BookPage: 12 Best Novels of Immigrants and Refugees

By Cat, the Deputy Editor of BookPage

In recent years, we’ve seen an uptick in stellar novels of the immigrant experience—from Behold the Dreamers to Americanah, from The Book of Unknown Americans to The Buddha in the Attic—and 2017 continues that trend, with an even greater emphasis on refugees’ tales. It seems every month so far this year has offered a handful of stories that give a voice to the displaced, the fishes out of water, the strangers in strange lands. These are 12 of our favorites.

Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran

Fans of The Light Between Oceans will enjoy the moral dilemmas and tremendous heart of Sekaran’s second novel, the story of one boy tangled up in two families. When Soli, an illegal Mexican immigrant, is put in immigration detention, her 1-year-old son, Ignacio, enters the foster care system. He is placed with Kavya and Rishi Reddy, successful Indian-American immigrants. But as much as they may love him, Ignacio is not their son. Read our review.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Already one of the best books of the year, this multigenerational epic from Lee (Free Food for Millionaires) is a powerful account of one of the world’s most persecuted immigrant communities—Koreans living in Japan. This heartbreaking historical novel spans the entire 20th century through four generations and three wars, as a Korean family struggles to find a sense of belonging in a culture that regards them as aliens. Read our interview with Lee.

American Street by Ibi Zoboi

Don’t mind the YA label: Adult readers should read Zoboi’s debut as well as teens. Fabiola Toussaint, an American citizen by birth, is separated from her Haitian mother while going through Customs, and so she must travel by herself to Detroit, where her American cousins introduce her to a very new world. It’s an unforgettable story of what happens when cultures, nationalities, races and religions collide. Read our interview with Zoboi.

Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

The chilling and provocative debut from Israeli author Gundar-Goshen opens with a hit-and-run, when Israeli neurosurgeon Eitan Green accidentally kills an illegal Eritrean immigrant. The victim’s wife, the enigmatic Sirkit, blackmails Eitan into treating sick Eritreans in the desert. With ruminations on pain and medicine woven throughout, this is a superb exploration of how we see—or fail to see—each other. Read our review.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Hamid adds a dash of gentle magic to his tale of refugees and matters of the heart. In a Middle Eastern country on the brink of civil war, Nadia and Saeed fall in love. But soon they must flee their ruined homeland, passing through a doorway that acts as a portal to another city. As they journey around the world, the bonds of love are both forged and tested by displacement and survival. A must-read for 2017. Read our review.

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

Ko’s timely, assured debut received major critical acclaim before it was even published, as Barbara Kingsolver awarded it the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Fiction (given to a novel that addresses issues of social justice). It’s the coming-of-age tale of 11-year-old Deming, who is adopted by a pair of white professors after his mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, doesn’t return from work one day. Read our review.

No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal

That wry title is only a glimmer of the wonderful sense of humor that permeates the second novel from Satyal. The lives of three Indian Americans living in Ohio unfold with compassionate comedy and a nuanced look at sexuality and gender identity. It’s hard to categorize a book that tackles so many things so well, and the result can only be described as the new American novel. Read our review, and don’t miss our Q&A with Satyal.

Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

Alyan’s debut is a sweeping family tale told through multiple perspectives, and it all begins with the Six-Day War in 1967, when the Yacoub family is uprooted and forced to scatter across the globe. Alyan’s own parents met in Kuwait City and, after Saddam Hussein’s invasion, were forced to seek refuge in the United States. This spectacular novel, touching on questions of home and heritage, was our May Top Pick in Fiction. Read our review.

Live from Cairo by Ian Bassingthwaighte

Bassingthwaighte tapped his own experiences as a legal aid worker to craft his debut, set in 2011 Cairo. Four characters are at the heart of this remarkable novel: an Iraqi refugee who is denied her request to join her husband in the U.S.; the Iraqi volunteer assigned to her case; a lawyer for the Refugee Relief Project; and his translator. There is so much to like about this book, from brilliant characterization to exceptional writing. Coming July 11.

Refuge by Dina Nayeri

Nayeri moved to America when she was 10 years old, and the protagonist of her second novel makes a similar move, except she leaves her father behind. Over the course of 20 years, the daughter and father build a relationship through four visits, each in a different city. The more their lives diverge, the more they come to rely on each other—especially when the daughter becomes involved in the present-day refugee crisis. Coming July 11.

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons

Perfect for fans of Americanah, the much-anticipated debut from Clemmons unfolds through poignant vignettes and centers on the daughter of an immigrant. Raised in Philadelphia, Thandi is the daughter of a South African mother and an American father. Her identity is split, and when her mother dies, Thandi begins a moving, multidimensional exploration of grief and loss. Coming July 11.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

From acclaimed novelist Shamsie comes the story of two Muslim sisters: Isma, who has just left London to attend grad school in America; and the headstrong, politically inclined Aneeka, who stayed behind. Their brother, Parvaiz, is seeking his own dream in the shadow of his jihadist father. And then the son of a powerful political figure enters the girls’ lives, setting in motion a tale of complicated loyalty. Coming August 15.

Plus one more: It’s not a novel, but we have to mention Viet Thanh Nguyen’s exceptional collection of short stories, The Refugees. The nine stories, set within California’s Vietnamese community or in Vietnam, are dedicated to “all refugees, everywhere.”