Books about Newcomers, Language Learning, & Immigration

For those who were born in a safe, welcoming country, it can be difficult to imagine life as an immigrant or refugee. But books about immigration can help. Each year, thousands of people migrate to Canada, the US, the UK, and the EU. They are seeking safety, asylum, better, education, an improved situation for their children, or peace.

I have had the privilege of working with newcomers across Canada under various circumstances. Often as an English teacher, sometimes in settlement, and recently through the Newcomer Choir. Each person’s story is different, and none is straightforward.

As more people join the Newcomer Choir Association, and as we welcome greater numbers of newcomers to Canada, it seems a good time to recommend some books for those looking to learn more about the newcomer experience.

Fiction about Migrants and Language Learning

The Chinese Groove – Kathryn Ma

  • When a Chinese immigrant arrives in America, he has a rather different version of what his reality will look like than what actually happens. A humorous and touching look at the challenges families face when they decide to make a big move (without all the facts).

Go, Went, Gone – Jenny Erpenbeck

  • The best, and saddest, book about the migrant experience I’ve ever read. I will continue telling everyone I meet to read this book.

What Strange Paradise – Omar El Akkad

  • This was also brutal and depressing. El Akkad fictionalized the very real situation that sees bodies washing up on shore after migrant boats sink at sea. The desperation of people and the things they will do to escape is painted vividly in this book. It is written by an immigrant to Canada who now lives in the U.S.

The Boat People – Sharon Bala

  • A fictionalized take on the arrival of a refugee father and son fleeing Sri Lanka’s civil war and arriving in Canada – and the effects of detention on loving family relationships.

Want more books?

American Dirt – Jeanine Cummins

  • This book took a hit from various critics, with some calling it ‘trauma porn’ and others claiming Cummins was capitalizing on a story that wasn’t hers to tell. Personally, I’m keen to let fiction be fiction. But if you are new to the US border issues, this would give some insight.

Solito – Javier Zamora

  • Told from the perspective of a young boy sent along to make the trek from El Salvador to the USA. If the issues of the US/Mexico border are new to you, this is a harrowing starting point- but beautifully written.

The Refugees – Viet Thanh Nguyen

  • Short stories about various refugee experiences. Though primarily focused on the U.S., there is still plenty to be gleaned from the (fictitious) tales.

Non-Fiction about Newcomers and Immigration

My Fourth Time, We Drowned – Sally Hayden

  • Hayden does a deep dive on the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, focusing particularly on the situation in Libya in the last decade. A must-read for anyone interested in the politics of global organizations that claim to do good.

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions – Valeria Luiselli

  • Luiselli is an interpreter for migrants crossing the US/Mexico border. In forty questions, we get a glimpse into the lives of her clients – many of whom are children – as they try to seek safety.

The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail – Óscar Martínez, Francisco Goldman (Introduction), Daniela Maria Ugaz (Translator), John Washington (Translator)

  • This was a hard book to get through, but a very thorough introduction to the issues at the US/Mexico border, and the things people will do to get across.

Memoirs about the Newcomer Experience

We Were Dreamers – Simu Liu

  • Simu Liu climbed to Canadian fame on Kim’s Convenience, and then major fame in a Marvel superhero movie that I didn’t watch. I didn’t love his memoir (maybe stick to acting?) but the stories he tells growing up as a first generation Canadian with immigrant parents will help to understand the conundrum facing new families in North America.

Reaching Mithymna: Among the Volunteers and Refugees on Lesvos – Steven Heighton

  • Heighton writes this short memoir about his time on Lesvos, supporting migrants who come off boats fleeing violence. The impact their arrival has on the town, the locals, and the author is explored.

Homes: A Refugee Story – Abu Bakr al Rabeeah, Winnie Yeung

  • A young refugee in Canada narrates his harrowing escape from Syria and subsequent arrival in Canada in this memoir from the days of the Syrian crisis.

The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border – Francisco Cantú

  • Cantú grew up near the US/Mexico border, and has been familiar with the situation all his life. He works as a patrol officer. But when his friend goes to Mexico and doesn’t return, Cantú’s relationship with the border must shift.
The Chinese Groove Kathryn Ma

Your Heart Is the Size of Your Fist: A Doctor Reflects on Ten Years at a Refugee Clinic – Martina Scholtens

  • This is what it says it is, and yet reading about refugees’ experiences with health care in Canada is far more interesting than it sounds.

We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria – Wendy Pearlman

  • A collection of stories as told to the editor by Syrians living through the 2011 uprising and the subsequent crises in the country.

This is Not a Border: Reportage & Reflection from the Palestine Festival of Literature – J.M. Coetzee, Omar Robert Hamilton (Editor)

  • Though not strictly a book about refugees and newcomers, these essays and stories seek to find solidarity through art and culture across political (and sometimes violent) lines.

Have more books about immigration to add to this list? Leave them in the comments or find me on Instagram – @its_rachelkaroline.

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