America is defined by waves of immigration, with each individual story constituting a precious thread in its long and complicated history. From the European explorers who claimed an inhabited continent as their own to refugees fleeing the violence and turmoil of their war-torn homelands, immigration has never been easy. But beyond the politics of the moment, these immigration stories are our stories, encapsulating all the joy, hope, pain, uncertainty, tragedy, and courage of American history. And when told through the first-hand experiences of an immigrant, they blend vulnerability, strength, and trauma to tell an authentic story. Come along to discover some truly powerful immigration memoirs.
The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil
In this devastatingly beautiful memoir, Clemantine provokes us to look beyond the label of “victim” and recognize the power of the imagination to transcend even the most profound injuries and aftershocks.
Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when her mother and father began to speak in whispers when neighbors began to disappear, and when she heard the loud, ugly sounds her brother said were thunder. In 1994, she and her fifteen-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years migrating through seven African countries. Searching for safety—perpetually hungry, imprisoned, and abused they endured and escaped refugee camps, found unexpected kindness, and witnessed inhuman cruelty. They did not know whether their parents were dead or alive.
When Clemantine was twelve, she and her sister were granted refugee status in the United States; there, in Chicago, their lives diverged. Though their bond remained unbreakable, Claire, who had for so long protected and provided for Clemantine, was a single mother struggling to make ends meet, while Clemantine was taken in by a family who raised her as their own. She seemed to live the American dream: attending private school, taking up cheerleading, and, ultimately, graduating from Yale. Yet, the years of being treated as less than human, of going hungry and seeing death, could not be erased. She felt at the same time six years old and one hundred years old.
Call Me American by Abdi Nor Iftin
Now a proud resident of Maine on the path to citizenship, Abdi Nor Iftin’s dramatic, deeply stirring memoir is truly a story for our time: a vivid reminder of why America still beckons to those looking to make a better life.
Growing up in Somalia, Abdi Nor Iftin was so obsessed with American pop culture that his friends called him “Abdi American.” Action movies were a refuge from the civil war ravaging his country, but when Islamic fundamentalists came to power, anyone associated with the U.S. was viewed with suspicion. But when U.S. marines landed in Mogadishu to take on the warlords, Abdi cheered the arrival of these Americans, who seemed as heroic as those of the movies.
Sporting American clothes and dance moves, he became known around Mogadishu as Abdi American, but when the radical Islamist group al-Shabaab rose to power in 2006, it became dangerous to celebrate Western culture. Desperate to make a living, Abdi used his language skills to post secret dispatches, which found an audience of worldwide listeners. Eventually, though, Abdi was forced to flee to Kenya. In an amazing stroke of luck, Abdi won entrance to the U.S. in the annual visa lottery, though his route to America did not come easily
Undocumented by Dan-el Padilla Peralta
Now an Oxford-trained classicist, Peralta makes a powerful case against the idea that undocumented immigrants have nothing of value to add to America.
As a boy, Dan-el Padilla Peralta came here legally with his family. Together they left Santo Domingo behind, but life in New York City was harder than they imagined. Their visas lapsed, and Dan-el’s father returned home. But Dan-el’s courageous mother was determined to make a better life for her bright sons. Without papers, she faced tremendous obstacles.
While Dan-el was only in grade school, the family lost their home and began living life in a downtown shelter where Dan-el’s only refuge was the meager library. There he met Jeff, a young volunteer from a wealthy family. Jeff was immediately struck by Dan-el’s passion for books and learning. With Jeff’s help, Dan-el was accepted on scholarship to Collegiate, the oldest private school in the country.
Throughout his youth, Dan-el navigated these two worlds: the rough streets of East Harlem, where he lived with his brother and his mother and tried to make friends, and the ultra-elite halls of a Manhattan private school, where he could immerse himself in a world of books and where he soon rose to the top of his class. Dan-el went to Princeton, where he thrived and where he made the momentous decision to come out as an undocumented student in a Wall Street Journal profile a few months before he gave the salutatorian’s traditional address in Latin at his commencement.
Belonging by Nora Krug
In this extraordinary quest, Krug erases the boundaries between comics, scrapbooking, and collage as she endeavors to make sense of 20th-century history, the Holocaust, her German heritage, and her family’s place in it all.
Born three decades after the end of the Holocaust, Nora Krug left Germany shortly after college and eventually settled in New York City. Living abroad, she longed for the familiar comforts of her youth while recognizing that she often felt ashamed to be German.
Compelled to face the past—in particular, her family’s role in WWII—more directly, Krug reimagines the family scrapbook to include her uncle’s death on an Italian battlefield and her grandfather’s membership in the Nazi party, facts that had been hidden from her during her childhood. Her drawings of journal entries, letters, photographs, and maps feel official and stunningly intimate at the same time, revealing that sometimes it’s only with the benefit of distance that we can see the truth about where we came from.
Once I Was You by Maria Hinojosa
This memoir represents an urgent call to fellow Americans to open their eyes to the immigration crisis and understand that it affects us all. It paints a vivid portrait of how we got here and what it means to be a survivor, a feminist, a citizen, and a journalist who owns her voice while striving for the truth.
Maria Hinojosa is an award-winning journalist who, for nearly thirty years, has reported on stories and communities in America that often go ignored by the mainstream media—from tales of hope in the South Bronx to the unseen victims of the War on Terror and the first detention camps in the US. Bestselling author Julia Álvarez has called her “one of the most important, respected, and beloved cultural leaders in the Latinx community.”
In Once I Was You, Maria shares her intimate experience growing up Mexican American on the South Side of Chicago. She offers a personal and illuminating account of how the rhetoric around immigration has not only long informed American attitudes toward outsiders but also sanctioned willful negligence and profiteering at the expense of our country’s most vulnerable populations—charging us with the broken system we have today.
Sigh, Gone by Phuc Tran
Sigh, Gone explores one man’s bewildering experiences of abuse, racism, and tragedy and reveals redemption and connection in books and punk rock.
In 1975, during the fall of Saigon, Phuc Tran immigrates to America along with his family. By sheer chance, they land in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, a small town where the Trans struggle to assimilate into their new life. In this coming-of-age memoir, told through the themes of great books such as The Metamorphosis, The Scarlet Letter, The Iliad, and more, Tran navigates the push and pull of finding and accepting himself despite the challenges of immigration, feelings of isolation, and teenage rebellion, all while attempting to meet the rigid expectations set by his immigrant parents.
Against the hairspray-and-synthesizer backdrop of the ‘80s, he finds solace and kinship in the wisdom of classic literature, and in the subculture of punk rock, he finds affirmation and echoes of his disaffection. In his journey for self-discovery, Tran ultimately finds refuge and inspiration in the art that shapes—and ultimately saves—him.
Fairest by Meredith Talusan
Fairest follows Meredith’s journey from being born in the rural Philippines with albinism to her journey to America, where she eventually attends Harvard and transitions to become a woman.
Coping with the strain of parental neglect and the elusive promise of U.S. citizenship, Talusan found comfort from her devoted grandmother, a grounding force as she was treated by others with special preference or public curiosity. As an immigrant to the United States, Talusan came to be perceived as white, and further access to elite circles of privilege required Talusan to navigate through the complex spheres of race, class, sexuality, and queerness.
Questioning the boundaries of gender, Talusan realized she did not want to be confined to a prescribed role as a man and transitioned to become a woman, despite the risk of losing a man she deeply loved. Throughout her journey, Talusan shares poignant and powerful episodes of desirability and love that will remind readers of works such as Call Me By Your Name and Giovanni’s Room.
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