Jhumpa Lahiri, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Indian-American author, has become known for her fiction exploring the Indian immigrant experience in America. In Other Words is a departure in many ways: it is mostly a book of essays (and two short stories); and Lahiri wrote it in Italian.

This is a short book. The English text (translated by Ann Goldstein) is printed on the right-hand pages, while the original Italian is on the left, which makes the actual text only about 100 pages long. The essays explore Lahiri’s quest to learn Italian, her love of the language and the country, and her decision to write in Italian.

The book reveals Lahiri as an intensely private person who is uncomfortable with the fame that has been thrust upon her. She writes about receiving the Pulitzer Prize for her first published book in English: “I became a writer in English. And then, rather precipitously, I became a famous writer. I received a prize that I was sure I did not deserve, that seemed to me a mistake. Although it was an honor, I remained suspicious of it. . . . But a year after my first book was published I lost my anonymity” (p. 167).

She turns to Italian, in part, in order to regain the freedom of anonymity. After studying the language for 20 years, she and her family move to Rome. She begins to keep a diary in Italian, and then to write the short essays that make up this book. Here is a passage from the essay “The Imperfect”:

As a girl in America, I tried to speak Bengali perfectly, without a foreign accent, to satisfy my parents, and above all to feel that I was completely their daughter. But that was impossible. On the other hand, I wanted to be considered an American, yet, despite the fact that I speak English perfectly, that was impossible, too. I was suspended rather than rooted. . . . Here it Italy, where I’m very comfortable, I feel more imperfect than ever. . . . Why, as an adult, as a writer, am I interested in this new relationship with imperfection? What does it offer to me? I would say a stunning clarity, a more profound self-awareness. Imperfection inspires invention, imagination, creativity. It stimulates. The more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive. (pp. 111-113).

The two short stories included are unlike any stories I remember reading by her. First of all, they are not specifically about Indian-Americans or India. The characters’ ethnicity is not defined. Second, the stories have a dream-like quality (and one of them is actually about a dream). They have a magical realist flavor although I can’t point to any prominent magical or fantasy elements in them.

The writing in this book is simple and spare, but at the same time deeply felt. It is a raw exploration of the struggle to express oneself honestly and the freedom to create, unconstrained by expectations.

I first “met” David Good about two decades ago through his father’s book, Into The Heart: One Man’s Pursuit of Love and Knowledge Among the Yanomami. David is the son of anthropologist Kenneth Good, who married Yarima, from a Yanomami tribe, and brought her to live with him in New Jersey. They had three children (David is the oldest) before Yarima decided she could no longer live cut off from her own people, and decided to return to her tribe in the rainforest of Venezuela. David was only five years old when his mother left.

I read Into The Heart multiple times, and pored over the pictures: Yarima in the rainforest, almost naked, face painted and decorated with sticks; Yarima in New Jersey, wearing Western clothes, her hair permed; Kenneth Good in the jungle, a huge, hairy white man in his underwear, among the compact, tan Yanomami; Kenneth Good, college professor in New Jersey, hanging out with his cross-cultural family. I was fascinated by the story of two people from very different backgrounds learning about and reacting to each other’s worlds, and trying to create a life together. I also wondered how the children would fare. Now, with David Good’s book (The Way Around: Finding My Mother and Myself Among the Yanomami) I finally have an answer.

Once Yarima decided to stay in the rainforest, her American family had no contact with her. David was devastated, but tried to hide his pain as he was growing up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He even began telling people that his mother was dead. He longed to be a “typical” American boy, and was terrified of people finding out the truth: that his mother lived in a jungle and ate tarantulas. To numb his feelings, he drank heavily in high school. Finally, in college, he began to come to terms with his heritage and, once he graduated, decided to make a trip to the Amazon jungle to find his mother.

David finds not only his mother, but also his half-brother and many uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews. During his months in the jungle, he learns to fish, clear land, and shoot with a bow and arrow. He begins to re-learn the language. Despite the difficulties of living in the jungle (lots of bugs, flash storms, and unexpected injuries), he finds a feeling of deep peace and belonging.

Parts of this book are funny. When David arrived in his mother’s village, almost the first thing she did (after crying for joy) was to present him with two “wives”. These young women were already married to other men, but that was no barrier. The women tried to persuade him to perform his husbandly duty so he could give his mother a Yanomami grandchild. He tried just as hard to persuade them that, while he enjoyed their company, he wasn’t interested in being their husband.

This unique memoir sheds light in a compelling, poignant way on the underlying humanity we all share. David Good has set up an organization, The Good Project, dedicated to the cultural preservation of the Yanomami people.

