8 Coming of Age Novels About Immigrants and First Generation Americans 

Literature


One summer, my brother found a half-dead opossum on the side of the road in our neighborhood and he called me to handle it. “Well, is it dead?” I asked. “I don’t know. That’s why I called you.” And as much as I didn’t want to be the girl who dropped everything to go and save roadkill, I was. I was obsessed with animals. Which my family found to be an odd and unexpected quirk of moving to the United States. That day, my mother watched in horror as I crept into our backyard, with gloved hands and my little brother in tow, holding a mangled and full-size adult opossum, and laid it on her grass. Excuse me? When she marched outside, demanding answers and that we stop—Why do you always get your brother involved with things like this!—I informed her that the animal was a marsupial, and unfortunately for her and the opossum, it was likely carrying babies. Inside its pouch, Mom. They’re probably still in there. So I couldn’t, in good conscience, “stop” until I got them out safely. Animal Control said I could touch them. They will get eaten by another animal or hit by a car if I don’t! 

And though I did bring the bloody opossum inside my mother’s house, after enlisting my brother’s help in holding down its limbs while I extracted the babies, and I did eventually stain our family’s Toyota Sienna transporting us all to the local Wildlife Center, my mother understood that despite not being what she had envisioned—I was her daughter. And if we were ever opposums injured on the side of the road, she’d hope there was a little weirdo out there, like me, ready to help. Even if the neighborhood thought I was crazy, or orchestrating some sort of satanic Colombian ritual. She merely observed us in silence the rest of that afternoon, like she had done many times before, as her children forged on with the bloody and laborious procedure that much like our lives, due to its nonsensical yet humanitarian nature, she had to accept she had no control over. 

Growing up, these moments meant more than I realized. They were moments that asked my family to confront who we were and reimagine who we thought we would be. Fears, dreams, desires and all. Especially as 1st gen immigrants new to this country. Was I the barefoot girl that ran around with dead animals? Yes. Would that have any implications on my performance in school, commitment to family, or promising future as a congresswoman? No one was sure. And though we’d later go on to land some real, textbook immigrant-child-disappointments (atheism, abhorrent soccer skills,  an American fast-food obsession, etc.) those earlier moments were roadmaps. They were signals to our community that things were changing and, for better or for worse, in this new place, we had been given the space to freely examine our full selves. (Or at least try! Some of us immigrated to Florida.) 

These universal questions of, “Who am I?” and “Where did I come from?” were ones I tried to have my protagonist, Luciana, answer in real-time over the course of my debut novel, Oye. I found myself relentlessly rooting for this little weirdo who was saying and doing so many things that younger me—and many of my friends and family—had long wanted to say or do. Here are 8 incredible books that I hope will inspire the chaotic, weird, unrestrained, and glorious, blossoming 1st-gen immigrant in you. 

Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

If you want a riveting controlled mess–Olga will deliver. She’s a Nuyorican wedding planner for the Manhattan elite with telenovela-level secrets and a complicated family tree. Plus, she’s got a politician brother with murky finances and an even murkier personal calendar. In this book, Olga defies what people expect of her and attempts to invert the power dynamics of the traditional boys’ club. If you want government corruption, multigenerational drama, and an unexpected (adorable) love story–Olga Dies Dreaming is your book. You will devour this novel as the characters take on New York’s 1 percent, the volatile and erratic presence of their revolutionary activist mother, and the future of their increasingly gentrified hometown of Brooklyn. Gonzalez also recently released her sophomore novel this past March, Anita de Monte Laughs Last, which undoubtedly follows a cast of characters who could just as easily be included on this list. 

Fiebre Tropical by Julián Delgado Lopera

Fiebre Tropical is the type of book I searched for my entire life as a young person in South Florida. Florida’s youth is immensely fortunate to now have this text that holds up a mirror to so many faces who would otherwise never see themselves in literature. The novel follows Francisca, a 15-year-old queer Colombian girl, who is trying to remain sane despite having just uprooted her entire life from Bogotá to Miami, alongside her mother, sister, and grandmother. There are so many inventive, stunning, and deeply moving things about Fiebre Tropical and its structure that illuminate the literary canon, but what makes it really sing is its unmistakable portrait of South Florida. You meet generations of immigrants from all over Latin America who are grappling with the unforeseen consequences of their decisions and the debilitating perception of others. This quest takes some to a nearby Hyatt hotel ballroom searching for God, a baptism for a miscarried baby 17 years late, and in Francisca’s case, falling for Carmen, the local youth group leader and pastor’s daughter. In addition to the book’s pitch-perfect cover and title, Delgado Lopera brings to life one of the most singular and musical voices in contemporary literature. The use of Spanglish in this novel is miraculously organic, giving readers that rare, authentic literary experience that makes Fiebre Tropical groundbreaking and required reading for all Floridians. 

