7 Migrant Writers to Expand Your Horizons

What we’re still not getting about migration and immigration.

Abbey Heffer
Feb 13, 2020 · 6 min read
Migrant voices are slowly but surely gaining ground even within traditional publishing.

Migration is abysmally misunderstood for an activity that has been an integral part of the human condition for thousands of years; but these writers can help.

The controversy surrounding American Dirt and its dangerous misrepresentation of Mexican migrants has taken over the online book-reviewing community in the last few weeks. Even those who have not and will not read Jeanine Cummins’ novel are weighing in on the discussion.

Just a few weeks ago, even those newspapers renowned for supporting diversity and representation were praising American Dirt for asking important and urgent questions while exploring privilege. Now, those same papers, like The Guardian, are publishing alternative reading lists written by migrant writers, featuring Mexican and Chicanx writers.

The use of the word “immigrant” in English-language books surged towards the end of European colonialism, at a time when the imperial powers needed to find a way to separate their own lower-class “natives” from the colonised “Other”. In Europe, the concept of the invading “immigrant” was constructed by a white-supremacist ruling elite to prevent the oppressed working classes at home from forming alliances with incoming colonial subjects. It had worked to keep the Scots and Irish from forming alliances with former slaves in the colonies and the United States, why shouldn’t it work on home soil?

Thus “immigration”, and its white-supremacist origins, has come to define our understanding of migration, with appalling real-life consequences.

That British-born writers like Shukla have been socialised as immigrants is a testament to the longevity of the colonial white-supremacist project. Having been loosely granted “citizenship”, migrants, their children and their children’s children are often still considered a part of the essentialised, colonial Other. This “citizenship” becomes apparent when those citizens still not quite considered part of the nation are accused of committing crimes. The importance of The Good Immigrant collection becomes all-the-more evident as the British-born daughter of migrant parents has her citizenship revoked for potential crimes committed overseas.

Inextricably tied to the fragile concept of citizenship is asylum, the idea that the citizens of one nation may seek rightful refuge in another when fleeing the effects of war. Even when that war was initiated by the nation to which these refugees now flee. In his debut novel, The Sympathizer, Nguyen’s dark humour drives an already-whiplash-inducing plot. This short-story collection is less sarcastic, but no less powerful. Nguyen is also a fairly prolific writer within the public discourse on migration and identity in a changing America.

Young’s beautifully-written family memoir, told across three books from the perspective of her father (Pao), her mother (Show Me A Mountain) and his father’s mistress (Gloria), reveals several important aspects of migration. Firstly, migration is not a linear journey from A to B — with A as the eternal homeland and B as the foreign destination. Pao’s migration from China to Jamaica does not prevent him from being Jamaican, just as his wife’s birth in Jamaica to Chinese parents does not prevent her from being Chinese. Migration is also multi-directional and does not stop at B. Young herself is evidence of the fact that migration continues.

Though the “developed” or “First” world dominates the discourse on migration (read: immigration), countries like the United States are not the only destinations to which migrants are attracted. Accordingly, Chai’s short-story collection does not only cover international migration, but also domestic migration. The constant movement of migrants between China’s countryside and its cities is the largest on-going human migration in the world. While western discourse neglects this gargantuan flow of bodies, diaspora writers like Chai are able to capture and package it.

Vast and closely-integrated regions like Europe have been the site of ongoing inter-state migration for hundreds of years. Empires rose and fell, Slavs and soldiers were moved between what we now know to be borders, religious groups were forced in and out of newly-drawn national frontiers. With xenophobia once again rising across this vast continent, it has never been more important to understand the politicisation of the “nation” and those considered a part of it.

Satrapi’s graphic novel was featured in The Guardian’s 100 Best Books of the 21st Century. It is a testament not only to the strength of her resolve, but also to the beautifully complex relationship between the migrant and the motherland. Migration is as much about coming back as it is about leaving, and more about the individual than it is about any group. No two migrants will make the same journey, nor will any individual migrant ever make the same journey twice. As Satrapi shows, migration is coloured by varying degrees of privilege, geopolitical context and individual character traits.

The word “immigrant” is too often reserved for the “faceless brown mass” portrayed as entering Europe or North America. White immigrants from rich countries, like the United Kingdom, are still socialised and referred to as “expats” when living overseas. Clissold is a brilliant writer who spent many years in Hong Kong and China during the latter’s ‘reform and opening up’. His migrant experience is more widely represented within the canon of English-language literature than all others featured here, but his struggles with language, work, and family life are laughably relatable, as are the culture shocks he faces both in China and when returning to the UK.

As the western world creeps back towards a me-and-mine sense of selfish isolationism at home, while still engaging aggressively in the international economy and proxy wars against less-developed foreign powers, the voices and stories of migrants caught in the middle are being stolen and used to fuel the political ambitions of the powerful.

Narratives surrounding the narcotics trade — despite being wholly fuelled by American demand — define American understandings of Latinx migration, justifying the inhumane practices of ICE officials and detention centres. Similarly, the narrative of terrorism portrays Muslims as the antithesis of European culture — despite thousands of years of interaction and migration between the Middle East and the European continent.

As citizens with voting rights, we need to listen to the real voices being drowned out by state-sponsored narratives, and to understand the forces seeking to silence them.

Most importantly, we need to make sure that we do not — however unwittingly — become one of the forces silencing migrant voices.

Note: I follow Akala’s lead in using the term “racialised as…” to describe how different groups of people are categorised as “immigrants” or “natives”. See article below for more detail.

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Abbey Heffer

Written by

China specialist, feminist, political scientist in progress. Reviews, socialism & everyday academia. Low-brow, no jargon/acronyms. Editor of The Open Bookshelf.

The Open Bookshelf

Talking about the books that matter.

Abbey Heffer

Written by

China specialist, feminist, political scientist in progress. Reviews, socialism & everyday academia. Low-brow, no jargon/acronyms. Editor of The Open Bookshelf.

The Open Bookshelf

Talking about the books that matter.

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