Lady Liberty

13 Nonfiction Books About Immigrants to Foster Empathy and Understanding

Warsan Shire, the celebrated and award-winning British poet, has a poem titled ‘Home‘ that has become the rallying cry for immigrants everywhere. Throughout the piece, she explains why immigrants choose to leave their homes in search of a better life in a new country.

 

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

 

The poem does a beautiful job of sparking empathy in readers who may not otherwise understand what is going on inside an immigrant’s head. And if one poem can do that, imagine what an entire book can do. Imagine if everyone who condemns immigrants took the time to read an immigration story. Stories like the thirteen listed below have the power to foster empathy and understanding, shedding light on the hardships immigrants face throughout their respective journeys. 

 

1. Barefoot Heart: Stories of a Migrant Child by Elva Treviño Hart

 

Barefoot Heart Cover

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“A vividly told autobiographical account of the life of a child growing up in a family of migrant farm workers. It brings to life the day-to-day existence of people facing the obstacles of working in the fields and raising a family in an environment that is frequently hostile to those who have little education and speak another language. Assimilation brings its own problems, as the original culture is attenuated and the quality of family relationships is compromised, consequences that are not inevitable but are instead a series of choices made along the way. It is also the story of how the author overcame the disadvantages of this background and found herself.”

 

2. When I was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago

 

When I was Puerto Rican

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“In a childhood full of tropical beauty and domestic strife, poverty and tenderness, Esmeralda Santiago learned the proper way to eat a guava, the sound of tree frogs, the taste of morcilla, and the formula for ushering a dead baby’s soul to heaven. But when her mother, Mami, a force of nature, takes off to New York with her seven, soon to be eleven children, Esmeralda, the oldest, must learn new rules, a new language, and eventually a new identity. In the first of her three acclaimed memoirs, Esmeralda brilliantly recreates her tremendous journey from the idyllic landscape and tumultuous family life of her earliest years, to translating for her mother at the welfare office, and to high honors at Harvard.”

 

3. Tis: A Memoir by Frank McCourt

 

Tis: A Memoir Cover

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Tis is the story of Frank’s American journey from impoverished immigrant to brilliant teacher and raconteur. Frank lands in New York at age nineteen, in the company of a priest he meets on the boat. He gets a job at the Biltmore Hotel, where he immediately encounters the vivid hierarchies of this “classless country,” and then is drafted into the army and is sent to Germany to train dogs and type reports. It is Frank’s incomparable voice—his uncanny humor and his astonishing ear for dialogue—that renders these experiences spellbinding. 

When Frank returns to America in 1953, he works on the docks, always resisting what everyone tells him, that men and women who have dreamed and toiled for years to get to America should “stick to their own kind” once they arrive. Somehow, Frank knows that he should be getting an education, and though he left school at fourteen, he talks his way into New York University. There, he falls in love with the quintessential Yankee, long-legged and blonde, and tries to live his dream. But it is not until he starts to teach—and to write—that Frank finds his place in the world. The same vulnerable but invincible spirit that captured the hearts of readers in Angela’s Ashes comes of age.”

 

4. The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea 

 

The Devil's Highway Book Cover

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“In May 2001, a group of men attempted to cross the Mexican border into the desert of southern Arizona, through the deadliest region of the continent, the “Devil’s Highway.” Three years later, Luis Alberto Urrea wrote about what happened to them.”

 

5. The Jew Store by Stella Suberman 

 

The Jew Store Book Cover

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The Jew Store is that rare thing–an intimate family story that sheds new light on a piece of American history. Here is one man’s family with a twist–a Jew, born into poverty in pre-revolutionary Russia and orphaned from birth, finds his way to America, finds a trade, finds a wife, and sets out to find his fortune in a place where Jews are unwelcome. With a novelist’s sense of scene, suspense, and above all, characterization, Stella Suberman turns the clock back to a time when rural America was more peaceful but no less prejudiced, when educated liberals were suspect, and when the Klan was threatening to outsiders. In that setting, she brings to life her remarkable father, a man whose own brand of success proves that intelligence, empathy, liberality, and decency can build a home anywhere. The Jew Store is a heartwarming—even inspiring—story.”

 

6. Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina by Raquel Cepeda

 

Bird of Paradise Book Cover

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“In 2009, when Raquel Cepeda almost lost her estranged father to heart disease, she was terrified she’d never know the truth about her ancestry. Every time she looked in the mirror, Cepeda saw a mystery—a tapestry of races and ethnicities that came together in an ambiguous mix. With time running out, she decided to embark on an archaeological dig of sorts by using the science of ancestral DNA testing to excavate everything she could about her genetic history.”

