The Place of Immigrant and Multicultural Writers in Mainstream Publishing

The Place of Immigrant and Multicultural Writers in Mainstream Publishing

Ever since the inception of the United States of America, this great nation has been receiving people from various parts of the globe mainly in search of three key things – freedom, wealth and opportunity. While this is true, the relevance, importance and the significance of these immigrants are also vital in the overall well-being of the United States as a nation. According to the article of Karen Zeigler and Steven A. Camarota, by the second quarter of 2015, the US immigrant population was 13.3% of the total American population. And during a period of one year, starting from the second quarter of 2014, the total number of US immigrants reached 42.1 million which was a big increase of 1.7 million. Due to the assimilation of people with different backgrounds, cultures and experiences into the mainstream, the United States is called a ‘melting pot.’

A fact must be accepted by all, immigrant diversity has enriched the American culture. Despite this fact, stories related to these immigrants have not been sufficiently represented in the mainstream publications, although they would be interesting to mainstream readers. Another author, by the name, Ilan Stavans, said about this important subject, “Their stories have always been an essential component of the nation’s cultural consciousness, from Isaac Bashevis Singer to Jhumpa Lahiri, from Jacob Riis to Maxine Hong Kingston.” The publisher of Restless Books, who is also an immigrant, Stavans, emphasized the contribution of immigrant diversity to mainstream publications.

“Their stories have always been an essential component of the nation’s cultural consciousness, from Isaac Bashevis Singer to Jhumpa Lahiri, from Jacob Riis to Maxine Hong Kingston.”

I need to say this as well that the business models of the publishing industry have been greatly diversified. And due to the emerging publishing technologies, publishers need to focus on diverse stories and issues. Some profit and non-profit organizations have already realized the value of diversity in the mainstream population. The non-profit organization We Need Diverse Books known as WNDB, which has been working to promote diverse voices in publishing, defines diversity as “an inclusion of unrepresented groups, cultures, minorities, disabilities, among others.” WNDB, however, has not identified immigrant populations as a source of diversity. Furthermore, no one in publishing has studied the potential cultural, societal, and economic benefits of focusing on immigrant literature.

The mainstream publishers are sometimes blamed for having biased views when looking at immigrant writing. Amit Majmudar, the author of The Abundance, stated that, “Publishers are a shrewd bunch, if ‘shrewd’ can be applied seriously to people who sink money into the production of books, a seemingly losing endeavor. They know a book’s success has a lot to do with how it is marketed, and they wouldn’t push something as ‘fiction about immigrants’ if that killed readers’ interest.” Also, Illan Stavans of Restless Books shared a similar experience: “I became a publisher when I was fed up with the grandiloquence of American corporate publishing that makes us so uncosmopolitan. Books must make money. But they cannot be published only to make money.” We can see that both Majmudar and Stavans mentioned the fact that mainstream publishers have biased views when looking at stories about immigrant diversity in publishing. And as a consequence, the mainstream publishers are missing the opportunity, which will be seized upon by startup publishers, who have come up with new business models.

“. . . a book’s success has a lot to do with how it is marketed . . .”

This article focuses on three books by the first generation immigrant writers in order to see their immigrant writing experiences along with what and how their stories can contribute to mainstream publishing and its readers.

IMMIGRANT WRITING AND ITS VALUE IN AMERICAN MAINSTREAM PUBLISHING

What is immigrant writing? Immigrant writing is a writing that reflects immigrants’ first-hand experience in their host country. Their writings are based on their experience in their new land, their new life and new struggles. It also talks about the gaps created by cultural and linguistic barriers, and the new thoughts and perspectives they have developed for their existence.

Immigrant writing is diverse and unique because they have diverse cultural characters in different cultural settings, and they have distinct storylines from the mainstream writing. Going by this, immigrant writing can give new voices and values to both the publishers and readers. I love what was captioned in the article, “Three Myths of Immigrant Writing: A View from Germany”, “Immigrant literatures are not an isle in the sea of national literature, but a component, both in the depths, where the archaic squids of tradition live, and on the surface, where pop-cultural waves hit the shore.” With these lines, you will agree with me that immigrant writing plays a significant role in the national literatures.

