A reader may find that who she was a day, week, or year ago is different from who she is now. Her identity—what represents her and her heritage—may morph and change. Below are four novels that explore stories of women who have lost their understanding of self through displacement or jarring life changes. Each offers a broad scope of identities and provides a cathartic release for any reader who has felt lost or unsure. Read on to see how these heroines create new spaces and identities for themselves, and you may be inspired to do the same.
1. Arabian Jazz by Diana Abu-Jaber (2003)
Arabian Jazz is a zany and serendipitous novel that follows the Ramoud family of first and second-generation Arab immigrants. The family is dysfunctional, with a distracted and Jazz-enthused father, an aunt who only cares about marriage, and two daughters of opposite personalities, Jemorah and Melvina. The Ramoud daughters hold two cultures intimately, with their identities split between their father’s Arabian background and their deceased mother’s American background. Throughout the novel, the Ramoud daughters work to place themselves in relation to their home, family, and mixed ancestry.
Diana Abu-Jaber gives a voice and song to the identities of Arabian immigrants through the Ramoud daughters, who must navigate between Arabian tradition and American culture. Arabian Jazz highlights the chaotic essence of cultural meshing; much like the multiplicity of beats in jazz, Jemorah and Melvina mix Arabian with American, creating a beautiful, synchronous, and dissonant identity.
Page count: 384
Publish date: 1993
2. Birdie by Tracey Lindberg (2015)
Birdie is a sublime discourse on body image, cultural misinterpretation, trauma, and language. Tracey Lindberg comes from the Kelly Lake Cree Nation in British Columbia, Canada, and uses her heritage and language knowledge seamlessly in Birdie. As you read this novel, you’ll find Cree words, English words meshed together, and experimental syntax. Lindberg’s narrative style tear down your idea of language and its limitations and then show you everything you never knew about Cree culture.
Birdie does not hand you a story on a plate: you must work for it, negotiate with it, and humble yourself to read it. In following the spiritual journey of protagonist Bernice Meetoos, a Cree woman otherwise known as “Birdie,” readers will find themselves bundled into a surreal landscape of dreaming, reflection, and healing.
Page count: 288
Publish date: 2015
3. How to Get into the Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak (2012)
How to Get into the Twin Palms explores cultural displacement, loneliness, and identity through a microscopic lens. Up-close and sometimes horrendously descriptive, the novel positions readers as if they were the main protagonist, Zosia, a Polish immigrant who has recently moved to Los Angeles, California. Zosia is searching not only for acceptance but also for the feeling of possessing a culture that she can be proud of.
Zosia fights against her Polish ancestry and longs to be a part of the Russian community and neighborhood that she lives in. Her isolation is so complete that she wants to be anything but Polish—and every bit Russian. Zosia tries to reinvent herself in drastic ways to achieve this: through it all, her only goal is acceptance into that elusive culture that she can’t call hers.
Page count: 192
Publish date: 2012
4. The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Le Thi Diem Thuy (2003)
The Gangster We Are All Looking For is written like a true memory: nostalgic, fragmented, anachronistic, and abrupt. Le Thi Diem Thuy explores the effects of immigration, cultural memories, and isolation through episodic chapters. Readers will go on a journey that flits between memories of Vietnam, America, and different periods in the narrator’s life.
Thuy melds together shifting identity and intergenerational breakages, integrating cultural memories of the Vietnam War alongside the very personal memories of the narrator. The narrator’s childhood and experiences growing up as an immigrant in America change; much like the ebb and flow of water, she shifts between closeness to America and closeness to Vietnam. The binding element in this novel is nước, which is Vietnamese for “water” and “homeland.” Readers will find that all is interconnected and nothing is static; much like water, one’s memories and identity shift and change.
Page count: 176
Publish date: 2003