25 Great Books by Refugees in America

On January 30, 2017, the New York Times published 25 Great Books by Refugees in America.

Here is an excerpt of the article and links to the titles mentioned. Get reading and celebrate the immense importance of refugee voices.


"One way to regard the refugees in the news these frenzied past few days is as potential Americans, individuals and families escaping bad situations who imagine themselves building new lives here. What these particular refugees could become in this country, and how they could contribute to our society and culture, is a question stuck in suspended animation. But we do have the power to look to the past. And in the literary realm it’s unquestionable that refugees, once here, often make major contributions.

Through the 20th century and into this one, those fleeing political persecution or war have produced important works that we think of now as at least partly American, from fiction about the harrowing experiences of exile and dislocation to political treatises by thinkers who want to understand why their homelands fell apart. This is a sampling of 25 of those works." -- Gal Beckerman


Bertolt Brecht, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941)
Country of origin: Germany
Reason for leaving: Fled Nazi Germany for Denmark in 1933, and then came to the United States in 1941 when war broke out.

Brecht always intended his satire about the ruthless ascension of a Chicago mobster to be performed on an American stage. He is mocking Adolf Hitler, each dopey and villainous character having a Nazi counterpart in real life. The character of the populist bully, who has a penchant for both public speaking and private back-stabbing, was central in Brecht’s mind during his wartime exile.


Hans Augusto Rey and Margret Rey, Curious George (1941)
Country of origin: Germany
Reason for Leaving: German Jews who escaped from their native Hamburg to Brazil and then France, only to leave again for the United States in 1940 just as the Nazis invaded.

The mischievous monkey who had a canny way of getting in and out of trouble originated in the minds of Hans Augusto and Margret Rey. They conceived of the character while themselves trying to outrun the Nazis, finally escaping from France on homemade bicycles and carrying the manuscript with the first mention of George (then called “Zozo”) along with them.


Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (1944)
Country of origin: Austria
Reason for Leaving: With Hitler’s rise, prominent socialists like Polanyi were imperiled, so he left for England in 1933 and then arrived in Vermont in 1940.

After settling down to teach at Bennington College, Polanyi published his major work, which looked at how the Industrial Revolution was so disruptive that it created the conditions for both Communism and fascism. But capitalism, he argued, did not happen spontaneously. It required an enormous amount of government planning in order to function. “Laissez-faire was planned,” was his counterintuitive summation.




Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus (1947)
Country of origin: Germany
Reason for leaving: An opponent of Hitler’s rise, Mann left for Switzerland in 1933 and eventually emigrated to the United States in 1939.

Mann, in his California exile, took the Faust legend and placed it in the context of the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. His main character, a composer, strikes a deal with a Mephistophelean figure to give him creative glory. But madness is the trade-off, which becomes an allegory for where Germany is headed.


Theodor Adorno, The Authoritarian Personality (1950)
Country of origin: Germany
Reasons for leaving: After being dismissed from his teaching position in 1932 by the Nazis, Adorno left to study at Oxford and then moved to the United States in 1938.

Adorno wanted to understand what kind of personality type was susceptible to fascism. He found his answer, via Freud, in a harsh parenting style that led to the kind of person who would crave the approval and guidance of an authoritarian.


Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)
Country of origin: Germany
Reasons for leaving: In 1933, Arendt, a German Jew, left her country and eventually settled in Paris, where she helped Jewish refugees. Once the Vichy regime took over, she herself was interned as an “enemy alien,” but managed to emigrate and settle in New York in 1941.

Like Adorno and the other German Jewish emigrants of her generation, Arendt was fixated on the question of why democratic institutions collapse and authoritarianism rises. In her major political work, she dissected both Nazism and Stalinism as instantiations of a new type of politics, one that utilized terror and fear to subjugate populations and gain their acquiescence.



Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (1953)
Country of origin: Germany
Reasons for leaving: Already teaching in England when the Nazis came to power, Strauss was prevented from returning and moved to the United States in 1937.

In six lectures given from his perch at the University of Chicago, Strauss laid out his argument about what he saw as modernity’s nihilistic rejection of classical philosophy. The immutable truths of Plato and Aristotle needed to be appreciated again. Once we follow the thought of these ancient philosophers we will see more clearly what should distinguish right and wrong in ethics and politics.


Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
Country of origin: Russia
Reasons for leaving: Born to Russian nobility, Nabokov and his family fled the Bolshevik Revolution, living in a succession of European countries. He eventually moved to America in 1940, where he took up work as an entomologist at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, among other jobs.

In his most famous and controversial novel, Nabokov took up the story of Humbert Humbert, a man obsessed with a young girl, his nymphet, Lolita. In what is essentially the tale of a sordid road trip, Nabokov has Humbert traveling the country in possession of his illicit love interest. The book is filled with Nabokov’s own observations about an America that still felt foreign and exciting to him.


Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits (1982)
Country of origin: Chile
Reasons for leaving: Allende fled to Venezuela in 1973 after the coup that brought down Salvador Allende, the socialist leader and her father’s cousin. She moved to California in the late 1980s.

Drawing on the circumstances of her own exile, Allende used her debut novel to tell a multigenerational saga that takes place in an unnamed country very much like Chile. We see the destruction of democracy and the rise of a cruel dictator who tries to eliminate all opposition. “I wanted to show that life goes in a circle, events are intertwined, and that history repeats itself, there is no beginning and no end,” Allende said about her sprawling, magic-realist narrative.



Czeslaw Milosz, Bells in Winter (1985)
Country of origin: Poland
Reason for leaving: After surviving World War II in Poland and initially joining the postwar Communist government, Milosz defected in 1951, eventually emigrating to the United States in 1960.

The Polish poet and Nobel Prize winner produced a quietly meditative work in 1985 that pointed toward the mysterious quality of existence, the inability to fully understand our own natures. “Life was impossible, but was endured,” he writes in “Recess,” capturing the exile’s lament, the alienation of deracination, of living an arm’s length away from oneself.


Joseph Brodsky, Less Than One (1986)
Country of origin: Soviet Union
Reason for leaving: Put on trial and into psychiatric institutions for his dissident beliefs, Brodsky was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972.

Brodsky was interested in the poet’s role in society, and these essays, which deal with politics, literature and his own personal experience of exile, all get at this question. For him, poetry was “the most democratic art,” as he says in an essay about the West Indian poet Derek Wolcott. It’s the poet’s embrace of individuality that makes him a necessary counterpoint — an important thorn — to the state.


Nuruddin Farah, Maps (1986)
Country of origin: Somalia
Reasons for leaving: Exiled from Somalia in the mid-1970s for writing about life under the harsh rule of the dictator Mohammed Siad Barre.

In the first novel of his trilogy, “Blood in the Sun,” Farrah writes about a young man, an orphan, obsessed with his own origins. Growing up dislocated in the big city of Mogadishu and tormented by the need to avenge his father’s death, the boy reflects all the struggles of national identity in a country torn from the traditional past and thrust into a violent future.



Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden (1990)
Country of origin: Chile
Reasons for leaving: A cultural adviser to the deposed socialist leader Salvador Allende, Dorfman was forced to flee the country in 1973.

In his revenge fantasy of a play, Dorfman dramatized the confrontation between a woman who was tortured by a Latin American regime and the police-state thug who supposedly did the torturing. She puts him on trial through a long night. Is this really the man who tortured her with electricity to the strains of Shubert, or is she making a paranoid mistake? In this confusion lies Dorfman’s own feelings about the evasive quality of redemption.


Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls (1992)
Country of origin: Cuba
Reasons for leaving: Imprisoned for his writing, he was able to emigrate to America as part of the Mariel Boatlift in 1980.

Published after his suicide in 1990, Arenas’s memoir tell his whole life story, from his impoverished youth all the way to his decision to kill himself. It’s also a tale of political disillusion and the pain of exile. Arenas was a true believer in Castro, but after being locked up for being gay he begins a process of losing more of himself, until he is left without a homeland.


Cristina Garcia, Dreaming in Cuban (1992)
Country of origin: Cuba
Reasons for leaving: Her family was among the first wave of people to escape from Cuba in 1961 shortly after Fidel Castro took power.

Garcia’s first novel looked at three generations of women exiled from Cuba, all with complex feelings about the country, from love and nostalgia to revulsion. For the daughter of a revolutionary, now living in New York, her memories are of being raped by one of Castro’s young followers. “She wants no part of Cuba,” Garcia writes of this young woman, “no part of its wretched carnival floats creaking with lies, no part of Cuba at all.”



Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (1994)
Country of origin: Germany
Reasons for leaving: A German Jew, he fled with his family in 1938.