Coming to the realization of the values which immigrant writing can bring to the mainstream American society, these organizations, The Telling Room, American Immigration Council, and even the Harvard Business School in a magazine, have come up with fresh immigrant writing programs. However, the mainstream publishing industry is yet to realize this great need. Although immigrant writing can offer fresh voices, new perspectives and even present multicultural stories, some writers prefer not to be called immigrant writers. An example is Jhumpa Lahiri, who is a well-known immigrant writer, she does not like her books be termed immigrant novels. “Writers have always tend to write about the worlds they come from . . . If certain books are to be termed immigrant fiction, what do we call the rest? Native fiction? Puritan fiction?” Even though Jhumpa Lahiri disagreed on the term “immigrant writing” or “immigrant writer”, she is an immigrant writer because her novels share immigrant stories based on her immigrant experiences. She was born in Britain to her British-Indian immigrant parents who then migrated to the United States. If Jhumpa believed that there is nothing called “immigrant writing,” then we can as well say that there is no one called an “immigrant” because one thing leads to the other.

“Writers have always tend to write about the worlds they come from . . . If certain books are to be termed immigrant fiction, what do we call the rest? Native fiction? Puritan fiction?”

The non-profit organization WNDB, which has been actively working for the promotion of diverse experiences in publishing, defines diversity as “ . . . all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQA, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.” The definition of diversity according to the survey of Lee and Low is, however, a little different. The children’s multicultural publisher defines diversity as “to share power, share advantages, share opportunities and wages and respect and cultural development together.” None of the organizations have explicitly mentioned immigrant communities as a source of diverse stories. In his “Diversity and Immigration,” Edward P. Lazear says that diversity comes through an interaction of individuals from one culture or background with individuals from another. Here, Lazear mentions immigrant populations as a source of diversity. He asks whether immigrant policies enhance diversity, and then says that gains in diversity “come through the interaction of individuals from one culture or background with individuals from another.” According to Lazear’s statement, immigrants’ experiences play an important role in bringing diversity in writing and publishing. “Diversity” and “immigrant” are closely related terms.

Looking at the subject with translation from the lexical point of view, the Oxford Companion to the English Language, defines translation as the communication of meaning of a source-language text by means of an equivalent target language. A major similarity between immigrant writing and translation is that both contribute to bringing diversity once they are prioritized or promoted. Recently, more German books have been translated into English and some programs to promote German-English translators have begun in the US. The Truth and Other Lies (translated by Imogen Taylor from German and published by Atria Books) was named one of the 100 Notable Books of 2015 by The New York Times. In 2015, Amazon Crossing, the literary translation imprint of Amazon Publishing, announced an allocation of $10 million for the translation of best books from around the world. According to a statement from Amazon Crossing, the $10 million commitment will be parsed out over the next five years to increase the number and diversity of its books in translation. Farzaneh Farahzad says, “Immigrant literature and translated literature are both hybrids while immigrant authors create an especial literature with their own peculiarities in their literary activities at the host countries.” From this statement, it can be said that immigrant writing is more original and more special. By reading the immigrant writing, in Ilan Stavans’ words, “the host country’s readers can see their countries and cultures from outsiders’ perspectives.” This clearly means that immigrant literatures give more pragmatic values and actionable effects to the people and policy makers of the host country than other literatures.

In 2015, Amazon Crossing, the literary translation imprint of Amazon Publishing, announced an allocation of $10 million for the translation of best books from around the world. According to a statement, the $10 million commitment will be parsed out over the next five years to increase the number and diversity of its books in translation.

More so, in contrast to buying foreign rights from authors and countries other than the United States, publishing books basedn immigrant writers’ experiences empowers an in-depth understanding of the mainstream culture because the immigrant writing uncovers a new dimension to look at the mainstream society. Since immigrant writers reside in the host country and are geographically close to their readers, there are few challenges in the marketing of immigrant books in comparison to the ones, which are imported from buying foreign rights. What is more, buying translation rights from foreign languages to the English-speaking countries can be very confusing. Foreign rights agents Liana Suppressa says, “only 3% of the total of the books come from other languages’ translation rights.” According to her, this is a very small percentage compared to some countries in Europe, like Germany, where this figure is around 40%. Germany’s high rate of translated books shows that people are always curious to read about others’ cultures and stories. American publishers can add more values to their business and culture by focusing on immigrant writing like German publishers did on translation.

