We Are New Yorkers: A Reading List for NYC Immigrant Heritage Week
Happy Immigrant Heritage Week! Since 2004, New York City has celebrated Immigrant Heritage Week around April 17, coordinated by the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs. April 17, 1907 is the date that New York’s immigrant receiving station, Ellis Island, saw its busiest day ever, processing a record 11,747 new arrivals in a single day. This year, New York City Immigrant Heritage Week is April 17–April 23. Many free events celebrating our cultural diversity are scheduled for this week in NYPL branches and other locations throughout New York City.
A great way to learn about and celebrate the histories and contributions of New York City’s diverse immigrant communities is by reading their stories. Here are some vivid representations of the New York immigrant experience in fiction, as well as a few memoirs and biographies of New Yorkers past and present, who arrived here from all over the world and made their mark on our city.
Please note that only books that take place partly in New York have been included, so many wonderful books about the immigrant experience, such as The Namesake by Jumpa Lahiri and We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, are not on this list. Please recommend your favorite immigrant experience books in the comments section below.
Very few of the immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island or at JFK International Airport have published their stories, so we are fortunate that some wonderful writers have shared their immigrant experiences in their memoirs. If you would like to listen to some first-hand accounts, Ellis Island's Oral History Project has been recording the recollections of immigrants who passed through the immigration station between 1892 and 1954, and you can listen to hundreds of recordings online. Here are a few memoirs and biographies of immigrants who chose to make New York their home.
The Other Half: The Life of Jacob Riis and the World of Immigrant America by Tom Buk-Swienty; translated from the Danish by Annette Buk-Swienty (2008). Social reformer and journalist Jacob Riis was himself an immigrant from Denmark, arriving in New York in 1870 at the age of 21.
The Rise of Abraham Cahan by Seth Lipsky (2013). Abraham Cahan, born in Vilnius, Lithuania and longtime editor of the Jewish Forward (Forverts), New York’s Yiddish language newspaper, also authored the classic immigrant novel, The Rise of David Levinsky (1917).
97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement by Jane Ziegelman (2010) explores the food traditions and habits of five families who lived at 97 Orchard Street in the 19th century: the Glockers (Germany), the Moores (Ireland), the Gumpertzs (Germany), the Rogarshvskys (Lithuania) and the Baldizzis (Italy). 97 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan is now the site of The Tenement Museum.
Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas (1967). In his classic memoir, Nuyorican poet Piri Thomas describes growing up on the perilous streets of Spanish Harlem in the mid 20th century.
When I was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago (1993). The author tells the story of her childhood in Puerto Rico and her teenage years in New York in this coming of age classic. Her story continues in Almost a Woman.
The Factory of Facts by Luc Sante (1998). The author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, whose family immigrated to New York when he was a child, travels to Belgium as an adult to explore his heritage and gain a better understanding of his dual identiy.
Tis: A Memoir by Frank McCourt (1999). In the sequel to the international bestseller Angela's Ashes Frank McCourt describes his life in America, beginning in 1949 with his arrival in New York at the age of 19. His story continues in Teacher Man.
Purpose: An Immigrant’s Story by Wyclef Jean (2012). The rapper, songwriter, producer describes growing up in Haiti, Brooklyn and Newark, his rise to fame with the Fugees, and his involvement in politics and relief efforts in Haiti.
Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina by Raquel Cepeda (2013). Journalist, filmmaker, and writer Raquel Cepeda explores her Latin American roots in this memoir, the first to be published by a Dominican American.
Little Failure: A Memoir by Gary Shteyngart (2014). Acclaimed novelist Gary Shteyngart, born Igor Shteyngart in Leningrad, recounts his experiences as a Russian-Jewish immigrant growing up in Queens in this moving and funny memoir.
Not for Everyday Use: A Memoir by Elizabeth Nunez (2014). Novelist and scholar Nunez returns to her mother’s deathbed in her native Trinidad. As she and her family prepare for the funeral, she reflects on her childhood under the British colonial system, her parents’ marriage, and her experiences as a college student and finally a distinguished professor in the United States.
Undocumented: A Dominican Boy's Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League by Dan-El Padilla Peralta (2015). At one point in his memoir Peralta, who came to the U.S. as the age of four and is now a professor of classics at Princeton, describes himself as "illegal alien, hoodrat, Dominican, classicist.” His story offers a window into the hardships faced by undocumented families.
Love, Loss, and What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi (2016). From her grandmother’s South India kitchen to her television chef stardom, Lakshmi explores food, family, and what home means in this memoir of her immigrant childhood and her life in front of the camera.
Check out Mid-Manhattan's list We Are New Yorkers: Immigrant Memoirs and Biographies for additional titles, and suggest other books in the comments section below.
These novels describe the experiences of immigrants who arrived in New York during the 19th and 20th centuries from many countries. Despite the different points of origin, these stories share many common themes, such as the struggle for survival in a new and unfamiliar place, feelings of alienation, a search for identity and community, and often, hopes for the future and the next generation.
Maggie, A Girl of the Streets by Stepehn Crane (1893). An Irish immigrant family struggles to survive on the Bowery in late 19th century New York.
Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska (1925). On Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi rebels against her immigrant father’s view of what a young Jewish woman should be.
Call it Sleep by Henry Roth (1934) recounts the experiences of an Austrian-Jewish family living on the Lower East Side in the early 20th century.
Christ in Concrete by Pietro Di Donato (1939) examines the sometimes brutal life of Italian immigrants in lower Manhattan in the 1920s.
Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall (1959). A young woman comes of age in a close-knit community of Barbadian immigrants in Depression era Brooklyn.
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos (1989). Two musician brothers leave Cuba in 1949 and dream of becoming Mambo stars in New York.
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez (1991). A family moves from the Dominican Republic to the Bronx in the 1960s, and a linguistic and cultural gap develops between generations.
Typical American by Gish Jen (1991). Three Chinese students become permanent immigrants in New York during the Communist Revolution.
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwige Danticat (1994). A twelve-year old girl confronts culture shock and painful family secrets when she leaves her village in Haiti to rejoin her mother who has been living and working in New York.
Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee (1995). Becoming a "native speaker" is not so simple for a Korean American man who tries to assimilate into mainstream American society but has been raised with different cultural norms.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (2000). Joe Kavalier escapes from Prague in 1939 and creates comic superheros with his Brooklyn born cousin, Sammy Clay.
The Russian Debutante's Handbook (2002) by Gary Shteygart. A young Russian immigrant finds his way in late 20th century New York.
Brooklyn: A Novel by Colm Tóibín (2009) tells the story of a young woman who emigrates from Ireland to New York in the 1950s.
Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok (2010). A young girl straddles two worlds—stellar student at school and sweatshop worker at night—when she emigrates from Hong Kong with her mother.
Open City by Teju Cole (2011). A young Nigerian doctor wanders the streets of New York, listening to other immigrants’ stories and reflecting on his own.
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue.(2016). The future looks bright for a Cameroonian couple who find work with wealthy Wall Streeters until the financial crisis of 2008 changes everything.
Check out Mid-Manhattan's list We Are New Yorkers: The New York Immigrant Experience in Fiction for additional titles. And please feel free to suggest other books in the comments section below.
One Book, One New York
The very first One Book, One New York selection, Americanah by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is also a powerful novel of immigration and return that has a few brief scenes set in New York.
A previous version of this post was published in April 2015.