The former secretary of state tried to sum up in this book his realist foreign policy approach, taking a historical tour from Europe in the 17th century all the way up to his years working for Presidents Nixon and Ford. Realpolitik here is the attempt to achieve stability through a careful balancing of world powers. Scarred by his own experience growing up in Nazi Germany, Kissinger has always been alive to the fragility of democracy, a feeling that has guided his approach, one that abhors idealism.


Loung Ung, First They Killed My Father (2001)
Country of origin: Cambodia
Reasons for leaving: Escaped from Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, ending up in Vermont.

Ung’s memoir of life near the edge of the “killing fields” is a harrowing attempt at a collective document. “If you had been living in Cambodia during this period, this would be your story too,” she writes. Her father was killed, and she was starved and near death by the time she managed to enter a Vietnamese refugee camp. It’s a story that is told straightforwardly. When Ung asks her father why the Khmer Rouge are acting so violently, he answers simply, “Because they are destroyers of things.”


Madeleine Albright, Madam Secretary (2003)
Country of origin: Czechoslovakia
Reasons for leaving: Hitler’s takeover of parts of Czechoslovakia forced her family, supporters of the early Czech democrat Edvard Benes, to go into exile and finally emigrate to the United States in 1948.

Albright recounts her years as secretary of state during the Clinton presidency and the unlikely path she took as a Czech refugee, whose family fled both Hitler and later Communism. She also grapples with an unexpected twist in her family story. Late in life, Albright discovered that her parents were Jewish. They had converted to Catholicism and never revealed this secret to her, or that her grandparents had perished as Jews in a Nazi concentration camp.



Dinaw Mengestu, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (2007)
Country of origin: Ethiopia
Reasons for leaving: His family fled Ethiopia’s Communist revolution in 1980, when he was 2, and they found their way to Peoria, Ill.

In his first novel, Mengestu captured the world of immigrants and refugees in Washington, D.C., as they gather at a Logan Square grocery store and reminisce about homes they can’t go back to. “How was I supposed to live in America,” says Sepha Stephanos, the book’s protagonist and the store’s owner, “when I had never really left Ethiopia?”


Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone (2007)
Country of origin: Sierra Leone
Reasons for leaving: Forced to become a child soldier at the age of 12, Beah eventually escaped Freetown in 1997 with the help of Unicef and ended up in New York City.

Beah’s memoir offers a rare chance to see war from the eyes of a child soldier, brainwashed and kept obedient with drugs and guns. But the bleakness of this account is also tempered with the redemption that comes at the end. He gets out. And the very act of reading as he tells the story of his past is indication that a nightmare like this can end.


Masha Gessen, The Man Without a Face (2012)
Country of origin: Soviet Union
Reasons for leaving: Gessen’s family was Jewish and denied religious freedom in the Soviet Union (or the right to freely emigrate). In 1981 her family was granted permission to leave.

Gessen, a child of the Soviet Union, offers up a portrait of Vladimir Putin as a man formed by his many years in the K.G.B. She finds the roots of his illiberalism, his secrecy, his disregard for democratic norms. It’s an authoritarianism she fears others have been blind to, projecting onto him the leader they hope he will be.



Vaddey Ratner, In the Shadow of the Banyan (2012)
Country of origin: Cambodia
Reasons for leaving: Ratner and her mother escaped the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979 after enduring four years of forced labor, starvation and near execution. They immigrated to rural Missouri.

Ratner’s first novel hews closely to her own traumatic biography. A child of only 5 when Pol Pot’s army began terrorizing the country, she tells the story from that perspective, focusing on both the beauty and the horror as it appears to innocent eyes hardly able to comprehend beyond the everyday sensations of panic and wonder.


Gary Shteyngart, Little Failure (2014)
Country of origin: Soviet Union
Reasons for leaving: Like other Soviet Jews, Shteyngart and his family felt discriminated against in the Soviet Union and were allowed to emigrate in 1979.

Shteyngart’s mother must have meant it in an endearing way when she called her son “Little Failure.” He certainly embraced the moniker. Here the hilarious writer turns to memoir to tell his own story of arriving in America as an awkward young boy. Through the trials and tribulations of Hebrew school and the thick pot smoke of Oberlin, Shteyngart survived and has become our chronicler of 21st-century absurdity as only an immigrant with a funny name can see it.


Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (2015)
Country of origin: Vietnam
Reasons for leaving: Nguyen’s family escaped Vietnam in 1975 and lived in a Pennsylvania refugee camp before settling in Harrisburg.

The great contribution of Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel is that it introduces a Vietnamese voice into a conversation that has been one-sided. As the narrator, annoyed that American soldiers and politicians have monopolized the story of the Vietnam War, explains, “this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors.” This novel, applying fresh eyes to a war now known only through clichés, offers that corrective.


Vu Tran, Dragonfish (2015)
Country of origin: Vietnam
Reasons for leaving: Born in Saigon in 1975, five months after the city fell to the North Vietnamese, Tran left by boat in 1980 with his mother and sister, spending five days at sea.

Tran’s novel, his first, does not engage in any nostalgia about the lost home. That place carries only memories of trauma and war. He forces his characters, including a Vietnamese woman in California who mysteriously disappears, to grapple with that past. It’s the only way to get anywhere near embracing their new American realities.


The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui Cover Image
By Bertolt Brecht, John Willett (Editor), Ralph Manheim (Editor)
ISBN: 9780413478108
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Published: Methuen Publishing - December 1st, 2010

Described by Brecht as 'a gangster play that would recall certain events familiar to us all', Arturo Ui is a witty and savage satire of the rise of Hitler - recast by Brecht into a small-time Chicago gangster's takeover of the city's greengrocery trade.

Curious George Cover Image
ISBN: 9780395150238
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Published: Houghton Mifflin - March 15th, 1973

In this, the original book about the curious monkey, George is taken from the jungle by the man in the yellow hat to live in a new home, but--oh, what happened Though trying to be good, George is still very curious and takes a swim in the ocean, escapes from jail, and goes for a flying ride on a bunch of balloons.

The Great Transformation Cover Image
ISBN: 9780807056431
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Published: Beacon Press - March 28th, 2001

In this classic work of economic history and social theory, Karl Polanyi analyzes the economic and social changes brought about by the "great transformation" of the Industrial Revolution. His analysis explains not only the deficiencies of the self-regulating market, but the potentially dire social consequences of untempered market capitalism.

Doctor Faustus Cover Image
By Christopher Marlowe, Sylvan Barnet (Editor), Sylvan Barnet (Introduction by)
ISBN: 9780451531612
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Published: Signet Classics - April 6th, 2010

The classic Elizabethan play, with new material

From the Elizabethan period's second-biggest dramatist comes the story of Faustus, a brilliant scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for limitless knowledge and powerful black magic.

The Origins of Totalitarianism (Pbk) Cover Image
ISBN: 9781849028967
Availability: Special Order
Published: Benediction Books - December 12th, 2009

Natural Right and History Cover Image
ISBN: 9780226776941
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Published: University of Chicago Press - October 15th, 1965

In this classic work, Leo Strauss examines the problem of natural right and argues that there is a firm foundation in reality for the distinction between right and wrong in ethics and politics. On the centenary of Strauss's birth, and the fiftieth anniversary of the Walgreen Lectures which spawned the work, Natural Right and History remains as controversial and essential as ever.

Lolita Cover Image
ISBN: 9780679723165
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Published: Vintage Books USA - March 13th, 1989

Awe and exhiliration--along with heartbreak and mordant wit--abound in Lolita, Nabokov's most famous and controversial novel, which tells the story of the aging Humbert Humbert's obsessive, devouring, and doomed passion for the nymphet Dolores Haze. Lolita is also the story of a hypercivilized European colliding with the cheerful barbarism of postwar America.

The House of the Spirits Cover Image
ISBN: 9781501117015
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Published: Atria Books - December 15th, 2015

The unforgettable first novel that established Isabel Allende as one of the world's most gifted and imaginative storytellers.

Bells in Winter Cover Image
ISBN: 9780880014564
Availability: Special Order
Published: Ecco - April 1st, 1996

Begun in the winter of 1955 and completed in the spring of 1956, Treatise on Poetry is a brilliant meditative poem fully expressive of the powers that have made Milosz one of our greatest writers.

Less Than One: Selected Essays Cover Image
ISBN: 9780374520557
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Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux - May 1st, 1987

This collection of essays thrusts Brodsky--heretofore known more for his poetry and translations--into the forefront of the "Third Wave" of Russian emigre writers. His insights into the works of Dostoyevsky, Mandelstam, Platonov, as well as non-Russian poets Auden, Cavafy and Montale are brilliant.

