5 Beautiful Immigrant Memoirs That Tug on the Heart

The American Dream is a dream every immigrant coming to the U.S. wants to achieve. Read on to find out what that dream really looks like for these immigrant authors.

Memoirs & Biographies Non-Fiction Recommendations
three immigrant non fiction book covers on a sunset background

The topic of immigration is a touchy subject. However, there is no denying that it’s so deeply rooted in American culture that it’s studied as a required course in many higher education institutions. And in those required readings, melancholy and bittersweet words written in many books can only describe the gut-wrenching experience immigrants face coming to the U.S. and adapting away from their old culture and identity.

However, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. These next nonfiction books written by authors who were immigrants tell their stories that’ll make you more compassionate about the immigrant experience than ever. Maybe not full-on tears, but these will make you feel things. From childhood to becoming adults and parents, these authors come to terms with their past and attempt to move toward a better future, their own American Dreams.

The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande

There are many reasons immigrants come to the US. Escaping from the war and politics of their original nation, some just come to raise money to take back home for their families. This unintentionally creates rifts in a family, and the longer one stays in the U.S., the longer the family left behind grows accustomed to feeling abandoned. That’s the case for Reyna Grande, whose parents left their children behind in Mexico to pursue the dream of saving enough money to build a house for the Grande family. All Reyna wanted was for her family to be whole again.

The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande, book cover.

Reyna’s father left the family at the age of two, and her mother left to meet with him at the age of four. This left a devastating impact on young Reyna as she and her siblings were left with a disagreeable grandmother, and a spoiled cousin, and were marked as orphans from their community. Throughout this, Reyna deeply craved the bond she had with her mother. Reyna shows the resilience and strength she has to pull forward towards her wish. This soulful journey of bonds and compassion is a must-read; as Goodreads reviewer Cynthia states, Reyna “is an incredibly insightful woman whose story represents great tragedy and the will to overcome it all.”

Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

Parental relationship with their children is significant, especially at a young age. In pursuing the American Dream, those relationships can easily crumble, becoming strangers as a result. Edwidge Danticat tells her story of when as a child, is left behind in Haiti by her parents as they go to Brooklyn, promising to bring Edwidge with them soon. Soon doesn’t come soon enough for her.

Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat book cover.

Luckily, Edwidge found parental warmth with someone else. The longer she stayed with her uncle Joseph, the more heartbreaking it was to leave him behind when at twelve, Edwidge joined her family in Brooklyn. She discovers a new set of family members, not knowing where or how she fits in, a clear line between her and her parents who she loves dearly. The worry and lament this author felt for the safety of those back in Haiti (during political turmoil), along with her swirling emotions on how to belong is distressing and leaves readers contemplating their own lives and rooting for the young Edwidge.

Beautiful Country: A Memoir of an Undocumented Childhood by Qian Julie Wang

From the title page, “How it Began,” readers can see how devastating life was during 1960’s China. Off the patriotic desire to speak one’s thoughts about their government’s bad state, Qian’s father dealt with many hardships caused by his older brother. Many years later, he faces the same shame that left him broken. Finding a new life in the U.S. was supposed to be easier and more alleviating. But the new change left Qian Julie Wang with more burdens to bear and fight through. The highest challenge: trying to bring her father back from the depths of his waning consciousness.

Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang, book cover.

Unfamiliar with a new setting, not knowing the English language, and not having any friends besides the bears in The Berenstain Bears children’s books, Qian Julie Wang has faced many challenges that other children immigrants can relate to as well as those trying to reconnect or get closer to family. This book is a delicate promise of things getting better in time through the simple acts in life, such as eating a mouthwatering slice of New York-style pizza.

What We Carry: A Memoir by Maya Shanbhag Lang

There are a lot of things we don’t know about our parents. Whether we decide to seek and ask questions, if we even get answers, as we grow, we come to realize our parents are not invincible, that they were separate from being a parent. In this memoir, Maya came to learn that lesson from her mother combating Alzheimer’s disease.

What We Carry by Maya Shanbhag Lang, book cover.

Immigrating from India to Manhattan, Maya deeply respects the courage her mother had to carry. Working a full-time career, being a mother, and dealing with a problematic marriage, all in a foreign place simultaneously. Maya hoped to emulate that same essence as Maya becomes a mother. With writing such as this: “Maybe at our most maternal, we aren’t mothers at all. We’re daughters, reaching back in time for the mothers we wish we’d had and then finding ourselves,” Maya gives a gentle understanding of what motherhood is that’ll resonate with every daughter and future mothers who decide to give this book a try.

Somewhere We Are Human: Authentic Voices on Migration, Survival, and New Beginnings by Reyna Grande, Sonia Guiñansaca, Viet Thanh Nguyen

In this collection of essays, poems, and artwork created by 41 immigrants, they showcase their creative abilities as a cry for wanting to be seen as humans like those born in the U.S., that they want to live for their futures and families in this country and have worked to the bone for it.

Somewhere We Are Human by Reyna Grande, Sonia Guiñansaca, Viet Thanh Nguyen, book cover.

In this raw representation of the immigrant experience, Grande, Guiñansaca, and Nguyen work together to spotlight the immigrant situation and ask those fearing it, “If America is great, then why is the humanity of anyone in question?” This will definitely leave you contemplating the immigration issue with a Goodreads reviewer, Justice McCray, stating, “…that “it’s easy to get in this country” or even that “it’s hard” does not begin to give space for the complexity of what being an immigrant (documented or undocumented) means. This is potent, eye-opening, and a testimony of humanity.”

It’s important to understand the other side of the story. Immigrants are people coming in for a better life to live, but sometimes the hardships they escaped from weigh too heavy to enjoy it. The main takeaway readers can conclude is to have compassion and empathy for the immigrant experience. it wasn’t easy for these authors to leave a whole life behind, and it wasn’t easy to assimilate into a new one.

Want to learn more about the immigrant experience? Click here for more recommendations.

For more nonfiction books, check out the Non-Fiction Titles for the Enlightened Mind on Bookshop.org