Quicksand, first published in 1928, is a classic novel of the Harlem Renaissance. When I began to read it, I realized it should also be considered a classic of second generation immigrant literature. Larsen’s white mother was an immigrant from Denmark, and her black father (who disappeared soon after her birth) was probably from the West Indies.

Larsen’s autobiographical novel follows Helga Crane, who was raised by her Danish mother and step-father. We first meet Helga when she is a young woman working at an all-black college in the South. Her mother is dead, and she doesn’t know her father, a black man. She is disgusted with the college’s philosophy of keeping blacks “in their places” and separate from whites.

She finally decides to quit in the middle of the term and to return to Chicago to her mother’s brother, Uncle Peter, who had supported her after her mother’s death. However, when she reaches Uncle Peter’s house, she finds that he has married, and that his wife doesn’t want him to have anything to do with his dusky-skinned niece.

Her search for a place to belong takes her to Harlem, where she finds a job at a black insurance company. While she enjoys the company of blacks, she doesn’t want to shun whites, as many black people made it a point to do.

An inheritance from Uncle Peter gives her the money to travel to Denmark to stay with her mother’s sister. She is greatly admired in Copenhagen, but realizes that she is seen as an exotic being more than as a fellow human. Spurning the advances of a famous artist who paints her and then wishes to marry her, she realizes she misses black life and culture, and ends up back in Harlem.

“How absurd she had been to think that another country, other people, could liberate her from the ties which bound her forever to these mysterious, these terrible, these fascinating, these lovable, dark hordes,” she thinks to herself upon her return. Yet she also insists that “existence in America, even in Harlem, was for Negroes too cramped, too uncertain, too cruel.” She thinks she cannot stay permanently in Harlem, “nor, she saw now, could she remain away. Leaving, she would have to come back.”

Although the ending of this novel seems hurried and false, the rest of the novel gives us a fascinating portrait of an intelligent, somewhat aloof woman caught between two races and countries, and who longs for a place to call home.

Although Marie Lee is not adopted (she grew up in Minnesota to parents who are immigrants from Korea), she began writing stories about a fictional young woman, Sarah, who was adopted from Korea into a white Minnesota family. These stories eventually became the novel Somebody’s Daughter. Woven into Sarah’s narrative is the tale of her birth mother, whom Sarah is searching for during a year abroad in Korea.

Sarah is angry at her white parents for trying to avoid any talk of Korea. She refuses to call them “Mom” and “Dad,” instead referring to them by their first names. She drops out of college and decides on a whim to spend a year in Korea, in a program for young people of Korean heritage. I found Sarah to be immature and self-absorbed (an impression which is perhaps heightened because her sections are told in first person). Still, I was still interested in her journey to find her roots.

She struggles with the language, since most of the other students in the program have Korean parents and are already somewhat familiar with the language. I was puzzled by the fact that almost all the other students reject her because she is adopted. She does make friends with one young man who is half-Korean.

The sections of the novel devoted to Kyung-Sook (Sarah’s birth mother) are told in third person, and take the reader back in time to the Korean War. Lee interviewed Korean birth mothers as part of her research, and from these interviews she creates a sympathetic character in Kyung-Sook, who has to struggle for her every meal.

Sarah attempts to find her birth mother by visiting the orphanage where she was abandoned. There, she finds something shocking about her birth which could explain her parents’ reluctance to bring up the subject of Korea. She also appears on a Korean television show devoted to reuniting family members.

I don’t want to reveal whether or not Sarah connects with Kyung-Sook. The twists and turns of the story are interesting. In the end, Sarah returns to the United States a more mature young woman. And in the end, I learned a little bit about life in Korea.

The Chosen was a huge best-seller when first published in 1967. I’d been meaning to read it for years, and when I finally got to it, I wasn’t disappointed.

Potok’s parents were Hasidic Jews from eastern Europe. Potok was born and raised in New York City, and became an ordained rabbi. According to Potok’s obituary in the New York Times, The Chosen “was the first American novel to make the fervent, insular Hasidic world visible to a wide audience.”

The novel follows the adolescence of two Jewish boys, one who is Hasidic (Danny) and one who is orthodox but not Hasidic (Reuven). They befriend each other after Danny hits Reuven with a baseball during a fiercely played game between their schools. The novel is really about Danny’s painful dilemma of being stuck between two worlds, but it is told through the eyes of Reuven, whose father is more liberal. Danny is expected to follow his father’s footsteps and become the rabbi of his tight-knit Hasidic community, but he secretly reads secular books in the public library and dreams of becoming a psychologist.