SUCCESSFUL IMMIGRANT WRITERS AND REVIEW OF SOME DISTINCT NOVELS 

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Image Source: Amazon.com

There are a number of successful immigrant novels published by various publishers in the United States. These works are widely known among readers because of their monetary and cultural values. Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake was first published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in hardcover format in 2003. The novel sold 30,000 copies in the UK and in the US sold over 1,000,000 and also spent 48 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list (Unaccustomed Earth, 2016). Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn was published in paperback in 2010 by Scribner. Because to be an immigrant writer in a true sense one should be an immigrant, Toibin is not an immigrant writer. The reprint edition of Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey was published by Ember (an independent publisher) in 2014. Like Toibin, Nazario is not an immigrant writer. She was born in Madison, Wisconsin in the US. Another great immigrant author is Jean Kwok, whose Girl in Translation was published in paperback by Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Group, in 2011. This immigrant novel is the author’s autobiographical story. The book has been published in eighteen countries and translated into sixteen languages.

In 2015, HarperCollins published The Story Hour written by Thrity Umriger, an American-Indian author. Similarly, Cristina Henriquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans was published in 2015 by Alfred Knopf. Henriquez is an immigrant, but not a first generation immigrant. Another talent in immigrant writing is Junot Diaz whose book The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction including other awards and accolades. Riverhead Books published the book. Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, published in 2012 by Anchor, tells the stories of a group of Japanese bride immigrants. Julie received the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. Buddha in the Attic was also termed as a The New York Times Notable Book. The hardcover version of Americanah was written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and published by Anchor in 2014. The book was categorized as one of ‘The New York Time’s Ten Best Books of the Year’ and was also the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian writer, divides her time between Nigeria and the United States. Akhil Sharma’s Family Life was published in 2015 in the US and by Faber & Faber in the UK in 2014. Sharma’s is an autobiographical novel. Mr. Sharma is the first generation immigrant. Maria E. Andreu is not only an immigrant writer but also an immigrant rights activist. The Philadelphia-based small publisher, Running Press Kid published her The Secret Side of Empty in 2015. Maria first came to the United States as an undocumented immigrant.

Since the focus of this article is the first generation immigrant writers in highlighting their fresh voices, I have chosen the novels of Akhil Sharma, John Kwok, and Maria E. Andreu for proper review. These are some successful immigrant authors whose books are distinct from those of the mainstream authors. Immigrant authors say that publishers have biased views towards their work. Sharing his experience of being an immigrant writer, Amit Majmudar says, “The more I studied the book, as a marketable object, the more I thought about how, for me, being a writer is related to being a son of immigrants and how complicated the situation is.” A similar experience has been shared by Ilan Stavans. He says that American history has often been written from “an insider’s perspective,” not from outsiders’, such as immigrants.’

Now let me review the three distinct novels of immigrants who turned publishers.

BOOK ONE – FAMILY LIFE  BY AKHIL SHARMA 

Akhil Sharma is the first generation American-Indian immigrant, who came to the United States from Delhi, India when he was eight years old. A Professor of creative writing for the MFA program at Rutgers University-Newark, Mr. Sharma grew up in Edison, New Jersey and graduated from J.P. Stevens High School. He earned his B.A from Princeton University in Public Policy. From his early academic career, he had an interest in notable writers such as Toni Morrison, Joyce Carroll Oates, and Tony Krushner. “I admired and respected writers, but in the same way as I admired and respected social workers,” says Mr. Sharma. He also attended the writing program at Stanford where he won the O’Henry prize. Sharma’s short stories have appeared in various journals and magazines. An Obedient Father was his first novel while Family Life was his second based on his immigrant experience published by W.W. Norton & Company in 2015 in the US and Faber & Faber in the UK in 2014. The novel won the 2015 Folio Prize for fiction in the UK.

“When you are under that sort of enormous strain you are pushed back to your roots . . .,”

Akhil Sharma’s Family Life is an autobiographical story like many immigrant novels written by the first generation immigrants. Just as Akhil moved to the United States with his parents and elder brother, Anup, at the age of eight, the story’s protagonist Ajay Mishra also makes the similar journey to the United States with his brother and mother in Family Life. Often, the author becomes nostalgic recalling his birthplace where he has spent his early childhood. “When you are under that sort of enormous strain you are pushed back to your roots . . .,” says Sharma. Growing up in New Jersey as an immigrant, Akhil faced a lot of racist environment “with people cursing at us in the street, and being spat at school.” As a young immigrant, Sharma had some firsthand Indian cultural experience. He started writing short stories when he was fifteen and became a critical observer of his family’s situation, especially after an accident to his brother. As an immigrant, Sharma’s basic experience in the US was “being ignored as a child, and more widely from the racism of being an Indian in America.” These unique experiences of an American-Indian immigrant are reflected in Family Life.

