When he decided to write a memoir, the journalist Jose Antonio Vargas faced an overwhelming challenge: crafting a story that was particular to him while knowing that some might believe it represented a much broader narrative about immigration. In Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, he makes clear that he speaks only for himself. But he also fills the book with reporting on the many challenges other undocumented people face.
A comprehensive story of immigration is, of course, impossible to tell; even many individual stories are unfinished. To capture this complexity, many writers turn to fragmented styles that highlight multiple perspectives. In How to Love a Jamaican, the author Alexia Arthurs uses short stories to write about some of the different people across the Jamaican diaspora. The Strange, a graphic novel by Jérôme Ruillier, focuses on one protagonist, but tells his story in jumps and starts through the alternating perspectives of those he crosses paths with. Nine people narrate Laila Lalami’s novel The Other Americans, which depicts one immigrant family’s response to a tragic death in a country they came to for safety. As her characters grapple with the loss, they complicate ideas not only about immigration but also about the nature of America.
The novels Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue and The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang also follow immigrant families who, during the 2008 financial crisis, must contend with a different (and less prosperous) America than they expected. These books—like so many others—reveal just as much about the country the families came to as they do about immigration itself.
Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.
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What We’re Reading
What happens after you become the ‘most famous undocumented immigrant in America’
“Dear America is significant for its expression of individual difference within the overlapping experiences of undocumented people.”
📚 Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, by Jose Antonio Vargas
How to Love a Jamaican complicates the idea of home
“The book insists on the diversity of its titular population, partly through Arthurs’s choice of format: By offering a series of short stories rather than any single consolidated narrative—whether fictional or anthropological—Arthurs complicates the very idea of a unifying national identity.”
📚 How to Love a Jamaican, by Alexia Arthurs
The graphic novel that captures the anxieties of being undocumented
“As a formerly undocumented immigrant from the Philippines reading the book in America, I found The Strange to be both a stressful and remarkable read.”
📚 The Strange, by Jérôme Ruillier
How to belong in America
“The Other Americans is, on its face, a novel that traces the story of one immigrant family and the seemingly inexplicable tragedy that ruptures it. But through her many characters’ specific and overlapping perspectives, [Laila] Lalami also questions the feasibility of any centralized American identity.”
📚 The Other Americans, by Laila Lalami
Hope in the rubble of the American dream
“The project of these novels is inspired: to chronicle a period during which just about every American questioned the dream, and many watched it crumble, through the eyes of people who never considered its promise a birthright.”
📚 Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue
📚 The Wangs vs. the World, by Jade Chang
About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.
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