Category Archives: Immigrant Stories

If I Had Two Lives by Abbigail N. Rosewood

If I Had Two Lives Title: If I Had Two Lives
Author: Abbigail N. Rosewood
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609455217
Genre: Literary Fiction, Immigrant Fiction
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

Sometimes you just don’t know what to make of a book till you are done reading and pondering a bit over it. If I Had Two Lives was that kind of read for me. This is a coming of age book, it is also a book about an immigrant in the United States of America, and it is also about going back home. Honestly, it might also seem been there, done that (and I also felt that on reading the blurb), but it isn’t that at all. I think every book no matter how similar the plot line to another book, always has something different to say – no matter in what capacity.

If I Had Two Lives is the story of a child who has been isolated from the world in a secret military camp, with a distant mother. Distant mothers as we all know only lead to more mental health issues in all of fiction. Anyway, there she meets a sympathetic soldier and another girl, leading to a very unlikely friendship.

The scene then jumps to New York, where as an adult, she is torn between people who are no longer a part of her life and people who are. She understands that for all of it to make sense, she has to return to where she started from: Vietnam. This in short is the plot of If I Had Two Lives.

Why did I like it?

Rosewood’s writing is sparse and most effective. Most of the novel is without names, except for some and you will understand why as you read the book. I think it is actually because of the title and what it means – the sense of identity (can there be one without a name?), memory (how twisted and convenient it can be), and what is the value we place on people in our lives?

If I Had Two Lives seemed like not a debut, but a work of someone experienced. I think it is also about how well you tell a story, and what do you want to communicate to the readers. In this case, it was the brutality of dislocation and the force of compassion that came through stunningly, with every turn of the page. It is a modern tale, seeped in the past and that’s what makes it what it is: intriguing and gorgeously written. A great debut that deserves all the attention.

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?

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.

Chemistry by Weike Wang

Chemistry Title: Chemistry
Author: Weike Wang
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1524731748
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

September 2017 is going to be a good month of books read. The next that I read this month was “Chemistry” by Weike Wang. Chemistry is the kind of read that takes time for you to suck yourself into. I don’t mean that it is a slow read, but it is the kind of book which will have you ruminate over what is going on and go back to the pages you just read, so to make sense of what is going on as well. Wang’s craft is that of talking about various things at one time and might I add that she is brilliant at that.

For a debut novel, “Chemistry” took me by surprise. It would have also taken me by surprise had it not been a debut novel, don’t get me wrong but just the sheer force with which it is written (and it isn’t even a long read) makes you want to sit up and take notice. I was also asked by someone on Facebook if chemistry is an integral part of the book – as in does it change the life of the characters or not, to which I would say: No. While it does form a background to the book, I didn’t think it was life-altering in any way.

So what is the book about? The story follows a Chinese-American scientist (she is unnamed which is more or less like the challenges she faces in life) as she is three years into her graduate studies at quite a demanding Boston university. Amidst this there is the pressure from her parents to excel. Her love for chemistry is slowly dying. Her boyfriend wants to marry her and she has no response yet for him. She is lost just like anyone else and to find herself she has to give up everything and leave behind what she loves. This is the crux of the plot, as she gives up two years to discover herself and realizes that formulas or equations may not always have all answers as she thought they would.

The plot may not sound interesting initially but once you start reading Wang’s writing – you are just transported to her world. It is almost semi-autobiographical in nature and you can sense the confusion of her narrator and some sense of knowing in the second part (I loved the second part of the book a lot more). The writing is crisp, wry and overwhelming in a lot of places. The narrator and her relationships shine throughout but the relationship with herself is what I loved the most (as cliché as that might sound). “Chemistry” is a book of a scattered mind and a scattered soul that learns to piece itself day by day.