10 Great Novels About the Immigrant Experience


This week saw the release of Karolina Waclawiak’s debut novel How to Get Into the Twin Palms, a wonderful little book that made us fall in love with the idea of the immigrant novel all over again. A Polish émigré herself, Waclawiak’s tale is a twist on the traditional coming-to-America novel, her heroine an immigrant trying to pass as another kind of immigrant, testing the waters, in the LA heat. But off-center as it may be, the book got us thinking about some of our favorite novels about the immigrant experience, a few of which we’ve collected here — read through our list of great fictional immigrant and émigré stories after the jump, and as ever, if we’ve missed your own favorite, please add it to our list in the comments!

How to Get Into the Twin Palms , Karolina Waclawiak

In Karolina Waclawiak’s excellent, if slight, debut novel, Anya (not her real name) is a Polish immigrant in LA at odds with her heritage but not quite ready to embrace an American self either. What she really wants is to be Russian — though mostly so she can get into the glamorous-from-far-away Twin Palms, the Russian nightclub in her neighborhood. Clever and sometimes sad, Waclawiak’s book turns the traditional immigrant novel on its head, or maybe turns it inside out, or maybe just dyes its hair a nice shade of “Black Stilettos,” turning its ears black in the process.

Pnin , Vladimir Nabokov

Everything else aside, poor Professor Timofey Pnin is probably our favorite émigré of all time. Bumbling and bewildered, he makes his way unsteadily through his tenure at the fictional Waindell College, beleaguered at every turn by a set of tragicomic difficulties — not least the increasingly scornful narrator of the novel. Nabokov’s excellent storytelling and wordplay aside, as you watch Pnin fighting for respectability, or even a firm grasp on his surroundings, you can’t help but fall in love with him.

Call It Sleep , Henry Roth

Well, it’s right there on the cover. As Lis Harris said, this underrated classic is “arguably the most distinguished work of fiction ever written about immigrant life… Surely the most lyrically authentic novel in American literature about a young boy’s coming to consciousness.” The story of an Austrian-Jewish immigrant family living on the Lower East Side in the early 20th century, Roth’s 1934 novel is a piercing look at city life, depravity, and identity.

The Russian Debutante’s Handbook , Gary Shteyngart

Vladimir Girshkin just wants to figure out who he is — neurotic kid trying to prove his worth to his parents or Russian gangster — but he has a ways to go before he gets an inkling. Manic, often absurdist, and lots of fun, Shteyngart’s debut novel is also one of his best, told in his signature quirky, ironic tone with more than a hint of social commentary.

My Antonia , Willa Cather

We tend not to think of immigrant novels as taking place on the Nebraskan plain, but Cather’s elegy to American pioneers is one of our favorites — mostly for Ántonia Shimerda, the daughter of a Bohemian immigrant, a strong and willful woman trying to overcome not only her modest birth but her gender in this new strange country.

My New American Life , Francine Prose

In Prose’s most recent novel, a 26-year-old Albanian woman named Lula, at the tail-end of her visa, takes a job looking after a disaffected teenage boy in New Jersey. Life is cushy for a while, but that heritage of hers soon comes around, asking her to do it dangerous favors. Darkly comic and bittersweet, Prose paints a shrewd portrait of immigrant life post-9/11.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao , Junot Díaz

Somehow, Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel manages to be both a nonstop romp and a serious, far-reaching story all at once. Filled with increasingly clever slang, traditional Dominican curses (and counter-curses), and at least one bloodthirsty dictator, the novel chronicles the lives of Oscar, the chubby Dominican nerd, his runaway sister, Lola, and Yunior de Las Casas, our narrator as they grow up in New Jersey, both plagued and fulfilled by their national history.

The Namesake , Jhumpa Lahiri

It would be hard to put together a list like this without including everyone’s favorite writer of immigrant tales, Jhumpa Lahiri. The Namesake follows Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli from Calcutta to New York, where they — and eventually their son, Gogol — struggle to balance their American identities and their Indian ones. Beautifully written and clear as a bell, it’s one of the greats.

The Arrival , Shaun Tan

Tan’s phenomenally gorgeous, wordless graphic novel perfectly captures the feeling of wonder, displacement, and strangeness of an immigrant in a new land — and while scanning the unfamiliar faces and language, you may feel a similar experience while reading. Both magical and hyper-realistic at once, this book is a wonderful work of art, and poignant besides.

Middlesex , Jeffrey Eugenides

One doesn’t necessarily think of Eugenides’s masterpiece as being an immigrant novel first — mostly because it’s so many other things as well. But it is at heart the story of a family that came from Greece to Detroit, bringing quite a bit more than they expected — culture, curses, silkworms — along for the ride. We could also make the argument that Cal has a whole other sort of immigrant experience, suddenly abandoned in the land of boydom after a life bring a girl, but that may be an essay for another time.