Friday Reading Rainbow: Immigrant Lit

It’s been a while since I’ve done a “Friday Reading Rainbow.” Of course, I’ve been reading, but not as much or as deeply as I would have liked. Now that we’re settling into the cozy time of year, I expect to have a little more lamplit armchair time to myself.

In the meantime, two books to mention:

Girl in Translation
Jean Kwok

In some ways, a classic immigrant story. Kimberly faces poverty, discrimination, exploitation, and being an outsider. She eventually succeeds spectacularly in many ways, though with an interesting complication of her story in matters of the heart.

You might like this book if you enjoy honest first-person narration. Kimberly’s voice is fresh and engaging. At the same time, the writing didn’t blow me away. I thought at times there was too much explication of meaning in the reader’s direction, and some parts felt repetitive. I would definitely recommend this to my students, because although it’s not a young adult book, it’s a coming-of-age story and would suit a high school reading level.

The House on Mango Street
Sandra Cisneros

Hailed as a classic of Chicano literature– but why don’t we just say of American literature, because this book is as American as you can get. The story of Esperanza who doesn’t like her name, in a house she wants to trade in for a home, on a street where Louie’s cousin steals a car and Lucy and Rachel get cat-called for wearing cute shoes, is at once familiar to anyone who grew up in a neighborhood.

So I’m wondering….  is the fiction of immigration and immigrants uniquely suited to telling stories of growing up, of learning how to belong, of protesting and rebelling and adapting? Or am I more interesting in these stories because they are not my experience, because I find my own coming-of-age to be tinted too pale with suburban stereotypes?  I think that these days I’m looking especially hard for reasons to hopefully believe in America and Americans, and these stories of young people are the ones that draw most light.

Some of the best immigration fiction that I’ve read recently:

Til the Well Runs Dry
Lauren Francis-Sharma

The Book of Unknown Americans
Cristina Henriquez

The Kitchen God’s Wife
Amy Tan

The Woman Warrior
Maxine Hong-Kingston





buttons and horses

My poetry class wrote this poem as a group today. Each person wrote a first line and we passed our papers in a circle. 10 poems. This was my favorite. I wrote the first line and each student wrote one of the following ones. 

For context, you may want to read “In a Word, a World” by C.D. Wright, from which we gained the idea that the word “horse” unhorses what is not horse. 


buttons pressed are always unbuttoned.
horses unalive are always unhorsed.
unbuttoned buttons are eventually rebuttoned
horses that are born are always rehorsed.
Buttons can fall off.
And horses can die.
But buttons can be resewed
And new horses brought to life.

unhorse the buttons that unbutton
but rebutton the horse that unhorse


Sunday Sentence

The best sentence I’ve read this week, presented without commentary and out of context. 

I was thinking something of this sort: that deep red of her lips, if it were printed on me, kissed on me, would become a burning solidified blood that would brand itself into my flesh and leave a black seared brand shaped like the lips of a woman.

Louise Erdrich

The Round House 


I haven’t written much this October, and so this November I need to come back to writing. Getting back to writing is an acknowledgement that writing will take me back. And that I have written before, I have been a writer, I AM a writer. Just one who’s drifted away.

Two nights ago the Northeast, where I live in a little city neighborhood nestled next to the water, was pummeled by a massive raging storm. All night I woke in cycles, hearing and fearing the hits of the wind against my windows. Damage, trauma, trees down, and then we slowly pick up and get back to work. Do we leave the leaves on the ground? Which branches are big enough to stop us, and which are just reminders of history?

I think often of the damage-inflicting events of our lives. Grief, war, addiction, violence, poverty, racism, abuse. Recently we’ve been talking about sexual assault (some readers may want to stop here) and the ways that it changes us and our ways of trusting and giving and living and being in our bodies. I am trying to listen to my sisters and brothers and hoping that they can pick up strings and tie themselves into their own strength. But I know it’s too much to expect for everyone to be okay.

Right now, I’m reading The Round House, by Louise Erdrich. She names her novel after the site of Geraldine’s rape, and she knows that she has to unfold the truth quickly. There’s been some criticism out there lately about authors using rape as a plot device, but that’s not the case here. The novel is about how to step back up into life after trauma. So far in my reading, Geraldine is not doing it– not resuming, that is. And that has to be okay; we have to suspend judgement. But we also have to want her and will her to get better. Erdrich’s narration forces us to do so from behind the closed door. Instead, we watch Joe, her 13-year old son, trying to go on and grow up. This is a far kinder and more beautiful way to write the book.

The Round House begins with an image of weeds creeping into the cracks of a house. An image, I think, of damage and trouble invading where they don’t belong, multiplying organically. Joe and his father, together, are a unified front against the little trees. Later in the book they carefully tend Joe’s mother’s garden when she won’t leave her room. They bring her cut flowers to show the nurturing they can do. They are gentle and yet fierce in their protection.


Outside my window right now is a prodigious tree made prostrate by the storm. It drapes like the willow it isn’t over the fence of the park next door. It is cracked into impossible angles, yet it still forms one entangled mass. It’s broken and someone will come to break it more and take it away and clean up. The neighborhood won’t be treeless; we’ll resume our ways. But I think it’s right that there’s a time to see it and let it be ruined and count its branches.

In my poetry class, my kids are making family trees. What are their branches? Which kid will hesitate before putting someone’s name down? Which kid will really kind of wish he could chop off an entire branch? Which kid will choose a symbol that’s NOT a tree? Which kid will be thinking about the ways her family could grow?

As for me, I’m letting things lie draped over and slightly broken, and I’m coming back to writing.