Tag Archives: immigration

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?

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.

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

GV Title: Goodbye, Vitamin
Author: Rachel Khong
Publisher: Henry Holt
ISBN: 9781471159480
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 196
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Off-late, I’ve been reading a lot of literary fiction (as I always do), but have hardly come across books that are both literary and funny. “Goodbye, Vitamin” is one such book. The story is of Ruth (but not just her, you come to know as you go along) who comes back home to her parents, after receiving a call from her mother Annie when her father is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Don’t get me wrong – the book isn’t funny funny as much as it is full of wry humour and irony, which most certainly worked for me.

Howard Young is a prominent history professor who doesn’t know what is happening to him. He seems to be lost and is mostly isn’t aware of his condition. His wife is of the opinion that almost all food isn’t good for his health, which leaves him with very few options to eat. Ruth is trying to come to terms with a break-up.

This being the plot of the book is not all. The issue of identity, belonging and what happens when a parent faces dementia is heart-breaking. Khong tells the story with such tenderness that as a reader you do nothing but give in. The book is constructed in the form of journal entries and what happens through one year (I think) and how it impacts these characters, day by day.

I love the storytelling style. While it isn’t new, it somehow makes you more engaged as a reader. You want to know more. You feel like you are snooping on someone else’s life and somehow it is alright. This isn’t a feel-good novel but it does have its moments and the balance makes it even better, if you ask me. Added to that, it looks at perspectives of outsiders as well – friends, neighbours, colleagues and that provides another layer to the story.

Khong’s writing is simple. There are no frills. I love when the author is so sure about what he or she is doing that there are no fillers in the book. “Goodbye, Vitamin” is not only that kind of book but it is also the kind of book that is very comforting.

A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee

Title: A State of Freedom
Author: Neel Mukherjee
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin India
ISBN: 9780670090150
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 275
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Neel Mukherjee’s “A State of Freedom” begins with a father who has come to India with his six-year old son from the States (where he now works). He wants his son to see the Taj Mahal and the nearby monuments at Fatehpur Sikri. The son is intimidated by the landscape – he doesn’t belong to this country and the father feels that even he is a “tourist in his own country”. This sense of alienation and weirdness furthers on into the first chapter, only to leave the reader gasping for more and turning the pages.

The start is powerful, albeit not very clear, but powerful nonetheless. It will leave the reader with two choices (as most starts do) – to either abandon the book or to carry on with it. I recommend that you edge on and you will be in for a surprise. Mukherjee’s characters are closely interlinked with the plot – though the plot is finely segregated into five segments (that is only too deceptive by the way), you see how characters appear time and again from one plot to another – it is as though they have decided to colour outside the lines and they very well will do so.

A construction worker falls to his death in the first section of the immigrant young father and his son and how his story is tackled later. At the same time, let’s not forget the core of the story (to me at least) of a passing poverty-struck man with his dancing bear (the cover is thus inspired) – each trying to find a way out – one of poverty and one of captivity – a “state of freedom” is being tried to achieve. The themes of alienation, identity and longing are further explored in the section of a young man who lives in London and visits Bombay time and again to meet his parents. In the course of the visits, he is taken in by the life of their cook Renu and another servant, Milly – so much so that he is encouraged by Renu to visit her village and stay with her brothers and their families – only to reach an understanding that he never can and never will be able to imagine the lives of others and how they live – his capacity for that is too diminished.

For me, while reading this book, there was the sound of loneliness that rang in almost every page – thus leading to the sound of grief, of belonging and to find salvation in one’s circumstances. I did read The Lives of Others last year, but this book has had an altogether different impact. I think what worked for me while reading this book is the association of daily life that Mukherjee doesn’t throw in your face but doesn’t hesitate to make you see what you normally would’ve shirked away from – the class, the racism, the feeling of not crossing lines because it gets uncomfortable after a point is so stark and raw that it will leave you with a lump in your throat.

For instance, the angle of Lakshman and the bear. There is so much going on in this part of the book that you would have to stop, take a breath and then continue – from the way Lakshman trains the bear (or so he thinks he has) to the drudgery of day to day living – to finding food for himself and the beast, Mukherjee’s prose shines on every single page. The peripheral layers to every section may seem ordinary, till they surface in another section and realism merges with the philosophical.

As a reader what also took me away was the different forms or narratives in which each section is written – the first section is in third person, the second in the first person, and how with each section the story only becomes even more complex and yet so simple. The fourth section is that of Milly and her friend Soni and how these two girls born and brought up in poverty, set out to want better lives and what the outcome of that is. The meaning of dislocation is the strongest in this portion of the book, thereby tying all loose ends.

The last section of the book is the one that is an unpunctuated chapter – told in first-person. It definitely gives the book the much required closure but it is also the chapter that I cannot talk about. “A State of Freedom” is one of those rare books that take you in slowly, capture you by the throat, overwhelm you time and again, make you see broken, fractured lives and at some point also make the attempt to make you whole again from that experience. It is one of those books that you would have to read, no matter what. I cannot stop talking about it.

The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir by Thi Bui

Title: The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir
Author: Thi Bui
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
ISBN: 978-1419718779
Genre: Graphic Memoir
Pages: 336
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

The times we live in aren’t easy. We live in xenophobic times. As much as I hate to say it, it is true and we cannot turn a blind eye to this one. In these times, as much as I don’t want to read what stares in my face all over the place – on Twitter, on FB, on almost every social media – hatred for a religion or class, or a set of people that aren’t yours, but you read because you feel you will understand and empathize better and this is the time “The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir” came into my life.

This is a graphic memoir, which means it happened to the author and her family – a set of events – after her parents moved to the land of milk and honey from Vietnam on a boat. The story is deceptively simple but layered with relationships issues, immigration and belonging issues and above all: what it really takes to blend in? Do people who come from outside can after all be called citizens of a particular country even after decades or do they have to keep proving themselves and their patriotism over and over again?

Bui’s story is the story of her family – as she begins to adjust to being a first-time mother, she reminiscences what it means to be a parent from her parents’ perspective – from the sacrifices to unnoticed gestures to love that need not be spoken all the time. In all of this is America – Grand Old America in the background (not as much) always making them question their identity and the importance of home. There are panels that are so breathtakingly beautiful and how they mingle with the prose – will make you weep and in the next panel before you know it you are smiling and cheering on for Thi and her circumstances.

This book as Viet Thanh Nguyen claims will break your heart and then heal it – did just that for me. What is funny is that I also spoke to my maternal aunt after reading this book to know her memories of coming to India from Pakistan during the Great Partition and what it was like for them. “The Best We Could Do” as the title suggests is just that – the best they did and how sometimes you have to keep doing your best to find your place in the world.