The Books Briefing: What Stories About Immigration Reveal About America

The beauty of fragmented, incomplete narratives: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Queens, New York in 2005
Queens, New York in 2005 (Alex Webb / Magnum)

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. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

illustration of the cover of "Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen"

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.”

Fresh fruit sold by a mountainside vendor in Jamaica, the setting of many stories in Alexia Arthurs's new collection

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.”

cover of Jérôme Ruillier's "The Strange"

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.”

photo of Laila Lalami

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.”

photograph of the skyline near the Statue of Liberty

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.”

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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