Coming to America: 50 Greatest Works of Immigration Literature

Immigration debates flood news sources today, but the realities experienced by those who flee their homes in search of new opportunities — even political asylum — oftentimes end up shoved to the margins. Though mostly fiction, the following literary works offer up a valuable, varied glimpse into what life is like in America for immigrants and their families. Many of them emphasize familiar themes regarding balances between old and new, allegiances to family and the unique hardships faced once settled. Do not think this list comprehensive. Plenty of other excellent books exist out there to educate an open-minded populace about the issue from the perspective of those it impacts most. This is merely a sampling of some of the most notable examples.

  1. A Saloonkeeper’s Daughter (1887) by Drude Krog Janson: The progressive Drude Krog Jansen writes of a strong, self-reliant female protagonist who immigrates from Norway to Minneapolis following the family bankruptcy.

  2. How the Other Half Lives (1890) by Jacob Riis: Though nonfiction, Jacob Riis’ earth-shattering work of photojournalism remains required reading for all Americans — immigrants or not. It brings readers to the squalid fringes of society and shows them the dire consequences of marginalizing peoples of different backgrounds and opinions.

  3. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) by Stephen Crane: Along with addressing the issues faced by Irish immigrants to America, Stephen Crane also used Maggie: A Girl of the Streets as a commentary on industrialization and an experimentation in naturalistic writing.

  4. The Jungle (1906) by Upton Sinclair: Most readers, critics and politicians focus on this influential novel’s depictions of horrifying meat processing and packing facilities. Upton Sinclair really meant for The Jungle to be seen as a socialistic treatise on the marginalized state of immigrants.

  5. Mrs. Spring Fragrance (1912) by Sui Sin Far: Edith Maude Eaton, under her nom de plume of Sui Sin Far, split this short story collection into two parts — one catering to adults, the other children. Both sections revolve around the theme of how Chinese immigrants coped with their lives on a new continent and related to (and differentiated from) Europeans in the same situation.

  6. The Rise of David Lavinsky (1917) by Abraham Cahan: Born in Russia, the eponymous character comes of age amongst severe poverty and hardship before sailing to New York and growing progressively more embroiled in its culture.

  7. My Antonia (1918) by Willa Cather: Protagonist Jim Burden befriends a pair of immigrant maids, recounting their lives growing up together in Nebraska. In a rather different twist to the familiar theme, the experience of European women comes relayed through the lens of an American man.

  8. Bread Givers (1925) by Anzia Yezierska: Peer into the lives comprising a Jewish-American immigrant family, whose poverty and insistence on tradition (most notably when it comes to arranged marriage) ignite a fair amount of consternation.

  9. Giants in the Earth (1927) by Ole Edvart Rolvaag: In the 1870s, an immigrant family from Norway attempts to forge a life for itself on the unforgiving Dakota plains, drawing inspiration from both the author’s life and his wife’s.

  10. Call It Sleep (1934) by Henry Roth: New York’s Lower East Side serves as a backdrop for a young Jewish-American boy’s coming of age. The son of a brutal father and suspicious mother, the novel’s winding turn of events lead the central character to understand the inner machinations of family and faith.

  11. Christ in Concrete (1939) by Pietro Di Donato: In this fiery social justice novel, the story of an Italian-American breaking his back on an exceptionally hazardous construction sites sheds light on both the immigrant and working-class experiences.

  12. Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov: Many readers get so caught up in the thoroughly twisted pedophiliac relationship at the center of the novel, they forget Lolita can also be approached as a work of immigrant literature. Slimy Humbert Humbert, after all, begins losing some of his European airs after settling in America.

  13. The Assistant (1957) by Bernard Malamud: A young Italian-American man takes a job at a Jewish-American grocery store, with the similarities and differences in their cultural and immigrant experiences explored along the way.

  14. No-No Boy (1957) by John Okada: Get an extremely necessary glimpse into the realities following the victims of one of America’s darkest secrets — the internment of Japanese immigrants and their families during World War II.

  15. Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959) by Paule Marshall: During the Great Depression and World War II, a Barbadian family living in Brooklyn is forced to contend with wrenching poverty and unjust racism.

