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In 2019, immigration novels are especially timely

Originally Published in The Washington Post.

This combination photo of cover images shows “Lost Children Archive,” a novel about young immigrants separated from their families, by Valeria Luiselli, left, and “The Other Americans,” a novel by Laila Lalami which comes out March 26. (Pantheon Books via AP)

By Hillel Italie | AP 

January 9, 2019

NEW YORK — Not long before Election Day, 2016, Samira Ahmed completed the first draft of her novel, “Internment,” a dystopian narrative about the rounding up of Muslim-Americans.

As the news came in that Donald Trump had been elected, Ahmed received a text from a friend who had read the manuscript and feared Ahmed had written a work of prophecy.

“She said, ‘I hope you’re not Cassandra,’” Ahmed told The Associated Press during a recent telephone interview.

Novels about immigrants, like immigration itself, are a long and central part of American culture. In 2019, books conceived before Trump’s rise arrive with a special timeliness as the president, who has called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and advocated for a Muslim travel ban, shut down the federal government over his insistence on funding for a wall along the country’s southern border. He has often pushed back on accusations that he is xenophobic and anti-immigrant, and defended his actions by saying that controlling immigration was important for national security.

In an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll conducted shortly before the shutdown, 49 percent mentioned immigration as one of the top five problems they hoped the government addresses in 2019. Only 27 percent mentioned immigration in December 2017.

“While current headlines give readers timely coverage of immigration, fiction offers deeper and more complex explorations of the issue,” says Laila Lalami, whose novel “The Other Americans” comes out March 26.

New fiction is set everywhere from Virginia to California and confronts the American Dream narrative of assimilation and upward mobility. Other works include Valeria Luiselli’s “Lost Children Archive,” which tells of young immigrants separated from their families, and Nicole Dennis-Benn’s “Patsy,” about a Jamaican woman’s discovery that the U.S. is nothing like what she had imagined.

“I think there’s been a real blossoming in novels about immigration,” says Barnes & Noble fiction buyer Sessalee Hensley, who cites such works as Jean Kwok’s “Searching for Sylvie Lee,” about a family of Chinese immigrants. “Publishers have really been making an effort to bring in a wider range of voices.”

Devi S. Laskar’s first novel, “The Atlas of Reds and Blues,” follows the disheartening experience of an American-born daughter of Bengali immigrants when she moves her family to an Atlanta suburb. She began the book before Trump was elected, but found its narrative fit all too well with the current time.

“We are all experiencing the current administration together,” Laskar says. “This story ends in 2010, but I feel like the seeds of what is happening started way back when.”

Angie Kim began her first novel, “Miracle Creek,” several years ago. But as she finished the final draft of her story about a Korean immigrant family at the center of a Virginia murder case, Trump had been elected. Kim began adding, not consciously at the time, material on immigration.

“At first I was writing about language and the frustrations for people who think of themselves as smart and knowledgeable but find themselves in a place where they don’t speak the language and they feel like a child again,” she says. “But when I write some new scenes, in January and February of 2017, they were all centered around racism.”

Lalami has written four works of fiction, including the Pulitzer Prize finalist “The Moor’s Account,” drawing upon her native Morocco. In “The Other Americans,” she writes of a Moroccan immigrant’s suspicious death on a California road. She started in 2014, in response to a health scare involving her father and to a recent wave of hate crimes against Muslims.

“A lot of people are interested in immigration because of Trump; he has brought a sense of urgency,” said Lalami, a professor of creative writing at University of California at Riverside. “But as far as I’m concerned, the story would have been the same, although readers might find it more timely.”

As several authors point out, their stories seem contemporary because the issues raised by the Trump presidency have been around for much of the country’s past, whether the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II or the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 or the racist Immigration Act of 1924.

“All of American history leads up to what’s happening now,” Ahmed said.

Luiselli, a native of Mexico City, has written fiction and nonfiction and spoke with children facing deportation for the 2017 publication “Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions.” She began her novel in 2014, “long before Trump was part of this panorama.”

“Thousands of children had arrived alone and undocumented at the border, fleeing gang violence and other circumstances of unspeakable violence and abuse. The Obama administration was not particularly humane in their treatment of undocumented minors,” Luiselli wrote in an email, adding that she didn’t need to make any major revisions once Trump took office.

“The thing is, the crisis was already there by then.”

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