Allison's Book Bag

A Story of Immigration and Separation

Posted on: December 1, 2015

When Saya’s mother is sent to an immigration detention center, Saya finds comfort in listening to her mother’s warm greeting on their answering machine. To ease the distance between them, Mama begins sending Saya bedtime stories inspired by Haitian folklore on cassette tape.

The above description comes from the inside jacket flap of Mama’s Nightingale, subtitled a Story of Immigration and Separation. This multicultural story is written by Edwidge Danicat, whose books have been selected for Oprah’s Book Club, as well as twice been nominated for the National Book Award. The picture book is illustrated by Leslie Straub, a children’s author and illustrator from Louisiana. Tomorrow I’ll review Mama’s Nightingale. Save the date: December 2!


Author Edwidge Danticat draws on her own background to bring authenticity to Mama’s Nightingale, having herself grown up in a family that was separated, in part, by immigration. Born in Haiti, when she was two years old, her father André to New York, to be followed two years later by her mother. This left Danticat and her younger brother to be raised by her aunt and uncle back in Haiti.

Eventually, at the age of 12, Danticat moved to New York to join her parents in a heavily Haitian American neighborhood. As an immigrant teenager, Danticat’s disorientation in her new surroundings was a source of discomfort for her, and she turned to literature for solace. Only two years later, she published her first writing in English for a citywide magazine written by teenagers, followed shortly thereafter by a second story about her immigration experience. In the introduction to the anthology of stories from the magazine, Danticat wrote, “When I was done with the [immigration] piece, I felt that my story was unfinished, so I wrote a short story, which later became a book, my first novel: Breath, Eyes, Memory…Writing for New Youth Connections had given me a voice. My silence was destroyed.”

Initially, Danticat had intended on studying to become a nurse, but her love of writing won out and she received first a Bachelor of Arts in French literature and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Since completing her MFA, Danticat has taught creative writing at the university level, as well as worked with filmmakers on projects about Haiti. Her short stories have appeared in over 25 periodicals and have been anthologized several times. Her work has been translated into numerous other languages. She is a strong advocate for issues affecting Haitians abroad and at home.

For further info, check out Edwidge Danticat and the Author’s Note in Mama’s Nightingale.


Set in United States, Mama’s Nightingale is narrated from the perspective of young Saya, whose mother has spent three months at a correctional center for women without papers. Saya’s father and her visit the correctional center every week, where her mother shares news with her father and tells stories to Saya. Her father writes letters to judges, as well as to the mayor and to other politicians, and to reporters. No one acknowledges his letters. One day her mother starts to send taped tales to Saya, which inspires Saya to write her own stories to exchange with her mother. The title of Mama’s Nightingale comes from a story that Saya’s mother made up for her about a mommy nightingale who goes on a long journey and looks for a rainbow trail in the sky so she can return home to her baby.


At The Atlantic, readers can find author Edwidge Danticat’s own story of immigration and separation, which served as inspiration for Mama’s Nightingale. In the early 1970s, her parents sold everything they owned to purchase passports. They fled the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and its chaotic rule to find a better life in New York City. Danticat was meant to follow shortly with her infant brother, but things didn’t work out that way: “Because of United States immigration red tape, our family separation lasted eight years.” Danticat was 12 when she finally traveled to the States in reunite with her parents.

Danticat tells The Atlantic that her parents didn’t know much about the United States except that there were opportunities there. “That experience of touching down in a totally foreign place is like having a blank canvas: You begin with nothing, but stroke by stroke you build a life. This process requires everything great art requires—risk-tasking, hope, a great deal of imagination, all the qualities that are the building blocks of art. You must be able to dream something nearly impossible and toil to bring it into existence.”

To read more about how her parents adjusted to the surprises of American life, as well as how Dantica herself adapted, check out The Atlantic. Danticat also explains her decision to become an artist, despite her parents feeling threatened by this ambition. “When you’ve given so much, when you’ve sacrificed everything to make this huge transition, you want to see your child have an easier life as a result. You want to spare them the anguish of worrying always about survival….” In addition, Danticat talks about the indecision that immigrants continue to feel over whether they made the right choice.


In educating myself about the background to Mama’s Nightingale, I looked up immigration statistics at Migration Policy. The numbers broke down like this:

  • In 2013, 17.4 million children under age 18 lived at home with at least one immigrant parent. They accounted for 25 percent of the 69.9 million children under age 18 in the United States.
  • Second-generation children under age 18—those who were born in the United States to at least one foreign-born parent—accounted for 88 percent (15.3 million) of all children with immigrant parents.
  • The remaining 12 percent (2.1 million) were children living in the United States in 2013 who were born outside the United States to foreign-born parents.
  • The overall number of people waiting for a green card—within and outside of the United States—is at least 4.4 million.

Sunday Book Review describes several children’s picture books that deal with the issue of immigration. Those titles include My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald, which I have reviewed earlier at Allison’s Book Bag, and Anne Sibley O’Brien’s I’m New Here and Michael Foreman’s The Seeds of Friendship.

Two child-friendly sites about immigration are:


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Happy New Year!

Allison’s Book Bag is currently on hiatus. I will return after a much-needed rest with reviews of Advanced Reader Copies including: Freddy Frogcaster and the Flash Flood by Janice Dean, One Two by Igor Eliseev, Incredible Magic of Being by Kathyrn Erskine, Dragon Grammar Book by Diane Robinson, and Wide as the Wind by Edward Stanton.



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