 

7. Paper Daughter by M. Elaine Mar

 

Paper Daughter cover

Image via HarperCollins 

 

“When she was five years old, M. Elaine Mar and her mother emigrated from Hong Kong to Denver to join her father in a community more Chinese than American, more hungry than hopeful. While working with her family in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant and living in the basement of her aunt’s house, Mar quickly masters English and begins to excel in school. But as her home and school life–Chinese tradition and American independence—become two increasingly disparate worlds, Mar tries desperately to navigate between them. Adolescence and the awakening of her sexuality leave Elaine isolated and confused. She yearns for store-bought clothes and falls for a red-haired boy who leads her away from the fretful eyes of her family. In his presence, Elaine is overcome by the strength of her desire—blocking out her family’s visions of an arranged marriage in Hong Kong. From surviving racist harassment in the schooI yard to trying to flip her straight hair like Farrah Fawcett, from hiding her parents’ heritage to arriving alone at Harvard University, Mar’s story is at once an unforgettable personal journey and an unflinching, brutal look at the realities of the American Dream.”

 

8. The Lost Boys of Sudan by Mark Bixler

 

Lost Boys of Sudan book cover

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“In 2000 the United States began accepting 3,800 refugees from one of Africa’s longest civil wars. They were just some of the thousands of young men, known as “Lost Boys,” who had been orphaned or otherwise separated from their families in the chaos of a brutal conflict that has ravaged Sudan since 1983. The Lost Boys of Sudan focuses on four of these refugees. Theirs, however, is a typical story, one that repeated itself wherever the Lost Boys could be found across America.”

 

9. Out of Place by Edward W. Said

 

Out of Place book cover

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From one of the most important intellectuals of our time comes an extraordinary story of exile and a celebration of an irrecoverable past. A fatal medical diagnosis in 1991 convinced Edward Said that he should leave a record of where he was born and spent his childhood, and so with this memoir he rediscovers the lost Arab world of his early years in Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt. Said writes with great passion and wit about his family and his friends from his birthplace in Jerusalem, schools in Cairo, and summers in the mountains above Beirut, to boarding school and college in the United States, revealing an unimaginable world of rich, colorful characters and exotic eastern landscapes. Underscoring all is the confusion of identity the young Said experienced as he came to terms with the dissonance of being an American citizen, a Christian and a Palestinian, and, ultimately, an outsider. Richly detailed, moving, often profound, Out of Place depicts a young man’s coming of age and the genesis of a great modern thinker.”

 

10. Love, Loss, and What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi

 

love loss and what we ate book cover

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“Long before Padma Lakshmi ever stepped onto a television set, she learned that how we eat is an extension of how we love, how we comfort, how we forge a sense of home—and how we taste the world as we navigate our way through it. Shuttling between continents as a child, she lived a life of dislocation that would become habit as an adult, never quite at home in the world. And yet, through all her travels, her favorite food remained the simple rice she first ate sitting on the cool floor of her grandmother’s kitchen in South India.

Poignant and surprising, Love, Loss, and What We Ate is Lakshmi’s extraordinary account of her journey from that humble kitchen, ruled by ferocious and unforgettable women, to the judges’ table of Top Chef and beyond. It chronicles the fierce devotion of the remarkable people who shaped her along the way, from her headstrong mother who flouted conservative Indian convention to make a life in New York, to her Brahmin grandfather—a brilliant engineer with an irrepressible sweet tooth—to the man seemingly wrong for her in every way who proved to be her truest ally. A memoir rich with sensual prose and punctuated with evocative recipes, it is alive with the scents, tastes, and textures of a life that spans complex geographies both internal and external.”

 

11. To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America by Tara Bahrampour

 

To See and See Again book cover

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“A compelling and intimate exploration of the complexity of a bicultural immigrant experience, To See and See Againtraces three generations of an Iranian (and Iranian-American) family undergoing a century of change–from the author’s grandfather, a feudal lord with two wives; to her father, a freespirited architect who marries an American pop singer; to Bahrampour herself, who grows up balanced precariously between two cultures and comes of age watching them clash on the nightly news.”

 

12. Polite Lies by Mori Kyoko 

 

Polite Lies book cover

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“Creative writing professor Mori offers a poignant portrait of her dichotomous life: a childhood in Japan and an adulthood in the American Midwest. These 12 personal essays show the insight evident in Mori’s previous works. “Polite lies” refers to the imbalance present in the two cultures and the resulting balance Mori establishes for herself and her readers with wit and warmth. Topics include family, secrets, the body, and tears.”

 

13. The Wind Doesn’t Need a Passport: Stories from the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands by Tyche Hendricks

 

The Wind Doesn't Need a Passport book cover

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“Award-winning journalist Tyche Hendricks has explored the U.S.-Mexico borderlands by car and by foot, on horseback, and in the back of a pickup truck. She has shared meals with border residents, listened to their stories, and visited their homes, churches, hospitals, farms, and jails. In this dazzling portrait of one of the least understood and most debated regions in the country, Hendricks introduces us to the ordinary Americans and Mexicans who live there―cowboys and Indians, factory workers and physicians, naturalists and nuns. A new picture of the borderlands emerges, and we find that this region is not the dividing line so often imagined by Americans, but is a common ground alive with the energy of cultural exchange and international commerce, burdened with too-rapid growth and binational conflict, and underlain with a deep sense of history.”

 

 

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