The Highlights

Family Life is a story of an Indian family’s immigration and struggle in America. In other words, this is Akhil Sharma’s autobiographical story. It is 1978 when Ajay Misra and his elder brother Briju are playing cricket in their home in India. The Misra family is waiting for plane tickets from their father who is already in the US where he has a clerical job. The two brothers, along with their mother, fly to the US from Delhi, India, leaving their Indian neighbors jealous. Raised in traditional Indian culture, their mother believes in conservative Hindu rituals. The family lives in Queens, New York experiencing the wonderful American life while further dreaming their new hopes and careers. Their extraordinary lives continue until a tragedy strikes the family. The elder brother Briju, aged 14, is stricken by severe brain damage after he drowns in his school swimming pool. Briju never recovers and he gets bedridden. Briju’s father starts drinking heavily while his mother embraces superstitious ways of Hindu rituals with the hope of curing her elder son on whom the parents had pinned their hopes. Ajay, as a young boy of ten, also prays for the betterment of his family’s new ruined lives. Remembering God when in trouble is a common thing in Indian Hindu culture.

“Like Jhumpa Lahiri, Akhil Sharma writes of the Indian immigrant experience with great empathy and a complete lack of sentimentality. Family Life is a dark and thrilling accomplishment by a wildly gifted writer.”

The story’s protagonist, Ajay, loves his brother so much that he starts daydreaming. As a daydreamer, Ajay imagines as if nothing has happened to his brother and tells lies to his school friends. In Family Life, each member of the family resets the cultural dislocation differently. Winner of the Folio Prize 2015, this immigrant novel has been praised as “a loving portrait, both painful and honest” by Publishers Weekly and has received starred reviews in the literary magazine. Critic Ann Packer states, “Like Jhumpa Lahiri, Akhil Sharma writes of the Indian immigrant experience with great empathy and a complete lack of sentimentality. Family Life is a dark and thrilling accomplishment by a wildly gifted writer” (Family Life, 2015). Family Life, as an immigrant novel, brings the unique story to the mainstream readers. The most interesting side of the novel is that it is based on the real story of an immigrant family’s struggles in America.

Marketing, Sales and Analysis

The hardcover version of Family Life was published by W.W. Norton & Company in 2014 and the paperback version was published in 2015. The novel was also published by Faber & Faber in the UK in the May of 2014. Sonali Deraniyagala in The New York Times Book Review writes that Family Life is one of the 10 Best Books of 2014. Before the 200 page-length novel was published, Sharma had written 7,000 pages over the period of 13 years before narrowing down the story into a 200-page length book. The book has received coverage from the major media like The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, Huffington Post, Entertainment Weekly, Wall Street Journal, and Boston Globe. Sharma’s Family Life received the Folio Prize 2015 in the UK. The prize aims to recognize and celebrate the best English-language fictions published in the UK during a given year, regardless of form, genre or the author’s country of origin. As of 23rd March of 2015, the book had sold 1221 copies on Nielson BookScan. The book has been ranked Number#1 in the Kindle Store. Till date, Family Life has got 5728 ratings and 857 positive ratings on the Goodreads.

And while looking into the story background and the new cultural perspectives of Family Life, the novel is an important piece of writing in the pool of hundreds of thousands of books published annually in the mainstream publishing. Hence, Family Life has a unique story to tell the fresh experiences of diverse immigrant characters and the story is different from the stories by non-immigrant authors. At the time, mainstream books have been blamed for being homogeneous with their similar themes, story lines, and similar settings, Family Life has unique selling point from the point of view of publishers and marketers. In other words, Family Life can contribute to the greater values both for mainstream publishers and readers.

BOOK TWO – THE SECRET SIDE OF EMPTY BY MARIA E. ANDREU 

A writer and an immigrant rights activist Maria E. Andreu came to the United States from Spain as an undocumented immigrant when she was five. She grew up in the New Jersey suburbs in the 1980s. According to Maria, her parents had come to the US by choice but they did not know what their choice meant. Now a US citizen and resident of New York City, Maria is a speaker on the issues of immigration and its effect on individuals, especially children.

She lived in Argentina for two years when she was between six and eight years old before she came to the United States. Maria says that she still remembers men with machine guns in the Town Square after the 1976 coup in Argentina. She feels whisper about the horrible things the military was doing always comes into her ears. Maria recalls a fear in her grown-ups eyes when they talked about it and they quickly changed the subject. “I used those memories to build certain details, like the description of the dance at the town square and other stories M.T. hears,” says Maria. Also as an illegal immigrant in the US, Maria went to a small Catholic school where tuition was the barrier for her education and everyone in the school was better than her financially. “The dad of one of my best friends was a doctor and she got a car for her 17th birthday while we were struggling to pay utilities,” Maria says in her interview with Lyn Miller-Lachmann. As a critical observer on own status, Maria sees many missing opportunities while growing up below the poverty line.

