Six great novels about migration and dislocation
James Kidd rounds up six other novels that tell of great tales of migration.
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers
Xiaolu Guo’s first English-language novel follows the adventures of Z, a 20-year-old woman who swaps her life in a small Chinese town to study English in London. She encounters strange customs, stranger food, and an attractive older man with more baggage than the carousel at “Healthlow” airport, as Z initially calls it. Guo’s smart trick is to narrate Z gradual acclimatisation through her growing linguistic prowess. “Why I must to study English like parents wish? I not knowing what I needing.” These faltering sentences convey Z’s cultural dislocation more eloquently than many entire novels.
The Year of Runaways
Sunjeev Sahota’s second novel, which was shortlisted for 2015’s Man Booker, is constructed around a triumvirate of “freshy” migrant workers – Tarlochan (Tochi), Randeep and Avtar – living in Sheffield. Early chapters detail their lives before travelling to England: Tochi is an untouchable-turned-illegal-immigrant-turned-manual-labourer; the more affluent Randeep seeks a brighter future with his “Visa bride”, Narinder; Avtar is a student with little inclination for study. Sahota is acute both to the strangeness of the new environment, and the way that old hierarchies, customs and tragedies endure thousands of miles away from India.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Fourth Estate, Dh29
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel is a story of star-crossed lovers separated not by warring families, but the world itself. Ifemelu and Obinze are a bright couple whose romance is interrupted by Ifemelu’s decision to study at college in America. Obinze later travels to England, on the run from what Adichie calls the “oppressive lethargy of choicelessness”. Like Sahota, Adichie is alive to the hysterical headlines depicting nations drowning beneath tsunamis of immigrants and refugees. What elevates Americanah, which won 2013’s prestigious National Book Critics Circle award, is its eye for a telling detail.
Faber & Faber, Dh36
“My father had wanted to emigrate to the West ever since he was in his early twenties … His wish was born out of self-loathing. Often when he walked down a street in India, he would feel that the buildings he passed were indifferent to him, that he mattered so little to them that he might as well not have been born.” Akhil Sharma’s award-winning second novel follows the Mishra family’s experience of joy and pain in New York. Our narrator is Ajay, whose sharp eye for detail conveys the glorious alienation of immigrant life. Through his vivid perspective, even parking meters shimmer with interest: “Upright proper, brave, waiting for a coin so they could come to life.”
Arrow Books, Dh36
There are many contenders for the Great American Novel about immigration: My American Life by Francine Prose, Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep. How about Mario Puzo’s seminal blockbuster, which follows the rise of the ultimate Italian-American “Family”? Vito Corleone famously earned his name at Ellis Island. In the novel, it is a gesture of sentiment: “He changed his name to Corleone to preserve some tie with his native village.” You can take the boy out of Sicily, but as the ruthless Vito proves, you can’t take Sicily out of the boy. Employing the code and methods of his birthplace, he builds an empire that aspires to the power of his adopted home, and parodies it too.
Restless Books, March 16, Dh55
“I come from an Indian family. There are certain expectations. You are supposed to be talking to a physician now, but you’re not,” writer Deepak Unnikrishnan told The National last year. The 35-year-old had just become the recipient of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing; a US$10,000 (Dh36,727) annual prize awarded to writers who are first-generation residents of the United States. Set to be published next month, Unnikrishnan’s fantastical short stories set in Abu Dhabi explore South Asian workers’ shifting linguistic and cultural identities, against a pervasive longing for home.
Updated: February 9, 2017 04:00 AM