The Immigrant Experience

Presented by Janet Halls to the Calgary Women’s Literary Club
March 3, 2020

IMMIGRANT LITERATURE was new to me before reading The Tortilla Curtain. This book had a profound impact on me, since it was relevant to current events. For this year’s theme of Cultural Awareness in Literature, I sought other equally fascinating novels that could break down our stereotypes and humanize contemporary immigrants to North America. These books help us viscerally understand challenges immigrants face in their home countries and here. The books can help deepen our regard, empathy, and compassion. They remind us we cannot leap to judgment about immigrant situations we catch in the news. Instead, they encourage us to learn more about individual situations and to act to counter discrimination.

THE TORTILLA CURTAIN, T. Coraghessan Boyle, 1995
Satiric humour highlights the prejudices of an American couple as they mount a vendetta against poor illegal Mexican immigrants that are camping near their gated community. Rich vs Poor and Man vs Environment are also themes.

HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG, Andre Dubus III, 1999
A County mistake leads to an escalating conflict over who has title for a house in a town near San Francisco. Is it the blue-collar New England family who inherited it, or the Iranian American immigrant who has worked so hard to buy it? This was the first American best-seller with a Muslim protagonist.

THE BOAT PEOPLE, Sharon Bala, 2018
The inspiration for this novel came from true events: In 2009 and 2010, decrepit cargo ships arrived in Canadian waters bearing 500+ asylum seekers fleeing the brutal Sri Lankan civil war. A bitter political debate in Canada ensued, keeping refugees imprisoned and subjected to a prolonged court process.

The following Pulitzer Prize-winning début novels are unconventional. For intrepid readers!

The enigmatic narrator will shake you to the core (laughing or sobbing) as he tells of his friends’ lives, interspersed with footnotes on the Dominican Republic’s history. You are hurtled between present and past, from the tyranny of the Dominican Republic to a New Jersey ghetto.

THE SYMPATHIZER, Viet Thanh Nguyen, 2015

A double agent sees situations sympathetically from every angle and finds humor in his most unlikely circumstances. This story personalizes the Vietnam War and its aftermath, revealing the political and human complexity between Americans, Viet Cong and South Vietnamese, in Vietnam and in the United States.