When I Was Puerto Rican 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.

I’ve been wanting to read Nilda for months, and when I finally got to it, I wasn’t disappointed. This coming-of-age novel for young adults follows Puerto Rican American Nilda from the ages of 10 to 14, during the 1940s. First published in 1973, and selected as a “Best Book of the Year” by the American Library Association, it was re-issued in 2011 by Arte Publico Press of Houston, Texas, which specializes in literature by Hispanic authors in the U.S.

I loved the character of Nilda. She is artistic and compassionate, yet often naive about the poverty-ridden, dangerous and sometimes tragic New York City barrio she lives in. She falls in love with her drug-dealing brother’s baby son, but once her sister-in-law leaves her brother, she never sees the baby again. She is shocked by the police brutality she witnesses.

Yet the book does not have a tragic or angry tone. In fact, it is filled with funny scenes, such as the anglo Spanish teacher at school who insists that the native Spanish speakers in the class have the wrong accent because they do not sound like Castilians from Spain. Nilda’s favorite memory is a “secret garden” of roses she discovers at a summer camp she attends. This garden is a link in her mind to the flowers her mother grew up around in Puerto Rico.

Like her character Nilda, Nicholasa Mohr was born in New York City to parents from Puerto Rico. She has written novels and stories for children and adults.

Marianthe’s Story is one of my favorite picture books. It’s actually two books in one. The first, Painted Memories, tells the story of Marianthe soon after she moves from Greece to the U.S. and starts school without knowing English. She finally manages to communicate through the pictures she draws, including one that reveals her hurt feelings at being teased and called names.

In the second story, Spoken Memories, Marianthe knows enough English to tell her classmates about her life in Greece: the war, the famine, and the joy of springtime and celebrations. The family decides to leave Greece to come to the U.S. so Mari and her siblings would have a good education.

Aliki Liacouras Brandenberg is a well-known author of many picture books. Like Mari, she started life with Greek as her first language. Unlike Mari, she was born in the U.S.

Fifth Chinese Daughter, first published in 1945, was one of the first memoirs by a Chinese-American. Wong chose to write in third person, rather than first person, because of Chinese habit, as she explains: “The submergence of the individual is literally practiced. In written Chinese, prose or poetry, the word ‘I’ almost never appears, but is understood” (p. xiii).

The third person point of view gives the memoir a formal feel, yet Wong’s simple, direct language is very accessible. In some ways, the book reminded me of the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder (also written in third person), partly because Wong spends a lot of time describing the food and customs she grew up around, and also because she gets to the heart of the matter in a succinct, simple, authentic way.

I thoroughly enjoyed the hours I spent reading this book. I read it slowly, savoring each anecdote of this honest and in some ways charming coming-of-age story. As a child, Wong frequently puzzled over the differences between her home life in San Francisco’s Chinatown, where her parents owned a home-based garment factory, and the wider American world. Wong tells of her realization that the very strict upbringing of her home, devoid of outward expressions of love, was not the norm in mainstream American society. When little Jade Snow got hurt at school, her teacher comforted her by holding her close and wiping away her tears: “It was a very strange feeling to be held to a grown-up foreign lady’s bosom,” Wong recalls (p. 20).

Wong was an obedient daughter: she did well in both American public school, and evening Chinese school. However, when she realized that, although her parents funded her older brother’s college education, they had no plans to pay for college for her, she began to break away from the Chinese culture she’d grown up with. As she worked her way through college, she claimed individuality and freedom for herself, daring to go out with a boyfriend without her parents’ permission.

After college, Wong decided to make a living as a potter, an unheard-of profession for a Chinese-American girl. Undaunted, she set about finding a place to rent in Chinatown. Although many in Chinatown thought she was crazy, she was pleased that her father expressed his support by giving her a small motor to run her pottery wheel.

She ended up becoming well known for her vases, bowls, and mugs. Her obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle includes a lovely photo of her working at her pottery wheel.

I was curious to read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother because of all the media attention it has received. Chua argues that Chinese mothers (and Asian mothers in general) manage to raise successful children by being very strict and demanding. Chua would not allow her two daughters to have play dates or sleepovers, or choose their own after-school activities. She even rejected shoddy handmade birthday cards.

I wondered if I would I find Chua’s method of child-rearing as outrageous and distasteful as it seemed from the articles I’d read, or if the book would prove to be more nuanced and culturally enlightening.

Chua acknowledges that she wants the best of both worlds for her children: she wants them to be successful academically, AND to have hobbies. But her approach to hobbies was to choose her children’s musical instrument (either piano or violin) and to insist they practice for hours each day.

The book turned out to be more about Chua and her family, than about Asian parenting. Even Chua’s parents felt she was going too far at times — for example, when she insisted that her children practice their instruments for hours even when they were on vacation.

After reading the book, I seriously questioned Chua’s sanity. What sane mother would delay her child’s dinner for hours in order to make her practice music? What sane mother would yell at her child for hours when the child refused to comply?

As it turns out, Chua did back down with her second daughter and allowed her to start playing tennis (the daughter’s choice) instead of putting so many hours into music. And while writing this memoir, Chua says she had her children and husband read and comment on everything.

Her daughters have become very successful academically and musically. Still, I wondered whether the children had felt abused, or whether they thought their mother was crazy. As far as I can tell (from doing a quick web search), the daughters have a good relationship with their mother. Sophia, the older daughter (now at Harvard), has her own blog.

