Do They Hear You When You Cry by Fauziya Kassindja and Layli Miller Bashir

yellow book against brick wall

a nutshell: in this moving autobiography Kassindja records how she fled Togo aged 17 ahead of kakia (female genital mutilation) and a forced marriage, ending up in the US where she spent a horrifying 16 months in detention

a line: “I’d been lost, misplaced, like luggage gone astray”

an image: Kassindja’s memories of prison guards mistreating detainees often evoked shocking scenes, particularly how she was ostracised under entirely false suspicion of TB

a thought: among the most poignant moments in this book, for me, were Kassindja’s reunions with other women detained while seeking asylum – her story is full of powerful friendships and unconditional love often in less likely corners, for instance the commitment of her cousin Rahuf whom she hadn’t seen since childhood

a fact: 97% of detained immigrants are people of colour even though 5 of the the top 20 countries of origin for illegal immigrants are Caucasian – it isn’t that white-skinned illegal immigrants don’t come to the US, it’s that they don’t get put in detention

want to read Do They Hear You When You Cry? visit here

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

a nutshell: incorporating an array of first-person narratives from Latino immigrants to the US, this book’s focal lens is on the complex dynamic between two families from Panamá and Mexico living in an apartment block in Delaware

a line: “You have to think like a gringa now … You have to believe that you’re entitled to happiness.”

an image: Alma recalls how she came to know her husband’s soft spots, like bruises on fruit, which in turn recalled for me the words of another character, Rafael Toro, as he remembered Panamá through the smell of car exhaust and sweet fruit

a thought: a teenage boy lets us in on how he felt it was ‘backwards’ for his parents to have fled Panamá for the US, that is, for the nation that had driven them out of theirs

a fact: Henríquez’s father is from Panamá and immigrated to the US in 1971, while her mother is from New Jersey and worked in Delaware public schools as a translator – Henríquez herself was born in Delaware but spent summers in Panamá

want to read The Book of Unknown Americans? visit here

The Country Under My Skin by Gioconda Belli (tr. Kristina Cordero)

Blue spine of book with title and author, blank red cover, yellow brick wall in background

a nutshell: subtitled ‘A Memoir of Love and War’, this is a stunningly rich remembrance of an acclaimed Nicaraguan writer’s involvement in the Sandinista Revolution and how she came to age as a passionate feminist in & out of exile

a line: “I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t believe in the creative powers of the human imagination”

an image: on returning to Managua after a heart-rending medical procedure in NYC, Belli presses her forehead to the plane window and realises the runway is beautifully lit by oil lamps – since recent storms had wreaked havoc, they had relied on these with the hope it wouldn’t rain

a thought: Belli’s account certainly made me reflect on social responsibility & collective joy – esp. as my partner is currently reading Lynne Segal’s Radical Happiness – but I never quite pinpointed whether her primary source of joy is herself or collaboration (sometimes she singles out the former as the key to happiness, other times the latter)

a fact: Belli’s most well-known book, The Inhabited Woman, is a semi-autobiographical novel which raised gender issues for the first time in the Nicaraguan revolutionary narratives, yet she considers herself a poet before all else

want to read The Country Under My Skin? visit here

Nobody Wanted Me by Soledad Castillo

Chapter of Soledad Castillo's story

a nutshell: this is a moving account of resilience from a young refugee, Soledad, who fled her native Honduras aged 14 (having survived disease, sexual assault by her step-father, and child labour) to forge a new life for herself in California

a line: “Many Americans think that we come here to take their jobs, to do bad things, to take advantage of the country. I’m not a bad person. I came here to survive, to do better in this world, to help my family and other people.”

an image: Soledad describes the moment when, aged 12, she fearfully told her mother what her step-father had done; refusing to believe her, her mother tried to hit her and the 12 year old ended up running from the house crying – on returning a few hours later, she found her mother packing the child’s clothes and she was sent away from home into unpaid work

a thought: it’s uplifting to read how sharing her story has changed Soledad’s life – now if she ever feels sad or despairing, she rereads what she wrote to be reminded that so many things have come true for her; that she can get up and go on

a fact: Soledad is currently studying for a degree while working for John Burton Advocates for Youth, a civic organisation that advocates for foster children’s rights

Soledad’s story is featured in Solito, Solita: Crossing Borders with Youth Refugees from Central America (ed. Steven Mayers & Jonathan Freedman)

want to read the book? visit here

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Behold the Dreamers book by Imbolo Mbue against brick wall

a nutshell: seeking a ‘better life’ in NYC for his Cameroonian family while striving for a green card, Jende finds employment as a chauffeur for a Lehman Brothers exec and discovers how bleak the Manhattan lifestyle is below its glittering surface

a line: “American women do not use love potions.”  “That’s what you think? … They call it lingerie.”

an image: Jende contrasts the 2008 financial crisis with the curse that befell Ancient Egypt, which he blames on Egyptians choosing riches over righteousness, worshipping idols and enslaving fellow humans – the Americans did no such thing, he believes

a thought: I’ll try not to say too much, but the ending felt beyond crushing, particularly in its seemingly normalised misogyny

a fact: Mbue lost her own job in the 2008 crash and was inspired to write this novel when observing drivers, who were predominantly black, waiting on Wall Street

 

want to read Behold the Dreamers? visit here

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

TW – this review contains references to sexual assault

a nutshell: a short, narrative nonfiction book bearing witness to the suffering of undocumented children navigating the US immigration system, drawing on Luiselli’s work as a volunteer court translator in New York

a line: “It is perhaps not the American Dream they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they were born”

an image: the writer describes seeing child migrants enter the court system as like being stood with hands and feet tied, powerless, watching kids try to cross a busy avenue with cars speeding by

a thought: rather than writing off these children as “illegals” or “aliens” we should regard them as refugees of a hemispheric war (in which the US has long been complicit), Luiselli argues, all of whom have the right to asylum

a fact: the writer notes the horrifying reality that 80% of the women and girls who cross Mexico to get to the US border are raped on the journey

 

want to read Tell Me How It Ends? visit here

Seeing Red by Lina Meruane (tr. Megan McDowell)

a nutshell: a short, graphic examination of a NY-based Chilean woman’s raw spiral into near-blindness and the resulting reorientation in dynamics with those around her*

a line: “A medusa, a jellyfish, an ocean flagellum, a gelatinous organism with tentacles that would cause a rash. There was no pulling my mother off of me”

an image: at one point the narrator describes a hot water bottle that had fallen to the floor as like a dead child, which typifies the blunt, unapologetic indignation quick to rise in the midst of the blindness

a thought: there were – when I could look – curious quirks throughout, e.g. the way Lina often truncates thoughts with a full stop, sometimes ending sentences abruptly with “I” or “we” – again perhaps a sign of her vexation

a fact: the author shares a first name with the protagonist and was herself temporarily blind when her eyes haemorrhaged and blood flooded her vision during her PhD at NYU – this novel is semi-autobiographical

 

want to read Seeing Red? visit here

*N.B. not for anyone with a particular squeamishness for eyes – a category which, by a stroke of bad luck, I fall v firmly into