When The Good Immigrant—a collection of 20 essays by first- and second-generation immigrants—was published in the U.K. in September of 2016, no one, including the anthology’s editor, Nikesh Shukla, expected the book to take off in the way in it did.
“It’s amazing to think about where it’s got to now,” says Shukla. “At the time, I thought I was just doing a little project to put some writers together and put them in front of publishers to say—‘you keep saying you don’t know where the talent is, that’s why publishing’s not very diverse. Here are 20 writers you need to know about’—but then it sort of blew up. It blew up in this really pure, beautiful way, and now it’s become big.”
Originally created via the London-based crowdfunding publisher Unbound in 2016—author J.K. Rowling pledged £500—The Good Immigrant quickly became a U.K. bestseller, and was chosen as a BBC Radio Four Book of the Week before winning the Readers’ Choice award at the annual UK Books Are My Bag Award.
I first met Shukla in August of 2018 at an indie bookshop on one of Edinburgh’s cobbled backstreets. He was giving a talk about his novel The One Who Wrote Destiny. Following four characters over three generations, the book looks at immigration, the idea of home, the stories we tell ourselves, and the sometimes-dysfunctional ways we cope with grief.
At the time, the expanded and updated U.S. version of The Good Immigrant (out in the U.S. on February 19 and in the U.K. on March 7) was in its early stages. Subtitled 26 Writers Reflect on America, the new edition of The Good Immigrant (published through the Little Brown imprint Dialogue Books) is similar to its U.K. predecessor in that it asks a selection of writers what immigration means to them.
Although he was clearly excited about the project, the anthology—co-edited by poet and essayist Chimene Suleyman—was fetal. It was growing, coming together, emerging, but at this stage Shukla could not say much about the book. So much was in the pipeline—that place of possibilities and maybes.
We sat on a little wooden ledge at the back of the bookshop, tables of books in front of us. Shukla pointed out a novel, Immigrant Montana, and told me it’s a good read. He wore a badge saying “Hello, My Name Is Not Too Hard to Pronounce.” It’s a nice touch, for someone who sees language as hugely important.
“When you come from a marginalized community, you know that language is set up to dehumanize you in some way, to make you feel less than one hundred percent human, and that is a scary state to be in,” he told me. “So, I wanted to write about it. You can use language unknowingly, ignorantly.”
In The One Who Wrote Destiny, he refers to characters talking about chai tea, naan bread, and pilau rice, all tautologies (tea tea, bread bread, rice rice.) Shukla’s own essay for the crowdfunded version of The Good Immigrant looks at language, and how it is used to diminish people. He tells of a night when he went across the road to speak to his neighbors about loud music. It was early in the morning and his baby was sleeping. He crossed the road groggy in his pajamas. A girl at the door started shouting “Namaste,” at him.
“I felt it was racialized but it was also her attempt to establish peace, and I just thought, in the moment, it was the worst possible thing she could have done,” he says.
For Shukla, it’s important that stories of immigration are told truthfully. For the U.K. essay collection, he asked writers to answer the question, what does being an immigrant mean to you? For the U.S. edition Shukla and Suleyman ask this question again. However, this time around, the question is more loaded. What does it mean to be an immigrant in an America where the President has suggested a ban on Muslims entering the country? What does it mean to be a person of color in a country where black people are routinely shot by police? And as Suleyman writes in her essay from the anthology, what does it mean to be an immigrant in “an America whose presidency is based on crude lack of subtlety.”
The answer—given by the 26 writers in this anthology—is impassioned, vitriolic, and hurt.
In an essay from the book called “Skittles,” novelist Fatima Farheen Mirza begins by directly quoting Donald Trump Jr.’s stupendously glib and ignorant statement likening immigrants to skittles. In her essay, Mirza tells us that days after this statement, the daughter of a neighbor turned up at her parents’ doorstep and handed her mother a bag of Skittles. The neighbors had hitherto been chilly with the family, and the offer of candy seemed kind, a peace offering, until they saw the sweets, small and loaded with meaning. Another essay from the collection, “Shithole Nation” by Jim St. Germain, takes its title directly from a quote from the President himself.
“When we originally filed The Good Immigrant in 2016 we filed it before all the toxicity around the Brexit Referendum had really hit, so it’s written in a timeless bubble, whereas this one is definitely written in the age of Trump, and Trump is very difficult to ignore,” Shukla says. “So, this one feels more polemical, a little angrier, and quite scary actually.”