Maria, whose works have appeared in Newsweek, The Washington Post, NJ.com, and The Newark Star Ledger, draws on her own experiences as an undocumented teen to give a glimpse into the fear, frustration and, ultimately, the strength that comes from being “illegal”. Her first novel The Secret Side of Empty reflects her immigrant experiences when she was a teenager. Maria is now a U.S. citizen.

The Highlights

Maria E. Andrew’s The Secret Side of Empty is a Young Adult novel, which tells the story of a teenage girl, who like the author herself, was brought to the US as an illegal immigrant by her parents. M.T., the short name for Monserrat Thalia, goes to school, speaks perfect English, but only one thing she lacks is she does not have legal documents to stay and work in the US. However, in her class, M.T. hides the secret of being an undocumented immigrant, which is the secret side of her being empty. M.T. faces a lot of disadvantageous situations because of being an undocumented immigrant. She can’t plan of going to college like her rich friends, even though she is a bright student among her peers. Like the author herself, the female protagonist realizes how one cannot experience the important things such as leaving the country for a school trip and getting a driver’s license simply because she does not have “a piece of paper.” M.T. increasingly feels isolated even though she is among her classmates. As everyone around her begins talking about college plans, she shows indifference because she knows she can never attend one. Moreover, she can never get a well-paying job without legal papers.

What is more, the female protagonist’s abusive father wants the family to return home to Argentina, a country that’s unfamiliar to her. In front of her father, she finds it hard to materialize her dream when she reaches her senior year. By making M.T. keep her reality secret from her friends, the writer successfully reveals M.T.’s sadness and frustrations. M.T. has a good friend whose name is Chelsea. M.T. She also has a romantic relationship with a boy, Nate, from a neighboring school, but her relationships are hard with others because she is always worried about hiding the truth. M.T.’s family life is hard, and sometimes there’s not enough food to eat while sometimes electricity is turned off in her apartment.

In this Young Adult immigrant novel, Maria E. Andreu draws the story from her past experience as an undocumented immigrant and her struggles to overcome it.

Marketing, Sales and Analysis

Lisa Cheng at the Running Press Kids bought the world rights to The Secret Side of Empty while Susan Cohen of Writers House brokered the deal for the world rights. The Secret Side of Empty has received 3.94 an average with positive customer reviews on Goodreads (The Secret Side of Empty, 2016). Similarly, amongst 35 positive reviews on Amazon, the paperback version of the book has received 4.6 stars out of 5 (Secret Side of Empty, 2016). The book was published in hardcover and kindle versions together in 2014. It was published in the paperback version in 2015 by Running Press Kids, a Philadelphia-based indie publisher. Though not enough reviews, The Secret Side of Empty has got 4 and 5-star reviews on Amazon. “Eye-opening and wrenching,” says Publishers Weekly. However, a review from Booklist states: “With immigration reform a hot-button issue across the country, this book couldn’t have not been able to be timelier.” What makes an immigrant novel timelier despite the fact that it is set in most relevant political and social settings? It appears that the book has yet to get more editorial, marketing, and publicity supports to know its unique selling point. Agreeing that immigrant books don’t get enough support, the book’s author Maria E. Andreu says, “Once books are designated as ‘diverse’ or about immigrant experiences, I think a lot of average readers think there’s nothing in it for them. It becomes a book about an issue rather than just a story.”

The Secret Side of Empty has been featured with Indie Excellent Award Winner, Junior Library Journal Guild Selection, and also School Library Journal Top 10 Latino Books of 2014. The book has been reviewed by Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and School Library Journal Reviews. It was called “captivating” by School Library Journal. The novel, however, has not been able to bring enough monetary and cultural values as much as it could have done to the mainstream due to the lack of enough editorial and marketing support.

“The ‘big five’ have controlled 95% of best-sellers,”

Also, this book has an eye-opening story, which is also the story of all immigrants in the present day America. Besides giving entertainment to readers, the novel provides a true picture of US immigrants and this could be useful for researchers of immigration and government policy makers. The recent US immigrant population is more than 42 million with a rapid growth rate. In this situation, publishers have many opportunities to reach a large mass of immigrant audience. But, they need to focus on new programs so that they can reach among immigrant writers and immigrant audience. However, publishers’ lack of investments and attentions on new and diverse contents consequently has turned into the publishers’ missed opportunity, which has later been grabbed by startup publishers and self-published authors. Seasoned publishing professionals say that a book’s success depends on the publishers’ promotional effort. “The ‘big five’ have controlled 95% of best-sellers,” says Arthur Klebanoff, CEO, and founder of Restless Books. Instead of strategically controlling the bestsellers, publishers today should experiment by investing in various diverse stories the same way they have been doing for big name authors.

