Haitians and is the original way of referring to their country) has made me want to know more about the country. How it was ruled by the French and how did they get their freedom and what were the consequences that made it reach this state in the larger scheme of things.

Roxane Gay’s prose is not forgiving nor is it all roses along the way. Her stories are brutal, real, visceral and jump at you without warning – just the way a well-written short-story should be. At the same time, humanity (or the lack of it) runs deep in these fifteen stories – some medium-sized, mostly vignettes and three long stories that will cut through your heart and make you sometimes weep with helplessness.

“Ayiti” is a collection that makes you see the mirror of the world. A country that is forgotten not only by the world but sometimes also its own people. The people who have perhaps given up on a God to come and rescue them from their fate. Some of whom who make it to America and try too hard, so their family can make it. The people who will eat mud in Haiti because there is nothing else to consume. The characters are always in conflict – between home and what they want to make a home but will never be.

“Haiti is not a perfect home, but it is a home nonetheless” thinks the protagonist of the last story in this collection, “A Cool, Dry Place” – a story of a couple who want to leave Haiti – dreaming of Little Haiti in Miami, where there is air-conditioning and cable TV all-day long. And yet, she doesn’t want to leave. She wants to stay with their loved ones, the familiar. Between them, what keeps them going is the love and lust they share.

Roxane Gay’s stories are for sure semi-autobiographical if not all-autobiographical in nature. She was born and raised in the US, though Haitian and I am sure there must have been stories that traveled and found their way in this book.

These stories were published earlier in 2011 and are now published in a new format, but the voice, the situations, the conditions are still the same. The book couldn’t have been more relevant than today when the world is in a state of limbo – when we need to be human, accept, own and belong. In a world where children are being separated from their parents, the part of the world in which Trump makes decisions, we really need to wake up and smell the coffee.

“Cheap, Fast, Filling” was another favourite of mine – about a man named Lucien and his arrival in the United States via Canada and again right into Miami. He has been told that eat Hot Pockets until he finds a job since they are cheap and taste good. He survives on those and Super Big Gulp. To him, even this taste is wonderful. All he wants is his children left in Haiti, to be able to taste these treats.

“We are the keeper of secrets. We are secrets ourselves. We try to protect each other from the geography of so much sorry.” These are some of the thoughts of the narrator of “In the Manner of Water or Light” – a story of a woman conceiving her daughter on the bank of a river while running away from a horrific massacre. The story is achingly told from the perspective of the granddaughter.

“Sweet on the Tongue” is a story of humiliation, love, redemption and somehow making peace with the ghosts of the past. It is also the story of women loving women, women who love their men fiercely and sometimes when it becomes difficult to love your own child.

Roxane Gay’s writing is not limited by anything. The plot could take you anywhere. Even in the shortest of vignettes, she packs a punch of a nine-page story. “Of Ghosts and Shadows” is a longish story of two women who just want to be left alone, loving each other and not caring about the world. The world they are born into and must whether they like it or not care about. This is one story I could relate with the most – maybe because being gay is really the same anywhere after all.

Gay’s Haiti is weak, broken like one character says something to the effect that it is turning on into itself. Its people do not want to leave and yet there is no choice. The ones who have left try every day to get their loved ones home, USA – which could never be what Haiti is or was and yet it seems like a lot for now. “Ayiti” is a book that must be read and after you have read it, read more on Haiti and its people, its history – what came to be and why. I know I will.