A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar

When I first read A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar I probably fell out of my chair. I didn’t know fiction could do half the things that Jarrar was doing, and I didn’t think I’d ever love a protagonist more than Nidali, the book’s captivating and righteous Palestinian-Egyptian-Greek-American narrator, who migrates across time to and from Kuwait, Egypt, and the United States. Nidali is defiant and curious, questioning her circumstances while embracing the traditions and people around her. We see Nidali flee war, search for a sense of a homeland, indulge in normal teen behaviors, grapple with her place in her family, and ultimately, define who she is on her own terms. Jarrar’s sentences control humor and heartbreak in this book magnificently. A valiant and gorgeous coming-of-age novel about power, identity, and the complex dance of growing up in the global immigrant diaspora. 

How to Leave Hialeah by Jennine Capó Crucet

Another required reading for all Floridians! In her outstanding debut collection, Jennine Capó Crucet pulls no punches when it comes to depicting an enthralling, real picture of the bustling Miami landscape. These stories are rich, gritty, tangible, lyrical, sexy, nuanced, and profound. Readers meet Cuban tías, primos, and siblings dealing with loss, migration, financial strife, self-preservation, and the absurd conditions that put them there. The first story, “Resurrection, or: The Story behind the Failure of the 2003 Radio Salsa 98.1 Semi-Annual Cuban and/or Puerto Rican Heritage Festival” introduces us to Jesenia, a Miami local who comes to the drug-fueled epiphany that in order to land a job at the local radio station, she must resurrect Celia Cruz and convince her to perform at the station’s music festival. Needless to say, the story is a banger. And lucky for us, Capó Crucet has also recently put out another South Florida anthem this spring, Say Hello To My Little Friend. In this new book, Capó Crucet masterfully blends and captures the energy of Pitbull, Tony Montana, the classic immigrant hustle, economic depression, and the late Lolita–Miami Seaquarium’s famous female orca whale who was notoriously held captive in horrid conditions for over 50 years. (May you Rest In Peace, queen). It does not get more chaotically 305 than that. 

Your Driver Is Waiting by Priya Guns

Damani is another messy fan-favorite protagonist on this list. She is a bisexual Tamil ride-share driver in her 30s who has just lost her dad, is responsible for her family’s rent and mother’s well-being, and is unexpectedly falling for one of her more privileged, social-activist-obsessed passengers. A passenger who, unbeknownst to her, ends up ushering in more chaos into Damani’s life than she could have ever imagined. Guns covers the exhilarating intoxicating feelings of a first-crush so well that you begin to forget, alongside Damani, the rising stakes of everything around her. Read this if you like a propulsive ending and if you love a character-driven book that confronts performative wokeness, systemic racism, money, and class. 

All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews

Bless All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews because it delivers to us Sneha–a queer Indian woman in her 20s undergoing a self-examination of sorts concerning desire, community, financial security, and familial responsibilities. Sneha is apathetic, horny, and floating through her life-draining yet stability-providing corporate job in Milwaukee as she ponders what she wants vs. what is expected of her. Her tumultuous romance with an older white dancer and sometimes-intentional turn toward chaos make this an absolute necessary read for this list. Plus, the first chapter delivers one of the most iconic ending lines ever: “As the summer began, I move to Milwaukee, a rusted city where I had nobody, parents two oceans away, I lay on the sun-warmed wood floor of my paid-for apartment and decided I would be a slut.”

Broughtupsy by Christina Cooke

In this debut garnering massive buzz, Broughtupsy by Christina Cooke, we meet Akúa, a young queer Jamaican woman processing the death of her younger brother and anguish from a recent breakup. She is returning home to Kingston for the first time in years and, despite being warned and threatened by her religiously devout older sister about pursuing gay relationships in their hometown, Akúa falls hard for Jayda, an openly-queer stripper. Akúa courageously addresses questions of grief, queerness, family, and belonging that will have you pulling for her every step of the way. 

Dreaming of You by Melissa Lozada-Oliva 

Dreaming of You is a novel in verse about a Latinx poet dealing with heartbreak and interrogations of identity who, in order to cope, attempts to bring back famous Tejano popstar Selena Quintanilla-Pérez from the dead. YUP! The verse structure brilliantly introduces readers to the protagonist’s fragmented psyche, shifting sense of self, and messy yet determined resolve to see herself clearly, despite everything trying to figuratively kill her. Lozada-Oliva tackles obsession, Latinidad, and womanhood in this novel, which is unlike any other, and so satisfyingly playful.

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