The novel manages to be gripping even while including long passages of lecturing. Chapter 6, for example, is basically a 10-page-long lecture by Reuven’s father on the origin of Hasidic Judaism. Nevertheless, I found it interesting, especially because Jewish history and verbal explanations seem an integral part of the culture. Even though I’m not Jewish and have never studied the Talmud (commentary on the Torah), I was fascinated by a dialogue on the Talmud between Danny and his father.

The most touching part of the book is towards the end, when Danny’s father, Reb Saunders, reveals that he has known for some time that his son would leave their community. Reb Saunders’ five-page lecture about his hopes and fears for Danny was so emotionally wrenching that I found myself sobbing, and could hardly see the words on the page.

The story of Danny and Reuven and their fathers opens a window into a way of life that many of us are not familiar with.

This unusual memoir is subtitled: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents. Hajratwala’s family originated in five villages in Gujarat, a western state of India. In her great-grandparents’ and grandparents’ generations, ancestors migrated to Fiji and Africa. Her parents met in Fiji, and they in turn immigrated to the United States, with an interlude in New Zealand. Other relatives moved to Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and Hong Kong.

Hajratwala spent eight years interviewing almost 100 relatives, friends, and community members to write this book. The author is both a journalist and poet by profession, and this combination perhaps helps her breathe life into long-dead ancestors, and to weave their bits of stories into the larger historical picture.

She starts with the story of Motiram, who left his village, his wife, and his children to settle in Fiji and become a successful tailor. Connections with India were never severed, however, so money and people traveled back and forth. She continues with the story of Ganda, who as an 11-year-old boy traveled as a stowaway from India to South Africa, where he had relatives. He became a successful restaurant owner and invented a dish called “bunny chow,” which involves stuffing a small loaf of bread with curry.

I was expecting her to tell more of her own story as a lesbian South Asian woman growing up in New Zealand and Michigan. While she does touch on her story, she focuses much more on her relatives. Towards the end she tells a wrenching story of a migration that didn’t happen. Jaydeep, the son of her cousin, desperately wants to leave India and settle in the U.S. He begs Hajratwala and her family for help, and is frustrated that they are powerless to aid him in any concrete way.

Although this memoir is about one woman’s family, it is in fact in some ways the story of all of us. This particular family’s story illustrates the fact that migration is part of humanity.

This is one of my favorite memoirs. I read it years ago, and immediately bought a copy for my brother as well. I just read it again a few weeks ago, and loved it all over again. The first time I read it, I focused on the story of Negi (Esmeralda’s nickname) and her journey from the slums of Puerto Rico to the slums of Brooklyn, and then to the Performing Arts high school in New York City.

The second time I read this book, I was especially struck by Santiago’s sensory language. Here is the beginning of the first chapter: “We came to Macun when I was four, to a rectangle of rippled metal sheets on stilts hovering in the middle of a circle of red dirt. Our home was a giant version of the lard cans used to haul water from the public fountain. Its windows and doors were also metal, and, as we stepped in, I touched the wall and burned my fingers.” Negi helps her father tear up the house’s floor in order to fix it: “I followed him holding a can into which he dropped the straight nails, still usable. My fingers itched with a rust-colored powder, and when I licked them, a dry, metallic taste curled the tip of my tongue.”

And here is Negi’s first impression of Brooklyn: “Rain had slicked the streets into shiny, reflective tunnels lined with skyscrapers whose tops disappeared into the mist. Lampposts shed uneven silver circles of light whose edges faded to gray. An empty trash can chained to a parking meter banged and rolled from side to side, and its lid, also chained, flipped and flapped in the wind like a kite on a short string.”

The entire book is effortlessly sensory in a down-to-earth way. Negi’s play with her many siblings; her parents’ awful fighting; her family’s months of living in a floating house on a lagoon full of sewage; her hilarious interview for the Performing Arts high school; it’s all here in full-body detail.

Although this book ends with Negi’s acceptance to the Performing Arts high school, there is a sequel: Almost a Woman, about her life as a teenager and young adult. I remember enjoying this book as well.

Santiago published a third volume of memoir, The Turkish Lover, which I have not yet read.

Before I read Habibi, I assumed the title was the name of the main character. In fact, the word “habibi” means “darling” in Arabic. The main character, 14-year-old Liyana, explains that her Palestinian-born father “said it as good morning or tucked between sentences. He said it when they left for school. Whatever else happened, Liyana and Rafik were his darlings all day and they knew it” (p. 213).