Maps Cover Image
ISBN: 9781628725858
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Published: Arcade Publishing - February 2nd, 2016

"Nuruddin Farah is one of the real interpreters of experience in our troubled continent. His insight goes deep, beyond events."--Nadine Gordimer

Death and the Maiden Cover Image
ISBN: 9780140246841
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Published: Penguin Books - December 1st, 1994

Ariel Dorfman's explosively provocative, award-winning drama is set in a country that has only recently returned to democracy. Gerardo Escobar has just been chosen to head the commission that will investigate the crimes of the old regime when his car breaks down and he is picked up by the humane doctor Roberto Miranda.

Before Night Falls: A Memoir Cover Image
By Reinaldo Arenas, Dolores M. Koch (Translator)
ISBN: 9780140157659
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Published: Penguin Books - October 1st, 1994

The shocking memoir by visionary Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas "is a book above all about being free," said The New York Review of Books--sexually, politically, artistically.

Dreaming in Cuban Cover Image
ISBN: 9780345381439
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Published: Ballantine Books - February 10th, 1993

"Impressive . . . Cristina Garcia's] story is about three generations of Cuban women and their separate responses to the revolution. Her special feat is to tell it in a style as warm and gentle as the 'sustaining aromas of vanilla and almond, ' as rhythmic as the music of Beny More."--Time

Diplomacy Cover Image
ISBN: 9780671510992
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Published: Simon & Schuster - April 4th, 1995

A brilliant, sweeping history of diplomacy that includes personal stories from the noted former Secretary of State, including his stunning reopening of relations with China.

The seminal work on foreign policy and the art of diplomacy.

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers Cover Image
ISBN: 9780060856267
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Published: Harper Perennial - April 4th, 2006

From a childhood survivor of the Camdodian genocide under the regime of Pol Pot, this is a riveting narrative of war crimes and desperate actions, the unnerving strength of a small girl and her family, and their triumph of spirit.

One of seven children of a high-ranking government official, Loung Ung lived a privileged life in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh until the age of

Madam Secretary: A Biography of Madeleine Albright Cover Image
ISBN: 9780312304690
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Published: St. Martins Press-3pl - January 31st, 2002

No American envoy has ever burst on the diplomatic scene and grabbed center stage in the theater of foreign relations like Madeleine Albright.

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears Cover Image
ISBN: 9781594482854
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Published: Riverhead Books - February 5th, 2008

Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian Revolution for a new start in the United States. Now he finds himself running a failing grocery store in a poor African-American section of Washington, D.C., his only companions two fellow African immigrants who share his bitter nostalgia and longing for his home continent.

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier Cover Image
ISBN: 9780374531263
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Published: Sarah Crichton Books - August 5th, 2008

My new friends have begun to suspect I haven't told them the full story of my life.
"Why did you leave Sierra Leone?"
"Because there is a war."
"You mean, you saw people running around with guns and shooting each other?"
"Yes, all the time."
I smile a little.

The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin Cover Image
ISBN: 9781594486517
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Published: Riverhead Books - March 5th, 2013

National Book Award winner Masha Gessen's biography of a ruthless man's ascent to near-absolute power.

In the Shadow of the Banyan Cover Image
ISBN: 9781451657715
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Published: Simon & Schuster - June 4th, 2013

A beautiful celebration of the power of hope, this New York Times bestselling novel tells the story of a girl who comes of age during the Cambodian genocide.

Little Failure Cover Image
ISBN: 9780812982497
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Published: Random House Trade - October 7th, 2014


The Sympathizer: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) Cover Image
ISBN: 9780802124944
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Published: Grove Press - April 12th, 2016

The winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as six other awards, The Sympathizer is the breakthrough novel of the year. With the pace and suspense of a thriller and prose that has been compared to Graham Greene and Saul Bellow, The Sympathizer is a sweeping epic of love and betrayal.

Dragonfish Cover Image
By Vu Tran
ISBN: 9780393352870
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Published: W. W. Norton & Company - August 2nd, 2016

Robert, an Oakland cop, still can't let go of Suzy, the enigmatic Vietnamese wife who left him two years ago. Now she's disappeared from her new husband, Sonny, a violent Vietnamese smuggler and gambler who's blackmailing Robert into finding her for him.