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Janet Malcolm, Pitchaya Sudbanthad, Lindsay Stern, Mark Doten and more—that are publishing this week.
Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Bangkok Wakes to Rain: “Sudbanthad’s meditative debut drifts back and forth through time, evoking Bangkok past, present, and future. Loosely woven narratives follow Nee, a girl whose lover is killed during anti-government protests in 1973, as she navigates life in a melancholy city bleeding out its ancient culture. In one story, Nee is estranged from her sister Nok after she discovers Nok’s restaurant in Japan buys its Thai ingredients from a corrupt ex-colonel. In another, Nee goes to work managing a high-rise condo, the lobby of which is a colonial-style Thai house—the heart of this novel—once owned by one of the building’s wealthy elderly residents. When the old woman’s son comes home from abroad, he and Nee begin a disastrous affair. Interspersed among Nee’s stories (which are not presented chronologically) are beautifully wrought tales of a doctor-missionary in old Siam, whose Western faith morphs into enlightenment with the help of witch doctors, cholera, and despair. Occasionally birds will narrate a story—or an aging American jazz musician, another foreigner seduced by Krungthep, the name the Thai people use to describe their city. Though this novel’s ambitious architecture—disparate stories in shifting eras—can sometimes work against its considerable strengths, all of Sudbanthad’s characters live and breathe with authenticity, and his prose is deeply moving, making for an evocative debut.”
The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Good Immigrant: “In this revealing follow-up to the 2015 British edition, Shukla (Meatspace) and Suleyman (Outside Looking On) invite 26 artists and scholars, who are immigrants or have ties to multiple countries, to reflect on race, ethnicity, nationality, belonging, and the legacy of colonization, mostly in the context of post-2016 U.S. Written after, and in response to, U.S. President Trump’s Muslim travel bans and references to ‘shithole countries,’ these essays string similar notes—history, memory, pride, and (non)belonging—into many different melodies. Journalist Porochista Khakpour wonders at how she has come to write about nothing but “Iranian-America.” Artists Adrián and Sebastián Villar Rojas lay out Argentina’s struggle between its indigenous roots and its desire to be Western. Teju Cole and Walé Oyéjidé offer contrasting interpretations of depictions of Africa in the blockbuster film Black Panther. French-British film director Yann Demange gives an extended answer to the question, ‘Where are you from?’ and concludes that he will keep giving the short answer, because ‘the alternative answer can take for-fucking-ever, innit.’ The strength of this collection is in its diversity—of gender, sexuality, privilege, experience, and writing style. A gift for anyone who understands or wants to learn about the breadth of experience among immigrants to the U.S., this collection showcases the joy, empathy, and fierceness needed to adopt the country as one’s own.”
Nobody’s Looking at You by Janet Malcolm
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Nobody’s Looking at You: “Malcolm (Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers) assembles an eclectic group of essays, mainly culled from the New Yorker and New York Review of Books, most of them from the past decade, into this outstanding collection. Varied and witty, the book includes profiles of such people as fashion designer Eileen Fisher, with her ‘aesthetic of elegant plainness’ and concert pianist Yuja Wang, ‘whose tiny dresses and spiky heels’ draw attention to the contrast between her petite frame and the ‘forcefulness she achieves at her instrument.’ Several essays are literary critiques, touching on, among other points, New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell’s ability to ‘bend actuality to [his] artistic will’ and how Tolstoy follows the ‘deep structures’ of dream logic in Anna Karenina. Malcolm also explores the differing ways millennials and baby boomers view sexual harassment, email etiquette, and the high-stakes drama of John Roberts’s Supreme Court nomination hearings, where little was learned about his judicial philosophy, but revelations about character emerged. With no weak selections and several strikingly prescient ones, this collection shows its author as a master of narrative nonfiction.”
