Best Books Telling Immigrant Stories: Our Year-End Recommendations

As the executive producer of “A Better Life?” — a ten-part podcast series from Feet in 2 Worlds — I spent much of my year listening to the stories of immigrants.

Our season chronicled a wide range of people’s experiences surviving this pandemic: from an undocumented Mexican housekeeper in Arizona fighting for her unpaid wages to a Somali-American city councilor in Maine reckoning with what it means to be a Black African immigrant in the country’s whitest state.

One might think that staying home to flatten the curve would’ve provided ample time for reading. But in such a tumultuous year, I found it almost impossible to finish a book. Still, there were a few that helped me get through.

I reached out to members of the Feet in 2 Worlds team to find out which stories stuck with them, and why. Here’s our list — by no means exhaustive — of the best books we read this year that touch on themes of immigration, belonging, and identity:

How Much of These Hills Is Gold  by C Pam Zhang

“This novel, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize, is about a Chinese family in the Old West. The sentences in it are so dazzling and original that I found myself re-reading passages again and again. It’s a corrective to the erasure of Asians from the history of the Old West and a book with incredible tenderness. I can’t recommend it enough.” — Zahir Janmohamed, host, A Better Life?

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

“Yaa Gyasi blew me away with her debut novel, Homegoing, which follows the descendants of two Asante sisters — one sold into slavery, the other not. Her second book, Transcendent Kingdom, is less of a sprawling epic, instead centering on the mental health journey of a Ghanian-American family in Alabama. I deeply felt for the main character, Gifty, as she struggles to care for her grieving mother and as a consequence, falls more deeply into her work as a PhD student investigating reward-seeking behavior in mice.” —Mia Warren, Fi2W 2020 Editing Fellow

How Does It Feel to Be Unwanted? Stories of Resistance and Resilience from Mexicans Living in the United States by Eileen Truax

“Eileen gets it! She shows us the real contrast of color, accents and challenges of the Mexican immigrant community in the U.S., even before Trump’s administration.” —Maritza L. Félix, creator of Conecta Arizona and a 2020 Fi2W Editing Fellow

Monstress by Lysley Tenorio

“Last year I covered the Ma-Yi Theatre Company’s musical production of Felix Starro,” written by the great Jessica Hagedorn with a score by Fabian Obispo. The show was based on a powerful short story of the same name by acclaimed Filipino American writer, Lysley Tenorio. That inspired me to seek out his award-winning 2012 collection, Monstress, which is full of haunting and unusual stories set in the Philippines and in the Filipino American communities in California. The writing beautifully expresses the unique melancholy, the hardship and isolation, the fraying family ties and the small pockets of solace and connection in these characters’ lives as they move through longing for home, and their new identities in America. —Jocelyn Gonzales, Senior Producer and Technical Director

Separated: Inside an American Tragedy by Jacob Soboroff

“This is a devastating account of the Trump administration’s child separation policy at the US border. I found Jake’s reporting powerful and honest, linking the personal and the political.” —Alejandro Salazar, Fi2W Development Coordinator

Year of the Dog by Deborah Paredez

“This incredible book of poetry re-contextualizes the Vietnam war through its protagonist’s Mexican-immigrant father, who is deployed. Through redefining cultural myths and folklore such as Hecuba and la llorona, Paredez’s work exemplifies the voices of immigrant women in times of social upheaval.” —Kenny Leon, intern

The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

“The Undocumented Americans gives voice to undocumented immigrants who often go unheard. This book is incredibly personal and intimate, and challenges the prejudice that often surrounds immigrants in political debates, especially in 2020. This personal account of what it is like to be undocumented in the United States is eye-opening and a worthwhile read.” —Anna Dilena, Assistant Producer, A Better Life?

You and I Eat the Same: On the Countless Ways Food and Cooking Connect Us to One Another by Chris Ying and René Redzepi

“This brilliant anthology of essays explores the ingredients, dishes, and cooking techniques that connect humans across the planet. I frequently assign this book in my classes, and it’s both deep and delightful.” —Von Diaz, Fi2W Advisory Board member

Fi2W is supported by The Ford Foundation, the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Ogden Foundation, the Listening Post Collective, an anonymous donor and readers like you.

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