BOOK THREE  – GIRL IN TRANSLATION BY JEAN KWOK 

Jean Kwok was five years old when her parents emigrated the United States from Hong Kong. She spent her childhood working in a cloth factory in Chinatown, near Brooklyn. There, she lived in an “unheated”, “roach-infested” apartment. Jean Kwok faced a lot of problems as an immigrant with her Chinese accent when she was in school.

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Jean Kwok with her Principal, Mrs. Kasindorf/Image Source: Author Website

While Jean worked in the clothing factory, her mother worked in a sweatshop in Chinatown. Although she loved English, she didn’t think it was her practical choice and therefore she devoted herself to science. “I was accepted early to Harvard and I’d done enough college work to take Advanced Standing when I entered, thus skipping a year and starting as a sophomore in Physics,” says Jean. Being an immigrant, Jean had to do many unrelated jobs while still being a student at Harvard. “I put myself through Harvard, working up to four jobs at a time to do so: washing dishes in the dining hall, cleaning rooms, reading to the blind, teaching English, and acting as the director of a summer program for Chinese immigrant children,” she recalls. Even after graduating from Harvard University, Jean continued doing unrelated jobs by becoming a professional ballroom dancer. As a ballroom dancer, she trained and performed shows and took part in competitions. She taught students how to waltz, swing, and mambo. Jean took that opportunity as a great personal transformation when she was not easily fit in different places. “That was the basis for my second book, Mambo in Chinatown,” she says. This Chinese-American author of two bestselling novels Girl in Translation and Mambo in Chinatown finally decided to pursue her writing career and joined Columbia University to pursue her MFA in fiction.

Jean started her career as a full-time author after her first book Girl in Translation was accepted for publication by Riverhead Books. She has been selected for many awards such as American Library Association Alex Award, the Chinese American Libraries Associations Best Book Award, and Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writes. Jean’s writing has also been featured in Time, The New York Times, USA Today, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, Vogue, People, among others.

Like most immigrant novels, Jean’s Girl in Translation is her autobiographical story. In the novel, the author tells her experience of being an immigrant in the United States. Jean says that her novel is helpful to explore cultural understanding in schools, identify, and how cultural and language difference affect immigrants. Due to the cultural strengths and insightful experiences, her books are published in various languages of the world and they are taught in many schools and universities. Currently, Jean lives in Holland of Netherland where she has learned to speak Cantonese and Dutch.

The Highlights

Girl in Translation is the story of Kimberly Chang, who migrates to America from Hong Kong, like the novel’s author did, after her father’s death. After becoming an immigrant in the United States, Kim leads a secret double life: exceptional schoolgirl in her school in the day and a sweatshop worker in Chinatown in the evenings. Before coming to the U.S., Kim and her mother send their money to their relative in the US with the hope that she would help them buy a house. Once coming to the US, Kimberly finds that her relative, named Aunt Paula, was a dishonest lady. Instead of helping them buy a home, Aunt Paula keeps them in a rundown apartment in Chinatown and finds them a job at an illegally operated factory, but she does not return their money. She also takes advantage of their undocumented status and their ignorance in many ways. Kimberly joins school but finds it hard to pick up an American accent in the beginning. Every day after school, Kim joins her mother at the cloth factory. There she meets Matt, a young factory worker. She is introduced to Matt’s deaf and mute brother. The kids work there along with other immigrant parents. Seeing her mother’s hard work, Kim also decides to study harder in her school. Winter comes but there is no heating system in the apartment. Her mother buys Kim a dictionary to improve her vocabulary. Kim fails in some of her classes, but doesn’t tell it to her mother. Annette, a friend of Kim, gives her a little panda hair clip as a Christmas gift, but Kim gives it to Matt, not knowing the underlying meaning of the present-giving culture of Christmas.