Chua’s book raises some interesting points about how strict a parent should be. I was raised by parents from India, and they certainly expected good grades and respect for elders. I, in turn, watch my sons’ grades carefully and honestly I am not happy with a B+.

Still, I do believe that all children come to earth with their own gifts and their own path in life, and my goal is to help my kids find their own path–not to choose something for them. By force-feeding her children her own agenda, I fear that Chua may have prevented them from finding their own true path. Yet she also has a good point that, without a strong work ethic, a child may not be able to succeed at anything, even if they do find their passion.

I was afraid Of Beetles and Angels would be really horrifying and sad, given that it is about a boy who walked out of war-torn Ethiopia at the age of 3, spent several years in a refugee camp in Sudan, and then grew up poor in Chicago.

Instead, this memoir for young adults is full of hope. It is even full of fun and laughter. Mawi doesn’t dwell on the horrors of being a refugee (perhaps because he doesn’t remember them well). Instead, he talks about the mischief he and his friends got into in the refugee camp. One time Mawi was curious about whether he really could let the air out of a tire by pressing the air nozzle with a sharp stone. He tried it on a tractor, and lo and behold, it worked! The owner of the tractor was not happy.

He was reunited with his father in the refugee camp, and eventually the whole family was helped by World Relief, a U.S. Christian organization, to leave Sudan and resettle in Chicago. The title refers to advice his father gave him when they started their new life in the U.S. His father advised the family to always treat strangers kindly, even when they looked like “beetles” (beggars or misfits), because “they could be angels, given to us by God to test the deepest sentiments in our hearts” (p. 29).

In Chicago, Mawi and his siblings had to defend themselves against taunts and beatings by some classmates. Nevertheless, they eventually made friends, and sometimes got into serious mischief with these friends, such as the time they managed to knock down and steal a parking meter. They were almost caught by police.

Despite the mischief, Mawi did very well in school, and his counselors encouraged him to apply to the best colleges in the country. He hesitated at first, because his family was so poor, but finally decided to apply to eight top schools. He received scholarship offers from several, and he chose Harvard.

The memoir essentially ends with his acceptance to Harvard, although we do learn that he graduated cum laude and delivered the commencement address (which is printed in the book).

Ironically, the two saddest events in the book happened not in Ethiopia or in Sudan, but in the U.S.: the deaths of his older brother and his father, who were both killed by drunk drivers.

The book includes photos and Ethiopian recipes. While the memoir does discuss the political situation that led to his refugee status, that information is woven into the story of a boy who wants to have fun and do well in life despite challenges.

Mawi is currently an inspirational speaker. His web site is http://www.mawispeaks.com/

I laughed out loud while reading both of these books of autobiographical vignettes. Firoozeh Dumas was born in Iran and arrived in the U.S. with her family at the age of seven. She chronicles funny and sometimes poignant incidents as she and her family find their way among two cultures.

Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America (first published 2003)

In these 26 short essays, Dumas regales us with tales of her family’s adventures with the English language, with well-meaning people who have no idea where Iran is or even how to pronounce it, and with their excursions to Disney Land, where the author manages to get lost.

Her trip to Paris, her wedding (to a Frenchman), and even her nose, are all rich fodder for her merriment. She even manages to inject humor into the time she and her family nearly got beaten up by anti-Shah demonstrators in Washington, DC.

One essay titled “The ‘F word'” dealt with the various mispronunciations of the author’s first name. “My name, Firoozeh, chosen by my mother, means ‘Turquoise’ in Farsi. In America, it means ‘Unpronounceable” or ‘I’m not going to talk to you Because I Cannot Possibly Learn Your Name and I Just Don’t Want to Have to Ask You Again and Again Because You’ll Think I’m Dumb or You Might Get Upset or Something” (p. 63) She has been called “ferocious” and “fritzy.” For a time she changed her name to “Julie.”

With a name like “Jyotsna” I could really relate. I’ve been called “Yotsna” and “goat’s milk” and “Jocasta.” I usually tell new acquaintances to call me “Jo.” (By the way, you can hear me pronounce my name at Teachingbooks.net.)

Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of a Global Citizen (first published 2008)

I think the funniest piece in this book is called “Seeing Red,” which is about a misadventure with a red quilt. Shortly after her marriage, the author’s mother gives Dumas and her husband a bright-red quilt, which Dumas and her husband pretend to love to spare her mother’s feelings. In an effort to get rid of it, Dumas washes it in hot water every week for six months, so that she can honestly tell her mother that the quilt had worn out. I won’t tell you how this ends–you’ll have to read it yourself.

Not all of the 28 vignettes in this book are funny. The last piece in the book, “444 Days,” recounts some time Dumas spent with Kathryn Koob, a survivor of the Iranian hostage crisis. Koob and Dumas exchanged books, and Dumas visited Koob in her home state of Iowa. Dumas was very moved by the fact that Koob harbored no hatred towards Iranians, despite her ordeal.

Since the publication of her first book, Dumas has accepted speaking engagements for the purpose of “reminding us that our commonalities far outweigh our differences,” according to her web site, www.FiroozehDumas.com.

Both of these books would be great companion reads with the short story collection My Name is Aram by William Saroyan (which I reviewed in an earlier post). Both are about children of immigrants from the Middle East. Saroyan’s book was first published in 1940.