Habibi tells the story of Liyana’s move with her family from St. Louis, Missouri to Jerusalem. Her father wants his children to know their Palestinian relatives. Her American-born mother, Susan, wants to see the country where Jesus lived. Nye herself is the daughter of a Palestinian father and an American mother.

Naomi Shihab Nye is well known for her poetry, and indeed this novel is written in a poetic manner. It strings together short vignettes of a few pages to reveal the wonder, and sometimes the terror, of everyday life in Palestine/Israel. This novel reminds me of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.

The book’s plot concerns how Liyana will adjust and adapt to this new country. More important than the plot, however, are the characters, the sensory details, and the spiritual and philophical insights Liyana gains.

One of the strongest characters in this book is Sitti, Liyana’s grandmother. Liyana’s father, a medical doctor, is skeptical of his mother’s magical stories and spiritual healing, but Liyana is fascinated. When Liyana invites her new Jewish boyfriend to the family’s village home, Sitti welcomes him enthusiastically, declaring “We have been waiting for you for a long time” (p. 258).

This beautiful novel is appropriate for middle school and high school students, but will be enjoyed by adults as well.

Brown Girl, Brownstones reminds me of Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence. Both are coming-of-age novels. In both novels, place is important: Lawrence’s rural coal-mining district in England, and Marshall’s Brooklyn, New York are described in intimate detail. Both main characters (Paul Morel and Selina Boyce) favor their opposite-gender parent. In both books, the main characters awaken sexually and search for their place in the world. Both novels are semi-autobiographical and as such tend not to have a strong plot or structure. They both have a stream-of-consciousness feeling. And with both novels, I found myself bogged down in the middle with the plethora of life details.

Selina Boyce is born into a family of immigrants from Barbados, and comes of age during the 1940s. Her mother is determined to make it in their new homeland by saving money to buy their Brooklyn brownstone. Her father dreams of returning to the family land in Barbados. The mother (Selina refers to her as “the mother” rather than “my mother”) succeeds at her single-minded goal, even indirectly causing the death of Selina’s beloved father, but loses her daughter’s love and respect for many years.

The novel is full of the texture of immigrant life in Brooklyn: the physical setting, the people, the cadence of the immigrants’ English. We meet Selina for the first time as she sits on the top-floor stair landing in her Brooklyn brownstone: “Her house was alive to Selina. She sat this summer afternoon on the upper landing on the top floor, listening to its shallow breathing–a ten-year-old girl with scuffed legs and a body as straggly as the clothes she wore. A haze of sunlight seeping down from the skylight through the dust and dimness of the hall caught her wide full mouth, the small but strong nose, the eyes set deep in the darkness of her face” (p. 4).

As she grows up and attends college outside of her neighborhood, Selina becomes aware of how she is viewed by white people of privilege. Although she disdains her mother’s economic ambitions, Selina joins a Barbadian community association with the sole purpose of winning scholarship money to share with her unemployed boyfriend. However, when she is offered the scholarship, she admits her duplicitous behavior, declines the money, breaks up with the boyfriend, and decides to work on a Caribbean cruise ship.

Brown Girl, Brownstones is a rich book, to be savored slowly.

My Antonia is one of my all-time favorite novels. Although it is not written by a child of immigrants, it is about children of immigrants.

The story is told by a bystander, Jim Burden, just 10 years old when he meets 13-year-old Antonia, traveling with her family from Bohemia to the prairies of Nebraska. As Jim’s grandparents help Antonia’s family get settled, Jim becomes fascinated by the quick, bright, willful Antonia.

In high school, Jim prefers to socialize with the poor immigrant girls from Scandinavia and eastern Europe, rather than with girls of his own social class. He loves the strength and vigor of the immigrant girls, whereas he comments about the local girls that “when one danced with them their bodies never moved inside their clothes; their muscles seemed to ask but one thing–not to be disturbed” (p. 173).

Although Antonia is clearly the heroine, Jim also tells the stories of Lena, a poor, beautiful daughter of Norwegian immigrants who was burdened with helping her parents care for a brood of younger children; Tiny, who escapes farm life to work in a hotel; and the “three Marys,” children of Danish immigrants who work in a laundry.

Jim’s and Antonia’s lives diverge sharply when Jim leaves for college, and Antonia marries a fellow Bohemian and settles down to farm and raise children. Yet he never forgets her, and comes back to visit her years later.

This novel does not have a definite plot, yet the characters engage the reader so fully that no strong plot is needed. In fact, in the Introduction, Jim describes his story in this way: “I simply wrote down what of herself and myself and other people Antonia’s name recalls to me.”

This is a novel full of beauty and truth.