Aerialists by Mark Meyer
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Aerialists: “Mayer’s high-wire debut exposes the weirdness of everyday life. In the title story, a young man about to follow his brother into the navy constructs a computer-generated simulacrum of his neighborhood. Animals are featured in several stories: in ‘The Evasive Magnolio,’ the caretaker for a town’s dying mascot, a former circus elephant, has to plan its funeral; in ‘The Wilderness Act,’ a middle-aged outdoors advocate, unfamiliar with the online dating scene, begins to date a woman who hopes to see a mountain lion. Other stories feature children, including ‘Strongman,’ in which a child of divorce falls under the influence of his mother’s friend, a female bodybuilder, and ‘The April Thief,’ in which a boy is asked to care for a disease-ridden dog until his estranged mother returns home. And then there are stories with idiosyncratic characters: Uncle Bart is a Marxist who lives in the basement and cares for his orphaned nephew along with his cancer-survivor wife in ‘Solidarity Forever.’ A divorced real estate agent has the inner life of a killer clown in ‘The Clown.’ And in ‘The Ringmaster,’ an electrical engineer has a difficult time giving away his extensive model railroad. Mayer wittily subverts reader expectations with stories told in a realistic manner about characters or situations that all share a slightly surreal bent, resulting in a clever collection.”
The Study of Animal Languages by Lindsay Stern
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Study of Animal Languages: “Stern’s latest (after Luz and Town of Shadows) is a taut, brainy tale that tracks the breakdown of an academic couple’s marriage while dissecting differences between language and communication, knowledge and truth, madness and inspiration. Forty-six-year-old philosophy professor Ivan Link drives his wife Prue’s father, Frank, from Vermont to the Rhode Island college where Ivan and Prue teach to attend Prue’s public lecture on birdsong. Bi-polar Frank is not taking his medication, but it is Prue who unsettles her audience by accusing animal language researchers of anthropocentrism, going so far as to call herself prison warden for the birds in her experiments. At the after-lecture party, Frank tries to force guests to admit animals have feelings by threatening to stab Ivan’s cockatiel with a fountain pen. The next day, at the aquarium, believing he understands what sharks are communicating, Frank destroys the shark tank. Frank is hospitalized; Ivan and Prue quarrel. Epistemologist Ivan mistakenly assumes Prue is having an affair with a visiting novelist; biolinguist Prue, meanwhile, cannot articulate the depth of her discontent. Stern’s intellectually teeming prose makes for a thought-provoking novel, though its more successful asking questions such as, ‘Can voles experience heartbreak?’ than depicting people breaking each other’s hearts.”
Trump Sky Alpha by Mark Doten
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Trump Sky Alpha: “A blistering and heartbreaking satire in which president Trump brings about a nuclear apocalypse, Doten’s second novel (after The Infernal) is by turns a dystopian nightmare, a cyber thriller, a spot-on treatise on memes, and a tragic tale of love and loss. After the president, aboard his ‘ultraluxury zeppelin’ named Trump Sky Alpha, executes a nuclear strike that kills a majority of the world’s population, Rachel, a tech journalist, receives an assignment for the reformation of the New York Times Magazine on ‘internet humor at the end of the world.’ Though she finds the idea of the piece irrelevant, Rachel accepts with the condition that she be able to travel to the field where the bodies of her wife and daughter were taken. She’s led to ‘the room with what was left of the internet’ to investigate the jokes, memes, and witticisms that were shared and posted as the global catastrophe took place, but she uncovers, instead, a possible explanation as to who was behind the cyber attacks that precipitated what becomes known as ‘1/28’— i.e., the day of the mass destruction. A group known as the Aviary, who were inspired by a 2015 novel called The Subversive, took credit for the four-day shutdown of the internet, and Rachel seems to have stumbled on some clues about their identities. Featuring a disturbing not-so-distant future, Doten’s novel is haunting, incisive, and surprisingly touching.”
Also on shelves: The White Book by Han Kang.