  16. Eat a Bowl of Tea (1961) by Louis Chu: Narratives surrounding Ben Loy and Mei Oi overlap with those of their fathers in an insightful juxtaposition of Chinese traditions and “new” American cultural constructs.

  17. The Fortunate Pilgrim (1965) by Mario Puzo: One indomitable Italian widow pours her heart, soul and body into keeping her family safe, healthy, sheltered and fed during America’s Great Depression.

  18. The Woman Warrior (1975) by Maxine Hong Kingston: Written as a creative nonfiction memoir infused with traditional tales, The Woman Warrior spans over one thousand chapters, chronicling how Chinese-Americans dealt with immigration following the Chinese Revolution.

  19. The House on Mango Street (1984) by Sandra Cisneros: Step inside a Latin-American ghetto in Chicago and receive a valuable education in the serious problems faced by its inhabitants — most especially young women — and how they handle them.

  20. Maus (1986) by Art Spiegelman: Literary types rightfully consider Maus one of the greatest works of Holocaust literature, but it also contains some interesting insights regarding immigration and intergenerational communication as well.

  21. Jasmine (1989) by Bharati Mukherjee: After immigrating to the United States, a series of tragedies and hardships forces a young Hindu woman to change her identity several times in the interest of her own safety.

  22. The Joy Luck Club (1989) by Amy Tan: Two generations of Chinese-American women struggle against maintaining footholds in tradition and new cultural protocols. In the end, though, everything relates back to the importance of family connections.

  23. The Line of the Sun (1989) by Judith Ortiz Cofer: A niece recounts the life and times of the reckless Guzman, whose involvement with an older, spiritualist woman incites a fair amount of scorn within their Puerto Rican neighborhood.

  24. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989) by Oscar Hijuelos: This haunting Pulitzer winner looks back on Cesar and Nestor Castillo as they push towards success as mambo musicians, enjoy the high life and inevitably fall apart.

  25. The Shawl (1989) by Cynthia Ozick: Two interconnected stories recount the life of Holocaust victim Rosa as she experiences torture in a concentration camp and eventually retires to a Florida hotel room, where she passes the time writing letters.

  26. Lucy (1990) by Jamaica Kincaid: Lucy leaves the West Indies hoping to slough off the yoke of British influence, taking up a job as an au pair in the United States. But that comes with its own set of ethnic, filial, professional and sexual anxieties.

  27. How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents (1991) by Julia Alvarez: The author relates her wonderful bildungsroman backwards, relaying the haunting story of four sisters who fled the Dominican Republic and eventually forged lives for themselves in America.

  28. Dreaming in Cuban (1992) by Cristina Garcia: With twisting chronology and raw openness, Cristina Garcia explores several generations of Cubans and Cuban-Americans during some of the most volatile moments of the country’s history.

  29. A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992) by Robert Olen Butler: Robert Olen Butler earned a Pulitzer Prize for his short story collection recounting the stories of several Vietnamese immigrants who now call Louisiana home.

  30. Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994) by Edwidge Dandicat: Starting at age 12 and moving up to adulthood, Haitian immigrant Sophie Caco faces plenty of hurdles regarding her race, gender and language after moving to New York.

  31. When I was Puerto Rican (1994) by Esmeralda Santiago: A beautifully recounted memoir, When I was Puerto Rican recounts the author’s burning desire to escape her native land in order to live with her grandmother in America — and all the expected challenges that unfold along the way.

  32. An American Brat (1995) by Bapsi Sidhwa: Perfect for young adults, this novel involves a young Pakistani girl who moves in with her Massachusetts-based uncle as a means of getting away from the ultra-conservative religious climate in her native land.

  33. Native Speaker (1995) by Chang-Rae Lee: Protagonist Henry Park, a Korean immigrant, wants to find his place in America, but he finds the language and cultural barriers incredibly difficult to maneuver.

  34. The Tortilla Curtain (1995) by T.C. Boyle: T.C. Boyle unapologetically juxtaposes the privilege afforded to white suburbanites in Los Angeles and the tragic reality for many illegal Mexican immigrants.

