Imbolo-Mbue

7 Books That Document the African Immigrant Experience

Each April, New York celebrates the experiences and contributions of immigrants through Immigrant Heritage Week, April 18 – 23. Over 100,000 (4% of the population of New York) Africans call New York home and their stories have increasingly been told in contemporary African literature. In honor of Immigrant Heritage Week and #WorldBookDay which fell on April 23, here are 7 fiction books that document the African immigrant experience in the diaspora.

Open City by Teju Cole

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In ‘Open City’, the protagonist Julius who is a medical school student explores the streets of New York City and observes fellow immigrants like “ the Senegalese cloth merchants, the young men selling bootleg DVDs, the Nation of Islam stalls” in Harlem. He meets a Haitian shoe shiner, a Belgian doctor and wonders whether a Mexican runner has no friends or family. As  Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times wrote about the book, “Most of all, the New York of Mr. Cole is a city of immigrants: Nigerians, Kenyans, Syrians, Lebanese, Malians, Haitians, Chinese and others who have come to escape the sorrows of their own history or to pursue their versions of the American dream”.

Behold The Dreamers by Imbole Mbue

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Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel ‘Behold The Dreamers’ tells the story of a Cameroonian couple Jende and Neni who arrive in New York without a visa. Despite that, Jende secures a job as a driver to a wealthy executive at Lehman Brothers and shuttles between Harlem, where he lives with his wife and son, to Manhattan and the Hamptons. “Behold The Dreamers” addresses how being undocumented immigrants impacts the couple’s relationship and also how they then interact with others. Neni aptly sums up America as “a magnificent land of uninhibited dreamers”.

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

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We were introduced to Taiye Selasi’s writing through the Lip magazine article “Bye- Bye Barbar” where she coined the term “Afropolitan” to describe African immigrants who danced to Fela Kuti but had Western accents. She continued to write about immigration in her 2013 debut book “Ghana Must Go” that tells the story of the Sai family who are scattered across the United States, Nigeria and England as they head back to Ghana to mourn the patriarch Kweku Sai. The title itself refers to the mass exodus of undocumented Ghanaian immigrants who were residing in Nigeria in 1983 under the orders of the Nigerian government.

Blue White Red by Alain Mabanckou

In Alain Mabanckou’s debut novel “Blue White Red”, protagonist Mosi straddles two different worlds. In his home country Congo, he parades around as a ‘Sapeur’ (a term that refers to elegantly dressed men from Congo DR and Congo Brazzaville) and convinces his friend Massala- Massala to move back with him to Paris where things do not go as planned. Many of the newer books that tell stories of immigrants focus on ones from mostly Anglophone countries, so Blue, White and Red is a welcome view into the unique challenges faced by Francophone ones.

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

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“We Need New Names” is told through the eyes of a child named Darling who leaves her country Zimbabwe for a brighter future in Detroit, Michigan courtesy of a relative. She assimilates quickly, adopting an American accent, but still misses home. A poignant paragraph in the book states, “When we got to America we took our dreams, looked at them tenderly as if they were newly born children, and put them away; we would not be pursuing them. We would never be the things we had wanted to be: doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers. No school for us, even though our visas were school visas. We knew we did not have the money for school to begin with, but we had applied for school visas because that was the only way out.”

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Written by AfriPOP! fave Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, “Americanah” tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, a young couple who meet and fall in love in Nigeria. Obinze dreams of settling in America, but it is Ifemelu who is granted a visa. She struggles with depression while there, but eventually achieves success with a blog about race. Obinze has a much different experience as an immigrant in England. Although not set in New York, the experiences detailed in “Americanah” resonated with the state as it was voted the 2017 pick for the One Book, One NY initiative.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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Homegoing chronicles the members that make up the family tree of the descendants of half sisters Effia and Esi. One side of the family ends up in the United States through the Atlantic Slave Trade, while one remains in Ghana. Gyasi makes use of  pivotal moments in history such as the Harlem Renaissance and places her characters in them.

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