Authors Explore American Immigrant Experience

About The Series

Immigrants bring many things to the U.S., but their lasting contribution to the country has always been their children. The NPR series "Immigrants' Children" looks at that legacy, telling the stories of those children and examining the issues they face.

Award-winning authors Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz and Samina Ali all came to this country as children — Danticat from Haiti, Diaz from the Dominican Republic, and Ali from India.

As part of NPR's series on the children of immigrants, these three authors offer perspective on the transformation of immigrants in America as the next generation assimilates.


Edwidge Danticat
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Edwidge Danticat's most recent book, Brother, I'm Dying, [read an excerpt] is a memoir about her uncle's tragic story of trying to immigrate to this country. Danticat has been in America since she was 12 when she lived with her family in a Haitian neighborhood of New York City. America has often been called a melting pot, but Danticat says that doesn't mean children of immigrants will necessarily shed their cultural heritage.

"I've met children at both ends of the spectrum. You'll have some who completely idealize — sometimes over-idealize — their parents' birthplaces and that culture, and others in the middle who sort of merge both cultures effortlessly, and others who completely are American, because that's what they choose and that's what they know," she says.

"I think it will be as important as the community they're born into if it remains vibrant for them. I have two little daughters — and they're still very young — but I think for my daughter, my oldest — she's 4 — I think it will be a little more effortless for her in the sense that, you know is Grandma around. It could be as simple as that. I'm lucky that my daughters have both their grandmothers who are able to pass that on. I think that's an underdiscussed and undervalued aspect of this immigration transition, too. Do you have older living relatives who, in addition to everything they represent, also represent a culture that we're no longer living in? So having these sort of living libraries, I think, is important to this next generation."

Danticat says that for all the political, social and economic challenges that immigration can bring to this country, she tries to bring a cultural richness and vibrancy.

"Immigration, rather than a burden, can contribute also, and that's something that sometimes we have to really remind people," she says. "I mean it sounds like a cliche, and the arts is a great way to do that. I think the arts is one of the ways that people are most welcoming to it, and it's one of the places that people are willing — they're willing to enter a book, where they read about somebody they experience. I mean think of a book like The Kite Runner. They read this book, and they've had an encounter. They feel like they've met an immigrant through a book. And so even if we had borders that were closed, these cultural borders, these things through the arts would still be open to us, if we were open to them."

More From Edwidge Danticat


Junot Diaz
Ricardo Hernandez/AFP/Getty Images

Author Junot Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic. His Pulitzer-prize winning book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, [read an excerpt] was praised for its vibrant prose and street-smart language, often in the Spanglish that surrounded Diaz growing up. For the Diaz family, the transformation of language was a big part of the immigrant experience.

"Four of us — the first four of us — were born in Santo Domingo. My little brother was born in the United States. My little brother is someone who grew up with a lot of Spanish around the house, but his Spanish is absolutely miserable," Diaz says. "His primary language is English completely. He's in that situation that you see with a lot of kids who are born in the U.S. and have immigrant parents, where my brother will speak to my mother in English, and she'll answer back in Spanish. He understands Spanish fluently but he doesn't speak it. But then I've got a nephew who's completely fluent in both English and Spanish, no problem."

"But it's up to people's individual choices if they really want to pursue the language," he says. "What's fascinating, and it's hard to put a finger on, but I would argue that my brother is maybe 30 to 80 times more individualistic than we are. You never know whether that's a product of America — a highly individualistic society — or that's just a choice that my brother made, or an inclination of his own biology."

More From Junot Diaz


Samina Ali
Thayer Gowdy

Samina Ali, author of Madras on Rainy Days, [read an excerpt] was raised both in India and the U.S like the protagonist in her novel, Layla. Ali was once wedded to a stranger through an arranged marriage, and her parents would take her back to India every year in hopes of strengthening the bonds of her heritage. But she says it's a struggle to maintain that continuity with her own children.

"When you're more comfortable with McDonald's and Starbucks, it's more of a struggle with the older generation and how the older generation might be keeping you back and trying to root you in a country that you don't identify with as much as you might identify with the United States," Ali says. "As a second-generation immigrant, I already see how much I'm losing as I pass it along to my son. I don't speak to him in Urdu as my parents spoke to me, and it's sort of being weaned out."

Ali says she already sees her children straddling the divide between American and Indian cultures, much in the same way she has.

"My daughter's only 3 weeks old, but my son is 9 and a half and I see it in him. I see him sort of struggling to figure out what it means to be Indian," she says. "The funny thing about him is when he was smaller, when he was younger, I would take him back to Minneapolis to my parents' house — and my parents are part of a very large Indian-Muslim community back there. And whenever we went home they would throw parties for us, and it was usually people from the Muslim-Indian community who came. Everyone spoke Urdu, everyone was Muslim, everyone ate Indian food, and for a long time my son thought that that was India. He would tell people all the time, 'I've been to India! We've gone to India; I just was there last weekend!' And I would tell him, 'No, that was actually Minnesota!' And you can tell from his perspective how insular it is."

After Sept. 11, 2001, Ali began working on a new novel about an ordinary American couple who happened to be Muslim. It took her two years to finish the first draft, but now she's busy rewriting, because — to her surprise — American attitudes had rapidly changed.

"Within those two years, the United States had changed so much," Ali says. "The atmosphere had changed so much that by the time I got to the end of it, it almost felt like what I was saying was no longer relevant, because we'd already arrived there. And everyone already agreed with me that ordinary Muslims weren't all fanatical."

"So it was a very strange journey for me to make, but also to get up from the writing desk and look around and say 'Oh my God, everyone else made this journey with me' from an atmosphere of fear," Ali says. "The large majority of Americans were saying, 'Yes, we need to have racial profiling. ... My ex-husband asked me, 'How are you going to raise our son Muslim in this environment? Why would he ever feel proud to be Muslim?' And by the end of it, by the end of my writing this book, we'd already arrived at a place where people say it again and again, but no, Barack Obama is not Muslim but we've elected a president whose middle name is Hussein. And I think that really tells you where we are as a nation. It really gave me hope — for my son and the larger communities and the world. I mean it just gives me so much hope."

More From Samina Ali

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