I’ve been a migrant for as long as I can remember.
All my life, I have grappled with the notions of borders, boundaries and belonging. I left my country of birth Bangladesh at the age of one and moved to Saudi Arabia, where I spent twelve years of my life. Thereafter, my family and I immigrated to Canada. As a Bangladeshi Canadian Muslim woman, the search for home is an integral part of my existence. For this reason, I’ve not only been interested in writing stories about the immigrant experience, but also reading them.
Books that portray the richness and challenges of a hyphenated existence, that explore the questions of identity and belonging have always fascinated me and comforted me. Through them, I have felt less alone.
Here are seven books by Canadian authors that I have personally enjoyed and have been moved by.
Jasmine, by Bharati Mukherjee
I remember reading Jasmine in high school for a book project. I had picked it up at the library and was instantly engrossed by the story and Mukherjee’s elegant prose. Jasmine is the story of an Indian woman named Jyoti. While she is in India, an astrologer predicts that she will live the life of a widow in exile. She and her husband make plans for a future in Florida, but after he is killed in a bomb blast, she leaves for the US on her own with false documents. The novel follows Jyoti’s journey as she moves through different places and multiple transformations in her quest for finding herself and where she belongs.
Mukherjee’s heroine is a powerhouse of a character, who, despite going through numerous obstacles, and often devastating experiences, defies the astrologer’s prediction and forges her own path and identity.
English Lessons, by Shauna Singh Baldwin
This is one of the first short story collections I read by a Canadian author that highlights the immigrant experience. The 15 stories provide a glimpse into the lives of Indian women in India and North America. Interestingly, as the stories span from the early to late 1990s, from pre-partition to post-partition India, Baldwin not only portrays India’s entry into the West through immigration, but also the West’s insertion into the East through colonialism. Hence, the title “English Lessons.”
The stories explore how the influence of the West impacts cultural and family dynamics, especially the lives of women and their sense of identity as they deal with patriarchy, racism, migration, and displacement. Baldwin’s prose is crisp and concise, and her insightful stories effectively bring the challenges faced by her characters to life as they try to assert their identity while going through constant change and adjustment.
Ayesha at Last, by Uzma Jalaluddin
A light-hearted yet socio-politically important book, Ayesha at Last is a modern-day twist on Pride and Prejudice focused on the Muslim community in Toronto. This is the story of Ayesha Shamsi, a practising, hijab-wearing Muslim woman with dreams of being a poet. She is strong, talented and educated. When she meets Khalid, a religiously conservative and judgmental man, who ironically is the subject of judgment and stereotyping by his non-Muslim colleagues, she finds herself both clashing with him and being attracted to him. As she navigates her feelings for and relationship with Khalid, Ayesha discovers as much about herself as she does about Khalid.
Through deeply engaging and humorous storytelling, Uzma Jalaluddin paints a vivid and accurate picture of today’s Canada, where diverse populations co-exist and must consistently negotiate and renegotiate their identities, values and traditions as they strive to belong and be accepted by themselves, their families, and the country they have chosen as their new home. Most importantly, she highlights the diversity within the Muslim community, and creates powerful female Muslim characters which is heartwarming.
Ayesha at Last defies stereotypes, entertains the reader, and brings important current issues to the forefront all at the same time.
Brother, by David Chariandy
Also set in Toronto, this is the beautiful and heartbreaking story of Michael and Francis, two brothers born to Trinidadian immigrant parents, and who live with their mother in a low-income Scarborough Housing Complex. Francis is a caring and protective of his brother, and despite growing up in poverty and being underestimated by others around him, is not afraid to have dreams for his future. When Francis is shot and killed by police, Michael and his mother’s lives turn upside down as they deal with their grief and the aftermath of this tragedy amidst prejudice, poverty, stereotypes, violence, and surveillance of black and South Asian youth.
This is a powerful novel about masculinity and race, about family, love and loss and the exhausting yet resilient pursuit of immigrant and racialized individuals to assert themselves as somebody when the world sees them as nobody.
The Illegal, by Lawrence Hill
Here is another politically relevant novel which deals with themes of displacement and belonging through highlighting the plight of refugees. Keita, the central character is a gifted runner from the fictional island nation of Zantoroland. When his father is killed and he flees to another fictional land of Freedom State, Keita goes underground and only surfaces to run a marathon to ransom and save his kidnapped sister.
Lawrence Hill shows his brilliance by bringing to the forefront, the important issues of stateless and statusless individuals and their struggles through a gripping, fast-paced plot and multilayered characters. Through Keita’s story, one can get a glimpse into the lives of the thousands of refugees and individuals without status who struggle to survive in a place where they are treated as outsiders and rendered invisible.
Simple Recipes, by Madeline Thien
This is a beautiful collection of seven short stories that centre around Asian-Canadian families, including those who emigrated from Malaysia and Indonesia. The themes of family, relationships, and cultural and intergenerational differences are prevalent in this collection.
In the powerful title story, Thien brings together many of these themes as a young girl remembers the simple ritual of making traditional food with her father, and how her unconditional love for him changes after he beats her brother when he refuses to eat. The act of making food serves as a powerful symbol of building family relationships and preserving tradition. Through these poignant tales, Thien highlights the journeys of different families as they cope with universal emotions of love, loss and the longing to be accepted and the ways in which these emotions become complicated by the experience of migration.
Scarborough, by Catherine Hernandez
This brilliant novel by Catherine Hernandez brings out the beauty and the many layers and complexities of ethnically and racially diverse Scarborough. Told from multiple points of view, Scarborough portrays the lives of several low-income children and families from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Through vivid and accurate details, Hernandez paints a picture of the class stratifications, racial tensions, and day-to-day challenges of the diverse communities that reside in Scarborough.
Whether it’s Bing, the young Filipino boy who is struggling with his sexual identity, Hina, the Muslim hijab-wearing social worker who faces racism but is dedicated to community work, Victor, a talented black artist who falls prey to police racism, or Laura, the neglected daughter of a white supremacist, all the characters are powerful, multi-layered and real. There is neither suger-coating, nor exaggeration or melodrama in Hernandez’s storytelling. She tells it like it is, and that is what makes this novel so beautiful and powerful.
Caught between cultures, immigrant families from a Bengali neighbourhood in Toronto strive to navigate their home, relationships, and happiness.
Set in both Canada and Bangladesh, the eight stories in Home of the Floating Lily follow the lives of everyday people as they navigate the complexities of migration, displacement, love, friendship, and familial conflict. A young woman moves to Toronto after getting married but soon discovers her husband is not who she believes him to be. A mother reconciles her heartbreak when her sons defy her expectations and choose their own paths in life. A lonely international student returns to Bangladesh and forms an unexpected bond with her domestic helper. A working-class woman, caught between her love for Bangladesh and her determination to raise her daughter in Canada, makes a life-altering decision after a dark secret from the past is revealed.
In each of the stories, characters embark on difficult journeys in search of love, dignity, and a sense of belonging.
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