Pen Out Loud Dear America: A Reading List

The immigrant experience in the United States is marked by an intense emotional distress, especially in the current political context. At PEN Out Loud: Dear America, presented by PEN America and the Strand Book Store, Jose Antonio Vargas, author of the upcoming book, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, spoke with award-winning journalists Maria Hinojosa and Julio Ricardo Varela, hosts of the political podcast In The Thick, on the burden of undocumented immigrants’ mental health in America. 

Dear America by Jose Antonio Vargas
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, known as “the most famous undocumented immigrant in America,” writes in the liminal space between critique and personal narrative to reckon with the very notion of citizenship. Both exciting and inciting, this is not a book to miss heading into 2019.


Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli
Based on her experience as a volunteer interpreter for Central American children facing deportation, Luiselli tells a powerful nonfictional narrative structured by the 40 questions whose answers decide each child’s fate. Tell Me How It Ends powerfully stages the contradiction of the American dream and the inhumane reality of immigration through a deeply personal and humanizing account of the migrant experience.


The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú
Raised in the southwest by the daughter of Mexican immigrants, Cantú joined the U.S. Border Patrol in 2008, feeling inexorably drawn to understanding the daily reality of the border. The Line Becomes a River is a surreal and nightmarish account of Cantú’s four years in the Patrol, a personal and probing testament to the violence that the border inflicts on both its sides.


Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World by Suzy Hansen
When Americans, as Hansen puts it, “had all lost their marbles” in the post-9/11 world, she left New York for Istanbul. A finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize, Notes on a Foreign Country is Hansen’s unblinking look at both the shadow America casts on the rest of the world and “a study in American ignorance.”


Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Set in the self-described suburban utopia of Shaker Heights, Ohio, best-selling author Celeste Ng’s second novel explores the contradictions of communities “where everything is planned” by following the tumultuous relationship between two families. Guided by a witty and omniscient narrator, Little Fires Everywhere deftly traces how class, race, and family are at work in places where they may not seem to be.


The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen returns with this short story collection exploring the dreams, fears, traumas, and shocks that make up the lives of refugees living in America. In its eight stories, The Refugees, as Michael Schaub (NPR) puts it, “proves that fiction can be more than mere storytelling — it can bear witness to the lives of people who we can’t afford to forget.”


If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi by Neel Patel
In 11 short stories — “empathetic, provocative, twisting, and wryly funny” — Patel explores love and loss in the lives of first-generation Indian Americans. If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi is Patel’s debut collection, and his dramatic sensibility and lively characters subvert expectations.


The Leavers by Lisa Ko
A 2018 PEN/Hemingway runner-up, and 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction winner, Ko’s debut novel follows the lives of a mother and son as they immigrate to the United States from China, and are suddenly separated. Exploring themes of displacement and deportation, The Leavers is both world and human-scaled: it moves from Fuzhou to Beijing to the Bronx to upstate, retaining the messiness of everyday life.