We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month—for more February titles, check out our First-Half Preview. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James: Following up his Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, James has written the first book in what is to be an epic trilogy that is part Lord of the Rings, part Game of Thrones, and part Black Panther. In this first volume, a band of mercenaries—made up of a witch, a giant, a buffalo, a shape-shifter, and a bounty hunter who can track anyone by smell (his name is Tracker)—are hired to find a boy, missing for three years, who holds special interest for the king. (Janet)
Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li: Where Reasons End is the latest novel by the critically acclaimed author of Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. Li creates this fictional space where a mother can have an eternal, carefree conversation with her child Nikolai, who commits suicide at the age of 16. Suffused with intimacy and deepest sorrows, the book captures the affections and complexity of parenthood in a way that has never been portrayed before. (Jianan)
The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang: Wang writes brilliantly and beautifully about lives lived with mental illness. Her first novel, The Border of Paradise, traces a family through generations, revealing the ways each becomes inheritors of the previous generation’s isolation and depression. In The Collected Schizophrenias, her first essay collection (for which she was awarded the Whiting Award and Greywolf Nonfiction Prize), Wang draws from her experience as both patient and speaker/advocate navigating the vagaries of the mental healthcare system while also shedding light on the ways it robs patients of autonomy. What’s most astonishing is how Wang writes with such intelligence, insight, and care about her own struggle to remain functional while living with schizoaffective disorder. (Anne)
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson: It’s the mid-1980s and American Cold War adventurism has set its sights on the emerging west African republic of Burkina Faso. There’s only one problem: the agent sent to help swing things America’s way is having second, and third, thoughts. The result is an engaging and intelligent stew of espionage and post-colonial political agency, but more important, a confessional account examining our baser selves and our unscratchable itch to fight wars that cannot be won. (Il’ja)
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli: The two-time finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award has written a road novel for America in the 21st century. In the book, a family of four set out from their home in New York to visit a place in Arizona called Apacheria, a.k.a. the region once inhabited by the Apache tribe. On their way down south, the family reveals their own set of long-simmering conflicts, while the radio gives updates on an “immigration crisis” at the border. (Thom)
The White Book by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith): In 2016, Kang’s stunning novel The Vegetarian won the Man Booker Prize; in 2018, she drew Man Booker attention again with her autobiographical work The White Book. There are loose connections between the two—both concern sisters, for one, and loss, and both feature Han’s beautiful, spare prose—but The White Book is less a conventional story and more like a meditation in fragments. Written about and to the narrator’s older sister, who died as a newborn, and about the white objects of grief, Han’s work has been likened to “a secular prayer book,” one that “investigates the fragility, beauty and strangeness of life.” (Kaulie)
Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad: NYFA Fellow Sudbanthad’s debut novel, Bangkok Wakes to Rain, has already been hailed as “important, ambitious, and accomplished,” by Mohsin Hamid, and a book that “brilliantly sounds the resonant pulse of the city in a wise and far-reaching meditation on home,” by Claire Vaye Watkins. This polyphonic novel follows myriad characters—from a self-exiled jazz pianist to a former student revolutionary—through the thresholds of Bangkok’s past, present, and future. Sudbanthad, who splits his time between Bangkok and New York, says he wrote the novel by letting his mind wander the city of his birth: “I arrived at the site of a house that, to me, became a theatrical stage where characters…entered and left; I followed them, like a clandestine voyeur, across time and worlds, old and new.” (Anne)
The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison: A new collection of nonfiction–speeches, essays, criticism, and reflections–from the Nobel-prize winning Morrison. Publishers Weekly says “Some superb pieces headline this rich collection…Prescient and highly relevant to the present political moment…” (Lydia)
Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken: It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since McCracken published her first novel, The Giant’s House, perhaps because, since then, she’s given us two brilliant short story collections and one of the most powerful memoirs in recent memory. Her fans will no doubt rejoice at the arrival of this second novel, which follows three generations of a family in a small New England town. Bowlaway refers to a candlestick bowling alley that Publishers Weekly, in its starred review, calls “almost a character, reflecting the vicissitudes of history that determine prosperity or its opposite.” In its own starred review, Kirkus praises McCracken’s “psychological acuity.” (Edan)
All My Goodbyes by Mariana Dimópulos (translated by Alice Whitmore): Argentinian writer Dimópulos’s first book in English is a novel that focuses on a narrator who has been traveling for a decade. The narrator reflects on her habit of leaving family, countries, and lovers. And when she decides to commit to a relationship, her lover is murdered, adding a haunting and sorrowful quality to her interiority. Julie Buntin writes, “The scattered pieces of her story—each of them wonderfully distinct, laced with insight, violence, and sensuality—cohere into a profound evocation of restlessness, of the sublime and imprisoning act of letting go.” (Zoë)
