5 Gutwrenching Non-Fiction Books About Immigrants

Earlier this month, I suggested a few novels about the immigrant experience in the United States. The post received positive feedback, and it seems readers want to know more.

When I typed “books about” into Google, the third autocomplete suggestion was “Mexican immigrants.” I see this as an encouraging sign because learning is often the first step toward understanding, and understanding leads to acceptance and compassion.

non fiction books about immigrants


Today I’ve decided to suggest a few non-fiction books by and about immigrants. Knowing that these experiences happened to real humans has a different effect on me than reading fiction, regardless of how well written and emotional the story is.

5 Gutwrenching Non-Fiction Books About Immigrants


Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

No post on this topic would be complete without including one of McCourt’s three memoirs. Angela’s Ashes is the first, and while it doesn’t include his immigration back to the United States as a young man, it’s a as a spectacular specimen of memoir. I listened to the audio book, which I highly recommend. McCourt narrates and it adds so much to his story to hear it in his own voice. I could only listen for 20-30 minutes at a time because the content is heavy and took time for me to process. At times I would suddenly remember this is not fiction and sink into a moment of despair. The entire book is written in the voice of a McCourt as a child, making his suffering and naivety quite pronounced.

angela's ashes while i was reading


Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

From Goodreads: The true story of one family, caught between America’s two biggest policy disasters: the war on terror and the response to Hurricane Katrina. Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun run a house-painting business in New Orleans. In August of 2005, as Hurricane Katrina approaches, Kathy evacuates with their four young children, leaving Zeitoun to watch over the business. In the days following the storm he travels the city by canoe, feeding abandoned animals and helping elderly neighbors. Then, on September 6th, police officers armed with M-16s arrest Zeitoun in his home. Told with eloquence and compassion, Zeitoun is a riveting account of one family’s unthinkable struggle with forces beyond wind and water.


The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

From Goodreads: Lia Lee was born in 1981 to a family of recent Hmong immigrants, and soon developed symptoms of epilepsy. By 1988 she was living at home but was brain dead after a tragic cycle of misunderstanding, over-medication, and culture clash: “What the doctors viewed as clinical efficiency the Hmong viewed as frosty arrogance.” The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions, written with the deepest of human feeling. Sherwin Nuland said of the account, “There are no villains in Fadiman’s tale, just as there are no heroes. People are presented as she saw them, in their humility and their frailty–and their nobility.”



The Crooked Seed by Anchee Min

From Goodreads: Twenty years after her debut memoir Red Azaela,  Min returns to the story of her own life to give us the next chapter, an immigrant story that takes her from the shocking deprivations of her homeland to the sudden bounty of the promised land of America, without language, money, or a clear path. It is a hard and lonely road. She teaches herself English by watching Sesame Street, keeps herself afloat working five jobs at once, lives in unheated rooms, suffers rape, collapses from exhaustion, marries poorly and divorces.But she also gives birth to her daughter, Lauryann, who will inspire her and finally root her in her new country. Min’s eventual successes-her writing career, a daughter at Stanford, a second husband she loves-are remarkable, but it is her struggle throughout toward genuine selfhood that elevates this dramatic, classic immigrant story to something powerfully universal.


Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant by Jose Angel N.

From Goodreads: A day after N. first crossed the U.S. border from Mexico, he was caught and then released onto the streets of Tijuana. Undeterred, N. crawled back through a tunnel to San Diego, where he entered the United States forever. Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant is his timely and compelling memoir of building a new life in America. Authorial anonymity is required to protect this life.

Arriving in the 1990s with a 9th grade education, N. traveled to Chicago where he found access to ESL classes and GED classes. He eventually attended college and graduate school and became a professional translator.

Despite having a well-paying job, N. was isolated by a lack of official legal documentation. Travel concerns made big promotions out of reach. Vacation time was spent hiding at home, pretending that he was on a long-planned trip. The simple act of purchasing his girlfriend a beer at a Cubs baseball game caused embarrassment and shame when N. couldn’t produce a valid ID. A frustrating contradiction, N. lived in a luxury high-rise condo but couldn’t fully live the American dream. He did, however, find solace in the one gift America gave him–-his education.

Ultimately, N.’s is the story of the triumph of education over adversity. In Illegal he debunks the stereotype that undocumented immigrants are freeloaders without access to education or opportunity for advancement. With bravery and honesty, N. details the constraints, deceptions, and humiliations that characterize alien life “amid the shadows.”


Are you in awe, as I am, of the brave souls described in the five blurbs above? Without their courage and transparency, I would be ignorant of many of the trials immigrants have faced for ht opportunity to live in the country where I was raised, and have spent my entire life.

If you aren’t American, I’m curious to know how your opinion many vary from mine. And I’d like to know how immigrants are viewed in your country.



  1. Alice Gerard

    July 17, 2018 at 10:49 pm

    I need to read these books. They sound beautiful, sad, hopeful, and heart wrenching. I hope that the man called “illegal” finds a home and safety and acceptance. People aren’t illegal; they are just people. To me, it feels sad that anyone would refer to other human beings as “illegals.” I’m not sure that I know my nation anymore.

  2. Sammy

    July 18, 2018 at 12:14 am

    This is cool

  3. Mateo

    July 25, 2018 at 10:40 pm

    I recommend Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Love, Immigration, and Magic.

  4. Ramona Mead

    July 26, 2018 at 8:17 am

    That’s one of the best books I read in 2017. Absolutely lovely. Thanks for the comment!

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