Refugee Literature

“The people we call voiceless oftentimes are not actually voiceless. Many of the voiceless are actually talking all the time. They are loud, if you get close enough to hear them, if you are capable of listening, if you are aware of what you cannot hear… True justice will be when we no longer need a voice for the voiceless.”

—Viet Thanh Nguyen, introduction to The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives

Flight, like the novel Hinterland before it, is born from a desire to give faces and shape to a journey that thousands of children make—by themselves, sometimes with families—every year. Caroline Brothers’ reporting led her to children in extreme circumstances, indelible individuals she wants to make clear through fiction in ways she couldn’t in her journalism.

But refugees are also offering their own versions of their narratives, in memoirs, graphic novels, essays, and wholly fictional novels. Here are a few books from the past decade that speak to the dislocation and yearning, fears and successes of voices from various global diasporas.

Our Stories Carried Us Here: A Graphic Novel Anthology (2021)

Published by Green Card Voices, the anthology pairs a short memoir from recent immigrants and refugees to the US with illustrators who are likewise immigrants or first-generation Americans. Green Card Voices is a nonprofit organization that connects immigrants and their communities through multimedia storytelling.

The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, Viet Thanh Nguyen (editor) (2018)

Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer Viet Thanh Nguyen called on 17 fellow refugee writers from across the globe to shed light on their experiences. The result is The Displaced, a powerful dispatch from the individual lives behind current headlines, with proceeds from the book going to support the International Rescue Committee .

The Best We Could Do, Thi Bui (2017)

A graphic memoir by Thi Bui thattraces her family’s daring escape after the fall of South Việt Nam in the 1970s and their effort to build new lives for themselves in America. Bui documents parental sacrifice, excavates family histories, and grapples with the inherited struggles of displacement and diaspora. 

"I began to record our family history...thinking that if I bridged the gap between the past and the present, I could fill the void between my parents and me." Thi Bui in The Best We Could Do

The Distance Between Us, Reyna Grande (2012)

Grande’s memoir describes a childhood living with a grandmother in Mexico after her parents make the dangerous trek across the border to “El Otro Lado” (The Other Side). When their mother at last returns, Reyna prepares for her own journey to “El Otro Lado” to live with the man who has haunted her imagination for years, her long-absent father. (This book is also available in a young reader’s edition)

The Ungrateful Refugee, Dina Nayeri (2020)

An expansion of her 2017 essay in The Guardian, The Ungrateful Refugee follows Naveri’s own story—fleeing Iran at 8, living for a year in a crumbling hotel-turned-refugee camp in Italy, eventually settling with her family in Oklahoma, and eventually attending Princeton—alongside stories of other refugees and asylum seekers in recent years, bringing us inside their daily lives and taking us through the different stages of their journeys, from escape to asylum to resettlement.

House of Stone, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (2019)

House of Stone follows Zamani, an enigmatic lodger with a family that has faced tragedy and loss, and that might hold the keys to a history Zamani is determined to uncover, regardless of the consequences. Spanning the fall of Rhodesia through the massacres that defined Zimbabwe’s early history, House of Stone has been compared to The Talented Mr. Ripley, Pale Fire, and Midnight’s Children.

Songs of Blood and Sword, Fatima Bhutto (2011)

Bhutto’s father was assassinated in 1996, when she was 14. Songs of Blood and Sword is the story of both Bhutto’s quest to discover the truth of her father’s murder and to make sense of the history of Pakistan from Partition through the Cold War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the post-9/11 “War on Terror.” It is an epic tale of intrigue, the making of modern Pakistan, and ultimately, tragedy. A searing testament to a troubled land, Songs of Blood and Sword reveals a daughter’s love for her father and her search to uncover the truth of his life and death.

—Adrien-Alice Hansel