  35. Angela’s Ashes (1996) by Frank McCourt: In this tragic — if not outright shocking — memoir, author Frank McCourt recounts his terrifyingly bleak childhood bouncing from America and back to his parents’ native Ireland — though he eventually makes it back to Poughkeepsie, NY, as a young adult.

  36. Mona in the Promised Land (1996) by Gish Jen: A Chinese-American girl makes the controversial decision to convert to Judaism in an incredible novel about the heavy social constructs behind ethnicity and religion.

  37. The Comfort Women (1997) by Nora Okja Keller: The Comfort Women earned author Nora Okja Keller an American Book Award and an Elliott Cades Award for its straightforward approach towards Japan’s use of sex slavery in World War II — and the Korean-American daughter learning of her mother’s involvement.

  38. The Funeral Party (1997) Lyudmila Ulitskaya: Many colorful characters converge in a suffocating New York apartment to mourn the loss of the one thing they have most in common — a dying Russian artist named Alik.

  39. House of Sand and Fog (1999) by Andre Dubus III: Iranian immigrant Massoud Behrani purchases a house at auction, not realizing it belongs to a lonely drug addict who was wrongfully evicted.

  40. Interpreter of Maladies (1999) by Jhumpa Lahiri: Through nine thematically connected short stories, this Pulitzer Prize winner juxtaposes life in India, life in America and the experiences of Indian immigrants to America.

  41. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) by Michael Chabon: Michael Chabon earned a Pulitzer for his amazing tale of two cousins — one a Jewish-Czech refugee and the other nestled in his native Brooklyn — who play an integral role in establishing the Golden Age of comics.

  42. Middlesex (2002) by Jeffrey Eugenides: Not only does Middlesex openly discuss the trials and tribulations of Greek immigrants, it also sympathetically depicts the 5-alpha-reductase deficiency — another conduit towards marginalization in America.

  43. The Kite Runner (2003) by Khaled Hosseini: Two boys experience a tested friendship against a turbulent Afghani backdrop, including the collapse of the monarchy, the Soviet invasion and establishment of the Taliban. During the course of these historical events, many individuals — including protagonist Amir — attempt to seek refuge in the United States.

  44. The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2003) by Gary Shteyngart: Taking place in both New York City (because no other major metropolitan areas exist in the United States) and Prague, a Russian-Jewish immigrant gets himself caught up in scandal and intrigue for want of money.

  45. American Born Chinese (2006) by Gene Luen Yang: The traditional Chinese tale of The Monkey King’s Journey to the West blends with a young man’s struggle to fit in at an American school — and things only get more embarrassing when his highly stereotyped cousin comes to visit. With warmth, intelligence and plenty of humor, Gene Luen Yang offers up a graphic novel centering around themes of identity and strength suitable for the whole family.

  46. What is the What (2006) by Dave Eggers: Based on the true story of Valentino Achak Deng of the Lost Boys of Sudan program, What is the What chronicles the separation from his family during the Second Sudanese Civil War, the harrowing trek to Ethiopia’s refugee camps, the troubles once he makes it, the sudden run to Kenya and — eventually — his immigration to the United States.

  47. The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears (2007) by Dinaw Mengetsu: Protagonist Sepha Stephanos escaped a crumbling Ethiopia, only to find himself floundering in Washington, D.C. almost two decades later. Along with other refugees from the African continent, he reminisces and wonders where life in America took a less-than-ideal turn — and whether or not he can restore any semblance of positivity.

  48. The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) by Junot Diaz: This Pulitzer-winning masterpiece focuses on the children of a fiery, passionate woman who fled from Rafael Trujillo’s regime, though it frequently interweaves her story with their New Jersey lives. A family curse plays heavily into their collective experiences as well.

  49. Blue Boy (2009) by Rakesh Satyal: A young Indian-American boy fancies himself the 10th reincarnation of Krishna, preparing himself for the role with a series of whimsical costumes, dances and music. Then he turns blue.

  50. Saffron Dreams (2009) by Shaila Abdulla: Not only does the main character lose her husband in the tragic September 11th terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, she must subsequently contend with raising a handicapped child solo and Americans behaving in a hostile manner because of her Pakistani heritage.