On a particular day Kim learns that she is being offered a scholarship at a local private school where her classmate Annette has already been accepted. There in the school, her new friends turn mean to Kim because of her poverty. However, Kim gets an English tutor and soon becomes proficient in English. No one in her school knows that Kim works at a factory. She continues to love Matt. Kim is asked to teach other students who are not doing well. One of the students Kim needs to teach is Curtis, who starts flirting with her. One day, police raid the cloth factory where Kim works. Kim was an undocumented immigrant and she was not old enough to work at a factory. She hides herself in Matt’s apartment. Matt kisses her and their old relationship is rekindled. Kim knows that Matt has already fallen in love with Vivian. One day Matt sees Kim flirting with Curtis, but walks away without a word. Kim follows him. That night, they sleep together, but decide to take the relation slower. Later on, Kim finds out that she has been accepted at Yale University with a full scholarship. She becomes pregnant from Matt, but decides to continue her career rather than sinking into a poverty by giving birth to the baby. Plot of the story overlaps time. Kim meets Matt after she finishes her studies at Yale. By the time, Matt is married to Vivian. Like Akhil Sharma’s Family Life and Marie E. Andreu’s The Secret Side of Empty, this novel draws a lot of events from the author’s immigrant background.

Marketing, Sales and Analysis

Chinese-American author Jean Kwok has her own website displaying her two bestselling books and her many literary activities, honors and achievements she has received. The eBook and hardcover versions of Girl in Translation were published by Riverhead Books in April of 2010 while the paperback version was published in the May of 2011. Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Groups, publishes diverse voices from around the world, such as Khaled Hosseini and Junot Díaz.

Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Groups, publishes diverse voices from around the world, such as Khaled Hosseini and Junot Díaz.

Girl in Translation has got 32091 ratings with 3.95 average ratings on Goodreads and a lot of positive reviews have been published in Entertainment Weekly, People Magazine, The New York Times, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal which can be said the result of the marketing efforts both from the author and the publisher. The novel also hit The New York Times bestseller list in the May of 2010. According to Jean, her novel has already hit the ABA Indie (Independent Bookstores) Bestseller, the Walmart Bestseller, and the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association (SCIBA) Bestseller lists. Girl in Translation has got an average rating of 4.2 in Barnes & Noble while in Amazon it has got 4.3. According to the author’s website, the book has been translated into many languages of the world and it has been included in the curriculum of some schools and universities. Because of its cultural and monetary values to the publishers, translation rights of the book has been bought in Holland, Brazil, China, Finland, Germany, Israel, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Russian, Sweden, Spain, Turkey, among others.

Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation brings a lot of values to the mainstream readers as well as to publishers. Reading Girl in Translation, readers (especially immigrant readers) get a lot of real information about choosing their career paths as well as they know what it does mean to be an immigrant. The book’s translation into many languages, inclusion in curriculums, and many positive starred reviews say that Girl in Translation is a successful immigrant novel.

LITERARY AGENTS’ ROLE IN MAINSTREAMING DIVERSITY AND SOME IMMIGRANT FOCUSED PROJECTS 

In her article entitled “3 Ways Literary Agents Can Increase Diversity in Publishing” Leonicka, a beta reader, focuses on the role of literary agents in bringing diversity in publishing. She says that literary agents should add their commitments in their submission guidelines. According to her, the literary agents instead of simply saying ‘we need diverse books,’ should announce in the concrete term: “Writers from marginalized groups are encouraged to query.” Though Leonica did not mention about immigrant writing in her article, her statement is clearly closer to the immigrant writing as well since immigrant stories and immigrant experiences are the sources of diversity.

Let us briefly see some other immigrant focused projects that worth mentioning in this article.

Restless Books’ Immigrant Writing Prize

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Restless Books’ Immigrant Writing Prize/Image Source: Publisher’s Website

Restless Books is a Brooklyn-based indie publisher founded by Ilan Stavans, an immigrant himself. In 2015, asking for submission from first generation immigrants, the publisher announced Restless Books Prize for Immigrant Writing, beginning of 2015. This is an effort to bring new talents, fresh and diverse voices in the American mainstream publishing. Ilan Stavans says: “The ethos of America is defined by its immigrants. Their stories have always been an essential component of the nation’s cultural consciousness, from Isaac Bashevis Singer to Jhumpa Lahiri, from Jacob Riis to Maxine Hong Kingston.” Restless Books made its mission to publish stories from many parts of the world, with the aim of delivering stories of discovery, adventure, dislocation, and transformation. Prior to announcing immigrant-writing prize, this “digital-first” publisher did not exclusively publish any immigrant title though it was publishing books from different cultures and countries. Jackson Saul, an editorial assistant of Restless Books, said that most of the manuscript submissions were from diverse immigrant groups. “We received many submissions and were very happy with the geographic and stylistic diversity as well as the sheer quality,” said Jackson, adding that the project was “very successful.” Restless Books has been publishing multicultural and diverse voices such as The Face: Strangers on a Pier (2016, March) by Tash Aw, an author who was born in Taiwan; by Musharraf Ali Farooqi, a Pakistan-born author; and Between Life and Death by the Israel-born author, Yoram Kaniuk. Restless Books has been focusing on the immigrant author’s diverse voices to bring cultural and monetary values to the mainstream publishers and its readers.

