Historical Context: The Human Meaning of Migration

For more than two centuries novelists and autobiographers have explored the human meaning of migration. In hundreds of stories, novels, and autobiographies, these writers have examined what it means to be uprooted, voluntarily or involuntarily, from one's homeland as well as the problems of adjusting to an entirely new environment.

The movement from one society to another is often accompanied by intense feelings of psychological dislocation. Migrants often experience a sense of profound loss at leaving their homeland as well as the pangs of adapting to a new society. Many writers report that migration often inverts generational relationships, since the young often find it easier to learn a new language and to pick up new customs than do their parents. Many authors contend that women are often more successful than men in making the transition to a new environment.

One project that can bring the subject of migration to life is to examine primary sources that allow them to analyze migration's human meaning: the pain of leaving home, the perils of voyage by sea or land, the disorientations following arrival, the traumas of resettlement, and the problems of acculturation. What, in short, is it like, to leave one's homeland and become a stranger in a strange land?

You might focus on a particular group or a specific individual. Among the questions that you might ask are these:

  • How does the author depict life in the homeland? Does the author describe an environment marked by suffering and poverty or a positive vision of life in the home country?
  • How does the author describe the decision to migrate? What events precipitated the decision to migrate? Who made the decision to leave the homeland?
  • How does the author describe the journey from the homeland to the new country? What conditions did the migrant encounter at sea or on land?
  • What were the first months in the new environment like? What unfamiliar experiences did the immigrant encounter? Did the immigrant feel a sense of disorientation? Were there incidents of discrimination that the immigrant experienced?
  • In what specific ways does the new environment pose a threat to the immigrant's morality, faith, or traditions?
  • To what extent can the migrant maintain contact with relatives and neighbors who share a common background? In what ways do these people help the immigrant adjust to life in the new country?




  • Philip Curtin, ed., Africa Remembered: Narratives by West Africans from the Era of the Slave Trade (1967)
  • Olaudah Equiano, Interesting Narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (originally published in 1789)

Twentieth Century

  • Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1959)
  • Claude Brown, Manchild in the Promised Land (1965)
  • Jay Davids, ed., Growing Up Black (1992)



  • Frank Chin, Donald Duk (1991) (On the eve of Chinese New Year in San Francisco's Chinatown, a 12 year old deals with his feelings for his cultural heritage).
  • Louis Chu, Eat a Bowl of Tea (1961) (Set in New York's Chinatown after World War II, it deals with a Chinese American veteran, his immigrant bride, and their marital problems)
  • Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1977)
  • Him Mark Lai, ed., Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940 (1980) (Poetry written by Chinese immigrants on Angel Island, carved into the walls of the wooden barracks where they were detained waiting for immigration inspection, 1910-1940)
  • Gus Lee, China Boy (1991) (A look at wartime and postwar San Francisco, intermarriage, immigration, assimilation, prejudice and 1950s masculinity)
  • Ruthanne Lum McCunn, A Thousand Pieces of Gold: A Biographical Novel (1981) (The story of a woman brought to the West--East for her--as a picture bride)
  • Victor Nee, Longtime Californ' (1973)
  • Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club (1989)
  • Jade Snow Wong, Fifth Chinese Daughter (1950)


  • Carlos Bulason, America is in the Heart (1946) (The story of a Filipino farm worker in early 20th century California)


  • Haunani-Kay Trask, From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawaii (1993)


  • Bharati Mukherjee, The Middleman and Other Stories (1988) (Short stories about Asian Indians)


  • Joy Kogawa, Obasan (1981)
  • Lydia Minatoya, Talking to High Monks in the Snow: An Asian American Odyssey (1992)
  • John Okada, No-No Boy (1976) (About a Nisei who, interned during WWII, refused to be drafted and was sent to prison)
  • Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, Farewell to Mazanar: A True Story of Japanese American Experience During and After the World War II Internment (1973)
  • Monica Itoi Sone, Nisei Daughter (1953)


  • Kim Ronyoung, Clay Walls (1990)


  • Le Ly Hayslip, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman's Journey from War to Peace (1989)


Eastern Europeans

  • Thomas Bell, Out of This Furnace (1941)


  • John McElgun, Annie Reilly; or The Fortunes of an Irish Girl in New York (1873)
  • Mary Anne Sadlier, Elinor Preston; or, Scenes at Home and Abroad (1857)


  • Jerre Mangionne, Mount Allegro: A Memoir of Italian American Life (1943)


  • Mary Antin, Promised Land (1912)
  • Abraham Cahan, The Rise of David Levinisky (1960)
  • Mike Gold, Jews Without Money (1930)
  • Henry Roth, Call It Sleep (1935)
  • Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers: A Novel (About the struggle between a father of the Old World and a daughter of the New) (1925)


  • Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language (1989)


  • Vilhelm Moberg, The Emigrants (1951)



  • Cristina Garcia, Dreaming in Cuban (1992)


  • Rudolfo Anaya, Bless Me Ultima (1972)
  • Raymond Barrio, The Plum Plum Pickers (1969)
  • Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street (1988) (An evocative story focusing on gender and community)
  • Ernesto Galarza, Barrio Boy (1971)
  • Jesse Lopez de la Cruz in Linda Kerber's Women's America
  • Ruben Navarrette, Jr., A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano (1993)
  • Richard Rodriguez, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father (1992)
  • Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982) (The story of the author's assimilation into American society as a child and young man)
  • Jose Antonio Villarreal, Pocho (1959)

Puerto Ricans

  • Esmeralda Santiago, When I was Puerto Rican (1993) (Features vivid descriptions of the author's childhood in Puerto Rico and coming of age in New York City)


  • Black Elk, Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux (1961)
  • Ignatia Broker, Night Flying Woman: An Ojibway Narrative (1983)
  • Mary Crow Dog and Richard Erdoes, Lakota Woman (1990)
  • Ella Cara Deloria, Waterlily (1988)
  • Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa), From the Deep Woods to Civilization (1916)
  • Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine (1993) (Traces two Native American families through 70 years of struggles between traditional values and modern realities)
  • Louise Erdrich, Tracks (1988)
  • Jim Harrison, Dalva (1988)
  • Frank Bird Linderman, Pretty Shield: Medicine Woman of the Crows (1972)
  • Nancy Oestreich Lurie, ed., Mountain Wolf Woman, Sister of Crashing Thunder: The Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian (1961)
  • N. Scott Momaday, House Made of Dawn (1968)
  • N. Scott Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969)
  • Polingaysi Qoyawayma, No Turning Back: A True Account of a Hopi Indian Girl's Struggle to Bridge the Gap Between the World of Her People and the World of the White Man (1964)
  • Patricia Riley, ed., Growing Up Native American (1993)
  • Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony (1977) (Explores the impact of WWII on the lives of the men who fought it and returned to the reservation; it looks at a returning soldier as he goes through alcoholic degeneration into traditional religion and back as a whole person who embraces his Indianness as his true identity)
  • Luther Standing Bear, My People, the Sioux (1928)
  • Leo Stein, ed., Fragments of Autobiography (1974)
  • Ruth Underhill, The Autobiography of a Papago Woman (1936)
  • James Welsh, Fools Crow (1986) (Evokes the worldview of a culture, the Blackfeet Indians in 1870, on the brink of destruction)
  • Zitkala-Sa, American Indian Stories (1921)