I remember sitting in the far back of a 1991 Chevy Suburban with my family of six. The desert sun’s rays made the A/C useless in the 106 degree late-September heat. The cassette would flip over to the B-side of Abbey Road, and yet we’d only move a few feet. I was not yet five years-old and could not understand. Why did we have to wait in line for hours? The four entry booths looked similar to the toll booths on the highway.
My mother fanned me with a magazine and told me it wouldn’t be long. As we drew closer to the booth, she began to take each of our passports out and open them on a particular page. She asked my dad for the hundredth time if he had his work papers on him. He answered with a nod.
When we reached the booth, a man with pink cheeks and sunglasses came out. My dad handed him all of our passports and told us to roll the windows down. Then all of them held their breath except for me. I didn’t understand at the time but this was the day we emigrated to the US.
As children we are immune to the world of adults. We see ourselves able to roam through different terrains and spaces. We see faraway lands, but never believe they’re impossible or out of reach. It’s only as we begin to grow up that we start to notice the limitations that exist. Yet even as we’re told why land is divided and people are not allowed to go wherever they please, we don’t understand. Eventually we begin to conform to these ideas and forget we ever questioned them.
It’s only when we see the injustices done to those who leave, searching for solace from persecution, economic opportunities, or even a home after theirs is shattered by war, that we again see how ridiculous these manmade lines in the ground actually are. Some of us will experience the uncertainty of hoping this new territory will be kind and welcoming. There are those of us who will meet these newcomers, named the same way as extraterrestrial beings, only to realize they share feelings and dreams as we do. Then there are those who will be left behind, to see those we love leave our place of origin, never knowing if we’ll see them again.
Perhaps one day the past and the future generations will meet. The family from the old country will shake the hands of those born in the new land. They might no longer speak the same language or think the same way, yet they’ll share a bond that not even geography can break.
Here are five novels featuring the different aspects of migration:
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2003.
This novel, set in post-colonial Nigeria, features two different kinds of migration. The first occurs when Kambili and her brother are sent to their aunt’s home during a military coup. It’s in this new home where they find a different way of approaching the world and religion compared to their conservative and strict household. The second occurs when their aunt, a university professor, flees the country with her family to avoid being persecuted by the ruling party. However, the once meek and shy protagonist has found a new way to live her life and attempts to rebuild from what is left of her family.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, 2007.
A story of a family’s journey from leaving their roots in the Dominican Republic to finding their place in New Jersey, this novel is told from different points of view, as we learn what feeds the underlying sense of doom and uncertainty of the main character. A loss of identity and the search for heritage can drive people to places they never expected. But ultimately it’s knowing where you come from and where you’re headed to that makes all the difference between laying down new roots and perpetual wandering.
Shadow of the Dragon by Sherry Garland, 1993.
Adapting to a new place also means coming to terms with the alluring and dangerous elements this new land promises. Danny Vo is a Vietnamese-American in Houston who feels like he’s finally adapted to his new home. But when his cousin arrives in the US as a refugee from a prison-camp, he comes to realize that several things are still the same despite his familiarity to his second home. The comparison between the two cousins explains the different experience of migrants, particularly those who migrate young versus adults. The desire to belong is so strong that each will choose a different path, whether it’s through a gang or a romantic relationship with a white person who might not fully understand the challenges faced by their significant other.
From 1944 to 1945 a refugee camp was set up in Oswego, New York for Europeans, most of Jewish descent, fleeing the horrors of the Nazi party. This novel is told through the perspective of two teenagers: Adam, a Yugoslavian refugee, and Chris, a local resident. While their attraction seems harmless to them, they’ll both be tested for their friendship and eventual relationship. While Chris’s father constantly reproaches the people in the camp, Adam feels he’s responsible for keeping his family together. At one point he even says, "To many of you we are not people... we are a problem you have not solved."
Another novel about the Dominican Diaspora, this one revolves around the lives of four sisters. Through stories that weave between particular moments of one of them or include the entire García clan, the novel starts at the end, when the sisters are adults returning to their country of birth. As we slowly are told these communal biography backwards, we see the tensions between the traditional patriarch and his daughters, who perceive the world in a different way. After leaving the island as children, they grow up in New York to a different set of values compared to their family’s culture. However, it’s in the end, when past and future generations come together, that we as readers see that it doesn’t matter where you go, because your history will join you.
These are just some of the many books focused on the lives of migrants. In our current climate, where uncertainty clouds the struggles and hopes of those looking for a better life, these stories are vital ways of putting ourselves in their shoes. Because we never know when we ourselves might need shelter for our protection or personal development.