Books To Get You Thinking

This month's column highlights a few of the many enormously gifted authors writing about the immigrant experience - Gary Shteyngart,  Edwidge Danticat, Mengestu Dinaw, Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz.  With  their own unique style, they have made extraordinary contributions to contemporary  literature depicting  the struggle of those who have left their homelands behind and are trapped between the past and the present and at the same  time are striving to belong, to assimilate and  find a new identity in the midst of a new cultural environment.

Brother I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat
A poignant family memoir revolving around the story of Joseph Dantica, the author's uncle and a Baptist minister who founded his own church and school in Port Au Prince, Haiti.  Much of Danticat's childhood was spent with her uncle but, at the age of twelve, she was sent to join her parents in Brooklyn, New York.  In 2004, when local gangs destroyed his Church, Dantica at age 81, plagued with severe medical problems finally set out to seek temporary asylum in the United States only to be detained at the border. Denied timely medical treatment , he died while still  in custody. Danticat's book echoes the alienation and estrangement her parents felt - far from the country they were born, from their careers and all that was familiar. It was a price they paid just as many other immigrants to watch their hopes and dreams realized through their children as they grow up and prosper in the new country they now call home.

Little Failure  by Gary Shteyngart
An engaging and entertaining memoir in which the Russian-born American author, Gary Shteyngart, recounts his early days growing up in Forest Hills, New York with his newly immigrated parents and the family's struggle to fit in their new environment. His parents changed his name from Igor to Gary but this did little to stop the bullying or win him acceptance among his peers. Caught between two very different worlds and failing to find a place in either, Shteyngart's story, full of wit and pathos, is a resounding echo of the overall immigrant experience of East European Jews in America in the early eighties.

The Namesake  by Jhumpa Lahiri
A gripping, poignant novel where Jhumpa Lahiri draws a vivid family portrait of an Indian American family:  Ashok and Ashima  Ganguli  who  left Calcutta, India to settle in Cambridge, Massachusetts where Ashok is pursuing a doctoral degree in MIT. The years progress and they have a son named Gogol and a daughter Sonia, and the book echoes the struggles and successes of the family and the eternal conflict that exists between the Bengali traditions and heritage they are so strongly steeped in and the new and totally different cultural milieu of which they must now be a part. The internal strife that  Ashima faces as a mother bringing up her children by herself, far from her family and loved ones, her longing for Calcutta , the everyday traditions, festivals and family, as well as the conflicting and evolving feelings of their son Gogol are eloquently portrayed in this spellbinding account of an Indian immigrant family in America.

Drown by Junot Diaz
Published in 1997 as a collection of ten stories , the book holds universal appeal that is timeless in its portrayal of the harsh struggles faced  by  Dominicans  who settled in America seeking a new life and a new identity for  themselves and their families . Through the stories Junot Diaz, A Dominican- American author who teaches creative writing at MIT, presents riveting vignettes of fascinating characters, each following a different path, a different journey in pursuit of common hopes and dreams in the face of all odds. The stories , many of them related,  are set against the backdrop of the ghettos of the Dominican Republic and the Latino communities in New Jersey and New York.

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Mengestu Dinaw
A brilliantly chronicled narrative of Sepha Stephanos, the central character of the book who left  his home country of Ethiopia at the age of two after revolutionary soldiers killed his father. Now, twenty years later, he owns a small grocery store in one of Washington DC's dwindling neighborhoods. Over the course of the book, Sepha has some success in offsetting his sense of loss and loneliness  through his friendship with Judith McMasterton  and her eleven year old daughter, Naomi.  It all ends abruptly one day when Naomi is sent to boarding school and Judith moves away.   Readers witness the contradictions in the daily life of a displaced  immigrant who struggles to belong, to embrace a new culture while yearning for  the  familiar surroundings of a distant country he left behind .

- Nita Mathur


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