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Some journeys are more life-changing than others. For migrants, the movement from one home to the next can be filled with anticipation, struggle and drama. All of which can make a compelling story. For our series Book Your Trip, NPR's Bilal Qureshi explores the inspiration many writers find in the immigrant experience.
BILAL QUERESHI, BYLINE: Novelist Amitav Ghosh was born in India. He studied in England and now lives in Brooklyn.
AMITAV GHOSH: Travel has become so commonplace. We just get onto planes and get off. You know, nobody even really interacts with their surroundings very much anymore. But to me, to this day, even though I still travel a lot, that moment with a plane takes off - it's incredibly thrilling.
QUERESHI: That thrill inspired a trilogy of novels about the Opium Wars of the 19th century. The star of the books is an old-fashioned sailing ship named the Ibis. It's second officer is a mixed-raced American.
GHOSH: (Reading) There's something unusual graceful about the Iris's yacht-like ringing with the sales aligned along her length rather than the cross the line of her hull. He could see wide with her main and headsails standing fair. She might put someone in mind of a white-winged bird in flight.
QUERESHI: As the Ibis sales to Mauritius, India and China, a global cast of characters assembles onboard.
GHOSH: Every ship was, in a sense, a microcosm of the world.
QUERESHI: Ghosh says he was inspired by Herman Melville's "Moby Dick."
GHOSH: This is one of Melville's great themes - you know, how completely different kinds of people are thrust together and how very often their roles just completely change.
QUERESHI: Change is also at the heart of Yann Martel's best-selling novel "Life of Pi" and its Oscar-winning film adaptation. An Indian boy sailing to Canada with his family survives a shipwreck. He's lost at sea on a life boat with a tiger. They must learn to coexist, and they forge a community of survivors.
SURAJ SHARMA: We were both raised in the zoo by the same same master. Now we've been orphaned, left to face our ultimate master together.
QUERESHI: The notion of shipwreck in the "Life of Pi," I think, is the perfect metaphor for the experience of exile. Reza Aslan is a best-selling author who lives in Los Angeles.
REZA ASLAN: Being adrift, looking for a land to call home - that's an expense that I, myself, have experienced as an exile from Iran.
QUERESHI: Aslan says "Life of Pi" shows how the immigrant's journey leaves an individual on more - how it throws an identity into flux. The idea of how immigrants reconcile their past with the future inspired Jhumpa Lahiri's novel "The Namesake" which also became a film. In it, a father survives a traumatic train accident as a young man in India. In America, he tells his son why he still thinks about that fateful night.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NAMESAKE")
KAL PENN: (As Gogol) Do I remind you of that night?
IRRFAN KAHN: (As Ashoke) Not at all - you remind me of everything that followed every day since then. It has been a gift.
ILAN STAVANS: We have to go through that darkness - through that chaos and confusion.
QUERESHI: Ilan Stavans is a professor of literature at Amherst College.
STAVANS: In order to come to the other side and maybe - maybe - ultimately figure out that the person that we are today still has fragments of the person that we were before we immigrated.
QUERESHI: Stavans edited an anthology of writing called "Becoming Americans."
STAVANS: What immigrant writers have done in American literature has showed us that America is a microcosm of the world - that all cultures converge here - that we have connections, tentacles to the rest of the world and that we are a society in constant movement.
QUERESHI: That movement is very much in the headlines today, and it was the subject for Sonia Nazario's Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Enrique's Journey." Nazario followed a young boy from Honduras searching for his mother in the United States.
SONIA NAZARIO: And he travels the only way that he can with little or no money, which is gripping on to the tops and the sides of these freight trains that travel up the length of Mexico. It's a modern-day odyssey that these children go on.
QUERESHI: And it's a book of reporting written with a novelist's eye.
NAZARIO: There were gazers that controlled the train tops, and I would see these guys. They would roam from car to car and surround a group of migrants and say, you know, your Money or your life and strip you your clothes, look for any coins they can find, sometimes, hurtle you down to the churning wheels below.
STAVANS: The train will be in your dreams forever.
QUERESHI: Again Ilan Stavans.
STAVANS: And you will have to make sense of that train one way or another as you become an adult.
QUERESHI: But the writer Reza Aslan says these stories of migration aren't really about the external journey.
ASLAN: It doesn't matter the mode of transportation, weather by foot or by camel or by car or by plane. It doesn't matter the destination. And even the journey, itself, is secondary to the transformation that occurs in the individual making the journey.
QUERESHI: And even for the individual sitting still, reading about those journeys can become its own means of transformation. Bilal Quereshi, NPR News.
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