Tag Archives: immigration

The Leavers by Lisa Ko ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  352

Published:  May 2, 2017

Format:  Audiobook

Awards: National Book Award Finalist for Fiction (2017), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction & for Debut Goodreads Author (2017), PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction (2016)

 

Stunning, emotionally charged, socially critical novel about a young female Chinese woman and her American born son.  This novel tackles so much and does it well.  It takes place in China as well as in America.  The voice alternates from first person perspective of Peilan Guo and third person perspective of her son, Deming.

Peilan, fled China young and pregnant, in hopes of escaping the boy who impregnated her as well as the pregnancy, only to find she was a few weeks past 7 months and termination would be illegal.  Her son Deming is born and she falls in love with him, but finds there is no way to work with him alongside of her.   So, like so many other Chinese refugees, she sends her son home to live with her father until he is of age to go to school.  He returns at age 6 and finds himself living with his mother, her boyfriend Leon, Leon’s sister Vivian and Vivian’s son Michael.  It’s crowded and they are poor, but there is noise, friendship, sarcasm, and love aplenty.  Peilan and Deming play fun games with each other like choosing similar looking people to themselves to be their doppelgängers.  They create a whole story around this pair.  Michael and Deming are the best of friends.  Like brothers, they understand each other and look out for each other.

One day, Peilan goes to the nail salon where she works and she never returns.  This comes on the heels of an argument with Leon about her wanting to move to Florida and Leon not liking the idea.  No one knows where she has gone and it remains a mystery until the end of the novel.  Leon disappears, leaving for China, 6 months later.  Vivian is left alone with both Michael, Deming and Peilan’s enormous debt.  The money is tight, there is little food and she is very stressed.  She ends up putting Deming in foster care and then signing him over for permanent placement.

Deming is fostered and then adopted by Kay and Peter and life in Ridgeborough, NY is stale and seemingly lonely.  They change Deming’s name to Daniel, saying it will be easier for him that way.  He makes friends with Roland, a fellow musician who is Hispanic, so also seen as a “different” in this very Caucasian town.  Kay and Peter both work at the University, have no friends in town and have strong ideas about what their son should do and be as he grows up.

The novel takes off from this point, as Daniel struggles with his identity.  At the same time his mother, now Polly, has a completely new identity in China.  Daniel’s life comes to an unravelling point as he makes poor choices with gambling and alcohol, seeming to purposely self-sabatoge.  Michael emails him, and after hesitating to respond, he reconnects with Michael which leads him ultimately to his mother.  He finally learns the truth about his mother, how the salon was raided and she spent 18 months in a detention camp prior to being deported.

I felt like I connected with the characters, found the novel incredibly engaging and I enjoyed the historical aspects and learning about the immigrant experience from this perspective.  Although extremely well done overall, there were a couple of holes in the story I didn’t quite believe.  First, I wondered why no one ever went to the nail salon to learn what had happened.  Surely, someone must have known there.   I also wondered why Polly gave up on looking for Deming once she heard he had been adopted.  Yes, Leon felt that something inside Polly had broken, but she went from anguished over the loss to a new life very quickly.

Discussion Questions:

  1.  How do name changes in this book affect or influence identity?
  2. Compare and contrast Deming’s relationship with his mother versus his relationship with Kay and Peter.
  3. How does the author portray international adoption in this novel?  How does she portray transracial adoption?
  4. What sorts of prejudice do Polly and Daniel experience in America?
  5. What roles do music and gambling play in Daniel’s identity?
  6. Discuss the parental expectations that Daniel experiences from Kay and Peter.  How does this compare to what he experienced with his own mother?
  7. Why do the school systems in both New York and Ridgeborough seem to have low expectations of Daniel?
  8. Discuss the friendship between Daniel and Angel.  Why do they become so close?
  9. When Polly and Leon are gambling, Polly feels that life is a game.  How is this a theme in the book?
  10. This novel brings up very real concerns regarding for profit detention centers.  Discuss the concerns addressed by this novel. Under current administration, these detention centers are increasing in number.  What effect do you imagine the current administration’s policies will have regarding these institutions?
  11. How do you explain or interpret the character Polly and her many life transitions?

