COMPAS' 2019 recommendations: The best books on migration we read this year

Published 18 December 2019 / By The COMPAS Team

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On International Migrants Day 2019, we've compiled our list of must-reads on migration. It's not to late to add them to your wish lists!

Carlos Vargas Silva, COMPAS Director

Good Economics for Hard TimesTwo of the most interesting books I read this year relate to migration in very different ways but have one thing in common; the authors are family members. The first book is Burma: Food, Family, Conflict by Bridget Anderson, Professor of Migration at Bristol and a former colleague at COMPAS, and her brother Stephen Anderson, a Chef in Valencia. I bought this book while shopping with my son. I also got a Ninjago book for him and we sat in a coffee shop to read our respective new books. To my surprise, he gave as much attention to the pictures and stories in the Burma book as he did to his own book. In addition to beautiful pictures and stories, this book provides an excellent account of families and generations in a conflict, while also providing a fascinating set of recipes to go along with it. I have not tried the recipes yet, but this is part of my plan for the upcoming holiday break. Follow the book on Twitter @Burmafoodfamily

Wife and husband Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee wrote the second book. It has been a busy year for this couple, in addition to publishing this book, they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. Duflo and Banerjee dedicate a chapter of Good Economics for Hard Times: Better Answers to Our Biggest Problems to discuss migration. They review and interpret the evidence on the economic impacts of migration, and it is a great read for anyone who wants to learn more about these impacts without the need to get involved with the more technical aspects. Their main argument (also discussed in this Channel Four podcast) is that the potential negative aspects of migration have been exaggerated and that migration, in fact, remains too low. There is much to say and discuss about this argument, which I might just do later in a COMPAS blog!

Domiziana Turcatti, DPhil in Migration Studies, COMPAS

Borders of belonging: struggle and solidarity in mixed-status immigrant families (2019) by Heide Castañeda provides a touching account of the everyday life of migrant families living in South Texas, close to the infamous US-Mexican border. This book shows what it means to deal with the “illegality” and “legality” of some family members, the fear of being torn apart, and “bureaucratic disentitlement” – the process by which administrative agencies make it harder for individuals to access their entitlements and rights. Castañeda painfully and powerfully demonstrates how the legal status of some family members influence the opportunities and resources for all members. The author also shows the other side of the coin: the resilience, strategies, and practices of families to deal with these circumstances. I enjoyed reading this book precisely because of its appreciation of the family as a central aspect of migrants’ lives, an appreciation that underlies my DPhil research with the families of Colombian migrants who migrated from Spain to London after the 2008 financial crisis.

Rosaleen Cunningham, COMPAS Communications and Media Manager

The Ungrateful RefugeeIn the British 1970s comedy the Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin, the boss CJ’s famous mantra is    “One, two, three, four - make 'em wait outside the door. Five, six, seven, eight - always pays to make 'em wait. Nine, ten, eleven, twelve - come!”

Making  others wait gives people immense power. Dina Nayeri’s The Ungrateful Refugee is, among many things, about the indignity of waiting, and "the unspoken chides of our native-born rescuers…Your life is no longer in danger. You could be more patient". Nayeri confronts the narratives of the good, exceptional, and, above all, grateful refugee. She weaves together her own story (with such descriptions as “the deceitful promises of a tin of Spam”, and how to behave properly; “nonchalance in the face of displacement – that was our strategy”) with those of other more recent refugees and asylum seekers. Several writers have collected testimonies like these in recent years but few have such a powerful, angry tone and none are as beautifully written.

Mikal Mast, Project Manager, PEAK Urban

East Goes West: The Making of an Oriental Yankee by Younghill Kang is a semi-autobiographical novel, and the first to record the experiences of a Korean migrant to the US, written by the first Korean-American novelist. Fleeing Japanese oppression at home, Younghill Kang arrived in the United States in 1921, just three years before the passage of Asian Exclusion Act, which severely curtailed migration according to national origin. Based on his experiences as a student, the novel offers a fascinating insight into both the age in which it was written and the ideas that shaped it. Kang (or rather, his fictional counterpart Chungpa Han) and his friends, both Asian and Western, discuss social mores and explore different philosophical traditions. Of course, in a book published in 1937, there is some essentialising of national characteristics – New Yorkers are decisive and purposeful, the Yankee is cold and practical, the Oriental is philosophical and leisurely. But Kang/Han always sees the individual humanity within. The novel is also concerned with the theme of race prejudice, an issue that Younghill Kang examines through his own experiences and those of other marginalised groups within the US, in particular the African-American community.

On the near 100-year anniversary of Younghill Kang's arrival in the US, and in light of Trump's revival of 1920s era nativist sentiments and policies,  this classic of Asian American literature deserves to be read more widely.

For our colleague Rob McNeil's recommendation, see the book review blog on The Windrush Betrayal by Amelia Gentleman.