10/27/2011 06:57 pm ET | Updated Dec 27, 2011

The Importance of Immigration in Novels

There are many ways an author can make a novel compelling. One of them is to include immigration themes.

I thought of that after recently reading three relatively recent books: Middlesex (Greece to America!), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (the Dominican Republic to America!), and The Kite Runner (Afghanistan to America!).

The immigration themes in these and other novels are compelling for many reasons: The drama of leaving one's homeland because of war, repression, threat of death, poverty, a desire to "better" one's life, etc. The culture shock after settling in a new land. The negative encounters with those U.S. citizens who are anti-immigrant even though their ancestors were immigrants. The realization that the U.S., despite its democracy and wealth (for some), can be a very problematic place. The Americanization of immigrants' children and grandchildren. The nostalgia for one's flawed former country.

As readers get absorbed in all this drama, they also learn a lot about the places from which the characters emigrated. This learning goes down especially easy when authors nail the historical-fiction thing of mixing real and made-up characters. I've read nonfiction books and articles about Greece, the Dominican Republic, and Afghanistan, but now understand the history, customs, culture, and other aspects of those countries much better after finishing the three aforementioned novels.

The star of Middlesex is the gender-conflicted Calliope/Cal, but Jeffrey Eugenides' seriocomic 2002 novel is also an Ellis Island/melting-pot story. Calliope/Cal's grandparents fled for their lives from Greece, settled in Detroit, and worked arduous jobs to survive. Calliope/Cal's World War II-generation parents became more affluent, and eventually moved to Detroit's suburbs. Calliope/Cal was born during the baby-boom years. This recognizable post-immigration trajectory makes it easier for readers to relate to the Pulitzer Prize-winning book's atypical protagonist.

Junot Diaz's also seriocomic, also Pulitzer-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao initially focuses on Oscar -- a New Jersey-based, overweight, socially inept, nice-guy nerd smitten with comic books, Tolkien, Star Trek, and unavailable females. But then this 2007 novel moves backward in time to the hellish experiences of Oscar's mother and grandfather in the Dominican Republic during a Trujillo dictatorship known for its murdering and raping ways. You'll understand why many Dominicans fled north, despite America's history of overtly or tacitly supporting vicious right-wing autocrats like... Trujillo. Oscar eventually returns to the Dominican Republic for an extended visit and, well, I won't reveal what happens.

Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, published in 2003, is about an Afghan boy named Amir who lives in a relatively affluent Kabul household until he and his father have to flee the country. (They end up in California.) Hosseini gives readers a real three-dimensional sense of Afghanistan's everyday life and class differences during royal rule and the Soviet invasion/occupation. The adult Amir travels back to Kabul during the Taliban terror (for reasons much different than why Oscar returns to the Dominican Republic) and readers of The Kite Runner then get a page-turning adventure plus even more education about war-torn Afghanistan.

The adventure part of Hosseini's book is one example of how the above three novels are not just about the immigration experience. But that experience adds to the depth and appeal of these superb books, and enables readers to see the human element in a topic (immigration) often addressed quite coldly by the media and politicians. Heck, most of us are either immigrants or descendants of immigrants, so we can relate to works of fiction that do that topic justice.

What are your favorite novels that include immigration themes?

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