The ethos of the modern world is defined by immigrants. Their stories have always been an essential component of our cultural consciousness, from Isaac Bashevis Singer to Isabel Allende, from Milan Kundera to Yiyun Li. In novels, short stories, memoirs, and works of journalism, immigrants have shown us what resilience and dedication we’re capable of, and have expanded our sense of what it means to be global citizens. In these times of intense xenophobia, it is more important than ever that these boundary-crossing stories reach the broadest possible audience.
Now in its sixth year, the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing supports the voices of immigrant writers whose works straddle cultural divides, embrace the multicultural makeup of our society, and interrogate questions of identity in a global society. This prize awards $10,000 and publication with Restless Books to a writer who has produced a work that addresses the effects of global migration on identity. This year’s judges, Francisco Cantú, Shuchi Saraswat, and Ilan Stavans, have selected the below four finalists. Click on the links in each section to read excerpts from their books.
Read Excerpts by the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing 2021 Finalists
Natasha Burge is a finalist for the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.
A strikingly original exploration of autism and psychogeography, Natasha Burge’s Drifts takes us through the souks, caves, and sands of the Arabian Gulf to create a loving and sensorial meditation on place and transcultural identity. In gorgeous poetic prose, Burge probes her unfurling awareness of autism, connecting seemingly tangential thoughts and wanderings with the anchored histories of the Arabian Gulf. The scenic and descriptive power of Burge’s writing is remarkable, bringing to life vivid landscapes, city streets and markets, desert sunsets, and unseen waters flowing beneath the earth.
The following excerpt includes material originally published by The Smart Set.
An editor suggests I write about being an alien. This word I like, with its superabundance of meaning. It reminds me of visa stamps crowding an already full passport, of space shuttles and star dust and loneliness. It rings true.
Ani Gjika is a finalist for the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.
By Its Right Name is a courageous and profoundly intimate story of recognizing and reclaiming the power of one’s sexuality. Ani Gjika intricately reconstructs her personal history in America, Albania, and beyond, naming traumas that often remain unspoken. By Its Right Name is a different kind of immigrant story, one that demands that we consider the specific, insidious ways that patriarchy controls a woman’s relationship to desire and sex, as well as to her body, mind, and expression. With a poet’s ear, Gjika finds language for confronting patriarchy, misogyny, and the male gaze on the most intimate of terms, ultimately revealing the transformational power of self-discovery through the written word.
Sometimes there’s a father I wish I had. He picks me up at school high-fiving me just as I run out the door into the schoolyard.
“How was it?” he asks. “How’d you do in the exam?”
“I nailed it!” I say, all joy and pride around my father.
“Didn’t I tell you?” he says. “If you put in the work, you can do anything.”
I head downstairs and around the dark corner to spy my eldest son in his child bed, grey sneaker poking through the captain’s wheel footboard. The familiar angles of his shoulder and hip turned toward the lavender wall. Upstairs: a turkey half-cooked, speakers blaring Radiohead, collards on simmer, beers all over the counter. My wisdom crumbles when I try to comfort anyone. Oh hon, I’m sorry, I say. He sobs and pulls the faded deer blanket over his head.
I just don’t want anybody else getting hurt, he says.
No one else is getting hurt, I tell him.
And watch as he weeps, not knowing what to do. Hug him? Would he want me to? My body does not leap into a hug. Nobody in my family hugged. Earlier he had tried to tell me about this boy Karl, his roommate first year at college—Oh, I remember your dorm room, I interrupted—that he was dead. Suicide, I heard my son say and went on chopping celery. Heat coils in my cheekbones and sinuses. Oh, that’s too bad. Is that all I said? That’s too bad.
I was waiting at the top of the escalator, as we had agreed the night before by phone. The marble palace of the metro station Gorkovskaya, named after a Russian writer whose name means “bitter,” felt solemn enough for the occasion. I was peering into the face of every woman delivered by the moving stairs, as if each was a final product on a factory line reaching its destination. I watched their wandering looks, their wrinkles, the tensions of their mouths and speculated which one was my mother. Any of them could be.
The wall above the desk in my childhood bedroom is covered in sticky notes, index cards, and fading color photographs. They are haphazardly layered, held up by torn pieces of Scotch tape and pushpins at odd angles. Each time I sit, spinning in my blue, cat-clawed desk chair, I reread and remember.
My first college English professor told us everyone should keep a commonplace book: somewhere to put words, ideas, and sentences we want to hold. He said it was a way to mark the passage of time and the changes of our minds. I was intrigued by the idea, but aware it was the sort of thing I’d begin and then forget in the bustling adjustment of no longer being at home. So I wrote down the word—commonplace—but started nothing then.
The powerboat clips Scofield point and breaks away from my cabin toward the more serious waters of Lake Superior. My guide, Tom, cranes his neck to view the shore as if he’s never seen it before, though he knows these bends and inlets well. We pass the outer islands—Rabbit, Caribou, Cemetery—which lift like teeth from the blue-green water. The motor quiets as we turn inward and thread the eye of Moskey Basin, toward docks and wooden nets, remnants of a long-gone fishing industry cast along the shoreline.
On the Path from the Edison Fishery to the Moose Boneyard
Before the arrival, there was a departure. A view of an airport gate through an airplane window.
I was eleven years old; my brother Nathan was eight. We had just completed the drive from our home in Norman, Oklahoma to Will Rogers Airport in Oklahoma City. I was eager to board the plane and get to my seat so that I could look out the window, back toward the gate. My best friend Rachel had come to the airport with us, back when you could hug someone goodbye right up to the boarding doors. She had promised that if I looked out the plane window, she’d make sure I saw her waving to me, and she promised to keep waving until after the plane had pulled away from the gate and Nathan and I were far above the place where we’d grown up, in between two very different homes, two parents, two lives. I held onto this promise tightly, as if looking back to see Rachel waving was as far as I was going that day: boarding a plane just for this small moment.
The bulky figure coming towards me on the path has a stick in one hand, a small bag in the other, but I can’t make out his face because the dappled light that filters through the trees in the wood is playing with his features. As with most people, my mind drifts when I go for long walks and I forget about my surroundings until something like the cackle of a crow or a breaking twig or the heavy tread of somebody approaching, snaps me out of my reverie and, for a nanosecond, I am in the grip of a timeless uncertainty. I think of bandits, pilgrims, squires and ploughmen but, by the time we are a few yards from each other, I see the pleasant face of what turns out to be a maths teacher on a weekend break. His rucksack contains a plastic bottle of water, which he finishes off in a few gulps, and his stick is one of those Nordic walking poles.
Before I left to study abroad in Galway, Ireland, in the winter of 2020, I’d stumbled upon a lively online discussion amongst first-generation, Black Irish immigrants. From the comfort of my bedroom, I came upon a comment that stuck with me for quite some time: I have never experienced outright racism here, an anonymous poster said. It’s because the racists here are cowards. They will never say anything to your face.