by Mollie Weisenfeld
Literature in any form enriches the culture of a society, and there is much to be said for bringing in a plethora of opinions shaped by lives lived differently. The United States has a history of celebrating the literature of diaspora—books written by authors who were born in one country but now live in another—without always acknowledging that the writer’s work could not, would not be as powerful if they had not lived elsewhere and then emigrated. In light of the increasingly anti-immigrant policies of the current administration, we highlight here the strength of the art that has come from immigrants—those who settled in the U.S., those who are dual citizens, and those who live in other countries.
Sarah Ladipo Manyika
Manyika was born in 1968 in Nigeria. Her father was a Nigerian minister and her mother a British physiotherapist, art historian, and poet. Manyika’s childhood was spent mainly in Lagos, but she lived for two years in Kenya before her family moved back to the U.K., where her parents had originally met.
Manyika studied at the Universities of Birmingham (U.K.), Bordeaux (France), and Berkeley (U.S.). She has a PhD in African Studies. Her dissertation looked at the current and future prospects of African universities. She has taught literature at San Francisco State University, and serves on the boards of Hedgebrook—a retreat for women writers—and the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. She is a Patron of the Etisalat Prize for Literature, host of OZY’s video series, “Write,” and OZY magazine’s Books Editor.
African immigration is the focus of the majority of Manyika’s work, herself an African immigrant who divides her time between San Francisco, London, and Harare, Zimbabwe. Her first book, a novel titled In Dependence, was published by Legend Press in London in 2008. She was forty years old. The book was the featured U.K. title at Waterstone’s, the U.K.’s largest bookstore chain, 2008’s Black History Month. Manyika then granted world rights to African publisher Cassava Republic, based in Nigeria and the U.K., in 2009, a deliberate move to “attempt to address the imbalance of power in a world where the gatekeepers of literature, even for the so-called African stories, remain firmly rooted in the west.”
In Dependence focuses on Tayo Ajayi, who sails to England from Nigeria to study at Oxford in the 1960s. There he meets Vanessa Richardson, the daughter of an ex-colonial offer, and a tragic and political love affair commences.
Manyika’s second novel, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, was published in 2016 by Cassava Republic.
Viet Thanh Nguyen
Nguyen was born in Ban Me Thot (now spelled Buon Me Thuot), Vietnam in 1971. He is the son of North Vietnamese immigrants who moved south in 1954. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, his family fled to the U.S. as refugees, settling first in Pennsylvania, then California. The Nguyens opened one of the first Vietnamese grocery stores in San Jose.
Nguyen received his PhD in English from UC Berkeley in 1997 and now teaches at USC in both the English Department and the American Studies/Ethnicity Department. He serves as cultural critic-at-large for the Los Angeles Times and is an editor of diaCRITICS, a blog for the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network. He is also on the steering committee for USC’s Center for Transpacific Studies.
Nguyen’s first novel, The Sympathizer, was published by Grove/Atlantic in 2015 when he was forty-four years old. It won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and many other awards both in the U.S. and internationally. He published a companion nonfiction work, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, with Harvard University Press.
The Sympathizer follows a communist double agent: a half-French, half-Vietnamese army captain who arranges to go to America after the fall of Saigon. While building a new life with other Vietnamese refugees in Los Angeles, he is also reporting back to his communist superiors.
Nguyen’s second work of fiction, The Refugees, is a short story collection from Grove Press, published in 2017.
Freeman was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 1967. Her mother taught English literature and Greek and Roman classics. Her father, a civil servant, also wrote poetry. She grew up reading whatever was available from the American organization called the Asia Foundation, and from the Soviet initiative The People’s Publishing House.
Freeman attended Bates College in the U.S., receiving her BA, and eventually became a dual citizen of the U.S. and Sri Lanka. She lives in Pennsylvania and teaches at Columbia University. She has a graduate degree in labor studies, researching female migrant labor in Kuwait, the U.A.E, and Saudi Arabia, worked for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., in the South Asia office of the AFL-CIO, and the American Friends Service Committee. Freeman is a board member of the Asian American Literary Review, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Lannan Foundation.
Freeman’s first novel, A Disobedient Girl, was published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in 2009 when she was forty-two years old. It focuses on Biso, a young mother who flees her murderous husband in a southern coastal town in Sri Lanka, and on Latha, a five-year-old girl brought into a wealthy home in Colombo to act as a companion and lifelong servant to a girl her age, whose life she covets.
On Sal Mal Lane, Freeman’s second novel, was published by Graywolf in 2013. In 2015, she edited the anthology Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine, published by OR Books.
Mukherjee was born in Calcutta, India in 1970. He had what he describes as a “tough childhood,” then studied English at Jadavpur University before attending Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. He has a PhD from Pembroke College and a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. Mukherjee lives in London and spends part of the year teaching at Princeton University, while also writing a column for The Guardian.
Mukherjee says leaving to study in England was “a period of decontamination” from his tough upbringing, but that India is “in [his] blood sometimes as poison, and sometimes as the thing that gives [him his] very life.”
Past Continuous, Mukherjee’s first novel, was published by Picador India in 2008 when he was thirty-eight years old, and won the Vodafone Crossword Award, Indian’s premier literary prize for writing in English. The U.K. edition, titled A Life Apart, was published by Constable & Robinson in 2010, at which point it garnered more awards both in the U.K. and internationally.
A Life Apart/Past Continuous tells the story of Ritwik Ghosh, a twenty-two-year-old man recently orphaned. He moves from Calcutta to Oxford to start anew but is quickly disillusioned with Western university life. He relocates to London and falls into the shadowland of illegal immigrants, writing a story to stave off loneliness. When the past and present of several lives he writes about collide with his own, Ghosh’s world spins out of control.
Dimitry Elias Léger
Léger was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 1971. He migrated between Haiti and New York City throughout his childhood, until his family fled the Caribbean nation and permanently settled in Brooklyn when he was fourteen years old.
Léger studied journalism, then international development at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. A fellowship from the World Economic Forum took him to Geneva, Switzerland. He has held other publicity, marketing, and government advisory roles as well. In the literary world, he was the deputy editor of The Source magazine, a staff writer at Fortune magazine, The Miami Herald, and MTV News. He has penned op-eds for the New York Times and written for The Washington Post’s “Book World” section and The Observer.
In 2010, Léger became an advisor to the U.N. following the devastating 2010 Haiti earthquake. He traveled back to Haiti to work with other UN agencies to aid in the rebuilding of the country.
Léger’s debut novel, God Loves Haiti, was published by HarperCollins in 2015. He was forty-four years old at publication. Set against the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the story centers on Natasha, an artist who grew up poor, then lived a bohemian lifestyle as a young adult. At the time of the earthquake she is married to the President of Haiti, a reluctant leader, and is carrying on an affair with a privileged Haitian man who left the country for an American education before returning. A love triangle develops against the backdrop of a national tragedy. God Loves Haiti was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection.
Mollie Weisenfeld is an Editorial Assistant at Hachette Books and an Editor at Curiosity Quills Press. Her poetry has been published in Folio, Lilith, and Guildscript, and her children’s story is forthcoming from Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things. Visit her Facebook @MollieWeisenfeldAuthor for updates on her mocha addiction, worldwide quest for the perfect writing café, and attempts to write everything except the next Great American Novel. Also Twitter @TheMollieJean and tumblr @ChrisMiracle.
photo credit: Fibonacci Blue Haitian immigrants protesting Trump immigration policies via photopin (license)