Immigrants’ Diverse Stories on Harvard Business Review

In the August of 2010, the Harvard Education Publishing Group (HEPG) which publishes its bi-monthly scholarly journal Harvard Education Review asked for proposals to publish in a special issue on the “Diverse Experiences of Immigrant Children and Youth in Education” with an aim of extending and reframing the dialogue on immigration issues in the United States. The goal was to bring multiple voices and perspectives of researchers, practitioners, families, and students in conversation to publishing. The proposal states: “We further hope that a collection of these voices will celebrate the strengths, resilience, contributions, and humanity of a population often characterized as a threatening nuisance in U.S. society” (Call for Proposals, 2010). The statement emphasizes the role of immigrant diversity in education sectors as well.

Telling Room and its Immigrant Oriented Program

The Telling Room, a Portland-based non-profit writing center, has been serving children and young adult from the growing community of immigrants, refugees, and the students who are struggling in mainstream classrooms. The organization teaches teens that they have stories worth-telling. Ibrahim Shkara, a 19-year-old Iraqi refugee living in Portland, Maine was at the White House recently to receive One of a Dozen National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards from First Lady Michelle Obama on behalf of The Telling Room. The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities recognized the nonprofit writing center for its effectiveness in promoting the life skills to immigrant teens by improving their writing.

“This organization doesn’t just teach kids to be better writers,” says Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo, “it teaches them that their stories are worth telling, that their life experiences are valuable and worth sharing.”

The program, which is considered a national model for integrating migrant youth, received the 2015 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, the nation’s highest honor for youth arts programs. Abraham had joined The Telling Room in 2012 when he fled Bagdad the same year. The Telling Room was established in 2004 for the students of 6-18 for building their confidence, strengthening their literary skills and showcasing the work of young writers. “This organization doesn’t just teach kids to be better writers,” says Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo, “it teaches them that their stories are worth telling, that their life experiences are valuable and worth sharing.” The project has been backed by interested writers and dedicated volunteers.

Immigrant Writing Programs run by American Immigration Council

American Immigration Council works towards strengthening America by honoring the immigrant history and shaping how Americans think and act towards immigration now and in the future. According to AIC, “Digital storytelling about immigrant heritage is a way to access a shared past and present” (8 Tips for Teaching How to Write a Digital Story on Immigration, 2015). The Council brings different projects related to community education, immigration policy, cultural exchange, and legal action for immigrants.

CONCLUSION

With the proper critiques of some of the works done by these notable immigrants in few decades and few months back like I have been able to do in this article, it is certainly clear that a major source of diversity in the United States is the immigrant population. And with this, they deserve more recognition than what they are getting currently. This is crucial because population diversity plays an important role in bringing new insight, knowledge, and perspective to the mainstream population. However, there is a gap between the various immigrant communities and the mainstream American population in terms of cultural sharing. Publishers can effectively bridge this gap by focusing on the stories from the immigrant communities in order to increase a cultural sharing, and increase their profit levels at the same time.

In this digital age, startup publishers are taking the market share of print publishers by using new publishing technologies while the traditional print publishers are attempting to remain competitive by using similar publishing technologies. In fact, big publishers should not forget that publishing industry is crying out not only for technological innovation but also for content innovation by presenting stories from diverse immigrant communities. Publishers’ focus on immigrant stories helps to bring more diversity in publishing and new cultural knowledge for people.

Thus, the traditional publishers’ focus on immigrant stories helps to bring fresh voices and perspectives to the non-immigrant population.

However, the publishers have not been able to actively use the immigrant population as the chief source of diversity in publishing. Because immigrant stories are based on the real-life situations of people living in the United States, such stories have more pragmatic value in that they allow the mainstream population to look into the cultures of the immigrant communities, which might remain mysterious otherwise. Thus, the traditional publishers’ focus on immigrant stories helps to bring fresh voices and perspectives to the non-immigrant population. Publishers should promote more immigrant writers instead of continuing their almost exclusive reliance on big name mainstream authors.

(This is the research article I originally prepared for my MS Book Publishing thesis.)

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