The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah: An account of 19th-century Ghana, the novel follows twoyoung girls, Wurche and Aminah, who live in the titular city which is a notorious center preparing people for sale as slaves to Europeans and Americans. Attah’s novel gives a texture and specificity to the anonymous tales of the Middle Passage, with critic Nadifa Mohamad writing in The Guardian that “One of the strengths of the novel is that it complicates the idea of what ‘African history’ is.” (Ed)
The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer: This much sought-after debut, which was the object of a bidding war, is based on the life of Lee Miller, a Vogue model turned photographer who decided she would rather “take a picture than be one.” The novel focuses on Miller’s tumultuous romance with photographer Man Ray in early 1930s Paris, as Miller made the transition from muse to artist. Early reviews suggests that the novel more than lives up to its promise, with readers extolling its complicated heroine and page-turning pacing. (Hannah)
Adèle by Leila Slimani (translated by Sam Taylor): Slimani, who won the Prix Goncourt in 2016, became famous after publishing Dans le jardin de l’ogre, which is now being translated and published in English as Adèle. The French-Moroccon novelist’s debut tells the story of a titular heroine whose burgeoning sex addiction threatens to ruin her life. Upon winning an award in Morocco for the novel, Slimani said its primary focus is her character’s “loss of self.” (Thom)
Notes From a Black Woman’s Diary by Kathleen Collins: Not long after completing her first feature film, Losing Ground, in 1982, Collins died from breast cancer at age 46. In 2017, her short story collection about the lives and loves of black Americans in the 1960s, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, was published to ringing critical acclaim. Now comes Notes From a Black Woman’s Diary, which is much more than the title suggests. In addition to autobiographical material, the book includes fiction, plays, excerpts from an unfinished novel, and the screenplay of Losing Ground, with extensive directorial notes. This book is sure to burnish Collins’s flourishing posthumous reputation. (Bill)
Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev: This debut is the memoir of a young woman’s life shaped by unrelenting existential terror. The story is told in fragmentary vignettes beginning with Shalmiyev’s fraught emigration as a young child from St. Petersburg, Russia to the United States, leaving behind the mother who had abandoned her. It closes with her resolve to find her estranged mother again. (Il’ja)
The Cassandra by Sharma Shields: Mildred Groves, The Cassandra’s titular prophetess, sometimes sees flashes of the future. She is also working at the top-secret Hanford Research Center in the 1940s, where the seeds of atomic weapons are sown and where her visions are growing more horrifying—and going ignored at best, punished at worst. Balancing thorough research and mythic lyricism, Shields’s novel is a timely warning of what happens when warnings go unheeded. (Kaulie)
A People’s Future of the United States edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams: An anthology of 25 speculative stories from a range of powerful storytellers, among them Maria Dahvana Headley, Daniel José Older, and Alice Sola Kim. LaValle and Adams sought stories that imagine a derailed future—tales that take our fractured present and make the ruptures even further. Editor LaValle, an accomplished speculative fiction writer himself (most recently The Changeling, and my personal favorite, the hilarious and booming Big Machine), is the perfect writer to corral these stories. LaValle has said “one of the great things about horror and speculative fiction is that you are throwing people into really outsized, dramatic situations a lot…[including] racism and sexism and classism, biases against the mentally ill”—the perfect description for this dynamic collection. (Nick R.)
Nothing but the Night by John Williams: The John Williams ofStoner fame revival continues with the reissue of his first novel by NYRB, first published in 1948, a story dealing with mental illness and trauma with echoes of Greek tragedy. (Lydia)
Vacuum in the Dark by Jen Beagin: Whiting Award winner Beagin is back with a sequel to her debut novel, Pretend I’m Dead. Two-years older, Mona is living in New Mexico and working as a cleaning woman. In an attempt to start over, Mona must heal wounds both new and old—and figure out who she wants to be. Dark, sharp, and poignant, Publishers Weekly’s starred review calls the novel “viciously smart and morbidly funny.” (Carolyn)
Willa & Hesper by Amy Feltman: Feltman’s debut coming-of-age novel follows two queer woman who meet at their MFA program, fall in love, and then break up. In an effort to heal, both leave New York and travel to their respective ancestral homelands: Germany (Willa) and Tbilisi, Georgia (Hesper) Author Crystal Hana Kim called the novel “a lyrical, timely story about love, heartbreak, and healing.” (Carolyn)
The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman: In a follow-up to their UK edition, editors Shukla (The One Who Wrote Destiny) and Suleyman (Outside Looking On) gather 26 writers and scholars to write on the immigrant experience—many of which are in response to post-2016 America—including Porochista Khakpour, Teju Cole, Alexander Chee, and Jenny Zhang. With “joy, empathy, and fierceness,” Publishers Weekly’s starred review called the collection “a gift for anyone who understands or wants to learn about the breadth of experience among immigrants to the U.S.” (Carolyn)