Finding Fact In Immigrant Fiction

Appreciating your cultural identity through the stories of others.



The methods in which people find comfort in their place in the world, or better understand their feelings on their situation are incredibly varied. Frank McCourt, the author of Angela's Ashes (a memoir of his struggles of being the child of Irish immigrants in Brooklyn, NY) has been known to say "I learned the significance of my own insignificant life" through storytelling. As much as we can learn from the infinite numbers of stories from real people, sometimes it’s disappearing into a fictional story that frees us and disassociates us just enough to find solace in our own lives, or appreciate the positive of our own painful experiences.


Telling stories, recording stories, and even reading stories can be incredibly healing. To reflect on the struggles and trauma, or even happiness and hopefulness of others can bring upon a sense of relief. We were particularly intrigued by Maria, who we have always known for her love of immigrant fiction. But only recently did she realize that this affinity might be as a result of her own immigration from Russia to the US when she was only a young child. In her own words:


"I had the hardest time in school, I was always the weird kid with the weird clothes, who ate weird food, spoke with an accent, and had no friends. I wanted nothing to do with my Russian-ness and I didn’t want to be friends with any Russian kids.

Black and white photo of a young girl
Maria's "move to America passport photo"

While [my husband] teases me about it, I never thought too much about why it’s one of my favorite genres. Turns out they’re not all immigrants-to-America books as I kind-of remembered. Some are leaving for America, and in the others they are immigrating from one country to another (as it’s bad enough in their current country that immigration is a huge possibility). But ultimately, no matter where they move to, it is still the same experience: people come to the US and they stick with people of their nationality as it’s a connection to the life they left.


I left at such a young age that I never felt much connection; instead it was like a “Scarlet A” on me and I wanted to stay as far away as possible. I think reading about people who weren’t embarrassed about their nationality and culture was so different from how I was operating; it was interesting to see how my life could have been."



“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures" -Jessamyn West

In particular, Maria recalls The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri, as a book she was able to connect so much with because of the main character’s struggle to assimilate. She relates, “trying to find your own way and be accepted by your peers mixed in with your parents/families pressure of maintaining culture and traditions is so difficult for a kid to manage.” Another book Maria really appreciated was The Last Story of Mina Lee, by Nancy Jooyoun Kim. In summary, “after her mother dies, the daughter goes on a journey to find out about her mother’s life. The mother was always very private; her daughter knew nothing about her history before.” Maria finds it “fascinating how much earlier generations do not necessarily hide but just don’t mention [history], don’t talk about.” And finally, she related to Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbui (a story about a family who immigrated to NYC from Cameroon, where one spouse thinks that everything is magical and there’s opportunity everywhere, while the other spouse can only see the challenges, difficulties, and lack of money) because, “as an only child of young parents, [i recognized] how hard they had to work and while they escaped challenges from their original country, the new country has loads of its own challenges that are just as difficult but different.”


A few other favourites from Maria’s collection include:

  • Little Bee - Chris Cleave

  • Unaccustomed Earth - Jhumpa Lahiri

  • Girl In Translation - Jean Kwok

  • Nowhere In Africa - Stefanie Zweig

  • Americanah - Chimamandah Ngozi Adichie

  • The Wangs Vs The World - Jade Chang

  • How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents - Julia Alvarez

  • America For Beginners - Leah Franqui

  • The Affairs Of The Falcons - Melissa Rivero

  • American Dirt - Jeanine Cummins

  • Transcendent Kingdom - Yaa Giasi

  • The Bad Muslim Discount - Syed M Masood

  • Against The Loveless World - Susan Abulhawa

  • Pachinko - Min Jin Lee

  • Home Going - Yaa Giasi

  • A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistri

  • Shanghai Girls - Lisa See

  • Everything By Khaled Hosseini

  • The Pearl That Broke Its Shell - Nadia Hashimi


Life in broad strokes

Contrary to how Maria was drawn to immigrant fiction in order to fill a void in her lived experience, others use it to commiserate. In Episode 6 of the Root & Seed Podcast, our friend Alex spoke about how cathartic it can be to see other people, even in a fictional-sense, sharing their lived experience.


“When Kim's Convenience was a play….that for me was a huge inflection point for me because I saw my life on the stage. I literally saw everything from my childhood, from the dynamic between my family, the dynamic between people outside my family, owning a convenience store and all this confluence of events and factors and things unfolding in front of me. And I was like, that is my life...someone has lived this before. I feel seen. I don't feel alone anymore. And I think that ultimately gave me so much more confidence to say. I can do this. I can feel comfortable with who I am. I can feel comfortable with this experience of learning for the first time who I should have always been and who I was meant to be. And all those things that I felt ashamed of before I no longer have to, because it's not an isolated thing.”


It’s not just the written word that we can relate to - it can also be on-screen or even on-stage. This was instrumental in Alex feeling comfortable to more publicly reclaim his cultural identity.


Gary Shteyngart, the award-winning author of Tiny Failure, implores us “Remember this: Develop a sense of nostalgia, or you'll never figure out what's important.” Is there a book, movie, or piece of art that has helped you find your nostalgia? Or realize that you are not alone in your lived experiences? A story that offered you solace with your own life? Share it with us in the comments below - we love your thoughts and recommendations.