 

New York Times Review by Gish Jen

Atlantic Review by Amy Weiss-Meyer

Discussion Questions by Lit Lovers

Interview with Lisa Ko in Hyphen Magazine

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  231

Published:  March 7, 2017

Format:  Audiobook read by the author

Awards:  Man Booker Prize Nominee (2017), Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Fiction (2018)

 

 

“The news in those days was full of war and migrants and nativists. And it was full of fracturing too, of regions pulling away from nations and cities pulling away from hinterlands. And it seemed that as everyone was coming together, everyone was also moving apart.”

This novel is a riveting, brilliantly written masterpiece that is about the relationship between a young couple that begins just prior to the eruption of a Civil War in their country.  I was amazed by how attuned to the nuances of relationships this author is.  He describes the falling in, the developing closeness, the emerging separateness and consequent break so eloquently and with such tenderness.

There is a cinematic quality to this novel.  As it focus on these two main characters, Saeed and Nadia, and their struggles during these uncertain times, it also flashes to other parts of the world and small moments in the lives of others.  The writing is razor sharp, profound, full of insight.  There are no wasted words.  I listened to this audiobook in my car, and the number of times I skipped backwards to listen to something again or just in case I may have missed something exceeded that of any other book I’ve listened to.  If I had been reading an ebook or physical book, I would have easily found something to highlight on every page.

The initial setting is in an unnamed Middle Eastern country where Nadia and Said meet in an evening class studying corporate identity and product branding.  Their seemingly normal lives and beginning romance are upturned rapidly as insurgents try to take over the city.  There is a sense of impending doom.  War is raging,  militants are flooding into their city, and people are dying or disappearing.  There are extreme rules in place regarding dress and social conduct with the opposite sex.  Certain religious sects are being persecuted.  People are being hung in the streets.  However, there are “doors,” which even the most reputable journalists are acknowledging the existence of.

Without knowing where these doors may lead, Sayeed and Nadia decide to flee through one of these doors and so begins their journey, first to Mikonos, then London, then Marin.  In these other lands, they are refugees who are kept separate from the nativists.  It’s an uncertain world, but eventually they are working at a camp to building a home for themselves which they accomplish together.  However, the chaos and tumult of the times in the early phase of their relationship has taken a toll.  They see each other differently as their roles change and their location changes.  The excited young lovers from the beginning of the novel have changed as their world has changed.  They have been through so much together, have been codependent by necessity.  They begin to see each other through different lenses.  The chaos of the times and world of being migrants brought their romance along more quickly, but also threatens it.

More broadly, this novel is about people, migrants, immigrants, natives.  The message is loud and clear.  We are all people and should treat each other as such.  There are always people fleeing wars, political unrest, religious persecution, and so on.  We need to be more tolerant.  In this era of Brexit and Trump’s travel bans, with countries fearing incoming people flooding into their homelands, this book offers a radical, beautiful challenge.   Mohsin Hamid has said that he used doors (the only fantastical element in this novel) as the route to other countries, because he wanted to focus on the actual immigrant experience, not the journey between countries.  In this novel, Hamid deftly explores the pain of leaving behind a grieving recently widowed father in hopes of a better life, of escaping premature death.  A quote from the book regarding this: “when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”  He also explores the plight of the immigrant in a foreign land, pushed to the outskirts by natives.  He describes how these situations affect people in different ways and how migrants change through these experiences.  He ends the novel with this final quote: “We are all migrants through time.”   I highly recommend this timely book to everyone!  It is intelligent, insightful and tender altogether.

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why do you think the author used “doors” rather than actual travel between countries?
  2. What do you believe is the author’s message regarding immigration and immigration laws?
  3. In Mohsin Hamid’s essay in the Guardian, he says that the future cannot be left to politicians.  It calls on “radical politically engaged fiction” to muster up wisdom and insight into where we as individuals, families, societies, cultures… must go.  What wisdom is the author imparting in this novel?  Where is he directing us in the future?
  4. What role does technology and social media play in this novel?
  5. Define migrant.   Are we all migrants?
  6. In this book, it says that in this new world, some people felt their lives were better.  Why and how so?
  7. Saeed in this novel is fiercely attached to his family while Nadia is fiercely independent.  How do these character traits affect their relationship?
  8. In the book a passage through a door is equated to dying and being reborn.  Explain.
  9. The old woman in Palo Alto says that when she goes out now, she feels like a migrant, “a migrant through time.”  What does she mean by this?
  10. Some people have compared this book to Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad for employing a virtual form of transportation.  Do you see these as a similar narrative styles?
  11. Why did Saeed pray?

 

Review and interview Mohsin Hamid with Terry Gross

Steve Inskeep’s interview with Mohsin Hamid on NPR

Michiko Kakutani’s review in The New York Times

Discussion Questions by Penguin Random House

 

 

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages: 224

Publication Date: February 7, 2017

Format:  E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

 

 

“I wrote this book for the ghosts, who, because they are outside of time, are the only one with time.” – prologue

What a timely book!  With the public debate about immigration in the forefront of everyone’s mind, with the executive and judicial branches of government battling out the legality of banning people from certain countries, the timing is perfect!   America’s history has been built upon accepting refugees from various countries. Between 1975 and 1995 over 480,000 people had immigrated to the United States.  Of the “boat people,” it is estimated that at least a third died.  This is exquisitely written, profoundly moving compilation of short stories, each one touching on the theme of immigration from Vietnam.

Viet Thanh Nguyen says he is writing these stories for the ghosts.  The first story in this book is most directly to that point.  The narrator is a ghost writer, telling other people’s stories not coming to terms with her own story until the ghost of her brother comes to visit her.   At that moment she confronts the trauma of her past.  Her brother risked his life to try to hide her as a boy when pirates raided their boat.  He was killed for it.  She was gang rapider front of her parents.  Her parents lamented her brother’s death, but never mentioned what had happened to her.  She carried the burden of her own trauma as well as of her brother’s death.  She was made to feel it was her fault.  She finally realizes she died too.  She is a ghost of the past and can write her own story.

The writing is incredible.  The stories themselves are beautiful, emotion-laden, with excellent character development and complexity.  The true nature behind the characters are revealed in unexpected ways.  The tension created by the juxtaposition of vietnamese culture in affluent America (as well as the converse) are explored.  These stories are not simply an exploration of Vietnamese culture and the refugee experience, but transcend that with the stories evoking so much truth about humanity that simply involve refugees as characters.

Rather than detail each short story, I highly recommend reading this brilliantly written grouping of 8 stories.  It is brief book, but packs a powerful punch.  These are stories that will move you and stay with you.  They are simply amazing!  

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Who are the ghosts in each story?  Why is it important to remember them?
  2. What does the term refugee mean?  How does it compare to expat or immigrant?
  3. Why does the father name his first and second set of children the same names in “The Fatherland”?  Discuss this.
  4. Nguyen also quotes James Fenton from the German Requiem in the prologue:  “It is not your memories which haunt you.  It is not what you have written down.  It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.  What you must go on forgetting all your life.”  How does this quote resonate with the stories contained in the book?  How do forgotten memories haunt characters within these stories?
  5. Liem, in  “The Other Man,” sees his mirror image and does not recognize himself.  Why?
  6. What does this statement mean in “The Americans”:  “Smiling at your relatives never got you far, but smiling at strangers and acquaintances sometimes did.”  Why does Claire feel more at home in Vietnam than she did in America?

Joyce Carol Oates’ Review published in the New Yorker

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s website

Review posted by fellow blogger, The Shrinkette