“What’s it like to live in a country that doesn’t trust you and doesn’t want you unless you win an Olympic gold medal or a national baking competition?”
So reads the blurb of The Good Immigrant in big, bold capitals. And it depicts exactly that through 21 unflinchingly honest and thought-provoking essays put together and edited by Nikesh Shukla. The 21 authors of these essays are from different professions and backgrounds, ranging from writers, actors, publishing professionals, teachers and journalists. They challenge and shed light on what it means to be ‘black, Asian, minority ethnic’ or the ‘other’ or both in Britain today and how those lines blur and vary, despite external attempts to categorise and box them down. This timely book, published in September, was crowdfunded via Unbound and smashed its target, to no surprise. The word ‘immigration’ is everywhere. Brexit, and nearly every political campaign is fuelled, if not dominated and led by it, playing on old age misconceptions and fears of the foreigner. The same fears that have led to the rhetoric about whether child refugees look ‘enough like children’ or whether refugees are ‘economic refugees’ or humans, families escaping from war.
These essays therefore challenge what it means to be ‘a good immigrant’ and the idea that you are only accepted if you perform the role of a ‘good immigrant’. A good immigrant makes significant contributions to society and adapts to the Western way of life. A good immigrant speaks fluent English and is thankful. A good immigrant is law-abiding, whether or not that matters when it comes to the police. But even when you perform the role of ‘the good immigrant’, by keeping your head down, by not behaving so as to make other people uncomfortable at your own expense, you will still have your sense of belonging and identity questioned. Or in Varaidzo’s case, being informed at the age of 9 that she would still be classed as ‘black’ even though she was mixed race because “that’s just what we’d call you”.
Varaidzo’s essay, ‘A Guide to Being Black’, explores the different ways to ‘be black’, and the roles hair or pop music may play in it. She reflects on ‘performed’ and ‘learned’ blackness and living through other people’s perceptions before concluding that there is no right way to be black.
Meanwhile, in ‘Namaste’, Nikesh Shukla depicts his experiences of cultural misappropriation and misuse of language ranging from inconsiderate student neighbours to names on menus such as ‘chai tea’ (tea tea), naan bread (bread bread) and ‘chicken chuddi’ (chicken pants).
Each essay is highly personal, as each writer explores the idea of belonging and displacement through their first-hand experiences. It is refreshing to see a conversation finally being had on these topics that openly challenges the one-sided mainstream dialogues. The fact that the crowdfunder is now at 192% also proves that there is a high demand for narratives that depict ‘diverse’ experiences. From a publishing perspective, the crowdfunder also proves wrong the excuse that publishers may have about such experiences not being ‘universal’ or ‘relatable’ enough.
Darren Chetty makes this point in his essay, ‘You Can’t Say That! Stories Have to be About White People’, when he talks of how, from his extensive experience as a teacher, children of colour always wrote white characters with ‘English names’ in classrooms. He argues for the importance of having children’s books that reflect wider, multicultural characters, because children are not ‘colour blind’ despite his colleague stating that they are. Chetty argues that by presenting children with only one story, we fall into ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ which leads to harmful stereotypes, limiting of the imagination, and the message that “your own life does not qualify as subject material”.
The collection spoke volumes to me as a child of immigrants, and it should speak volumes to those who are not. The Good Immigrant is not just by ‘coloured people for coloured people’. This is a book for everyone to read as it highlights the extent to which we pigeonhole people from different backgrounds and cultures that are not dominantly white and middle class. It claims back the narrative through 21 people who speak for themselves and aren’t spoken for or silenced.
The essays may also serve as critical reference for students and practitioners writing and teaching about race and identity in current day, post-Brexit Britain. They are full of historical insights, references and facts that paint a whole, well-rounded picture of lived experiences and cultures. For example, Chimene Suleyman’s essay, ‘My Name is My Name’, extensively explores her Turkish heritage through family history, wars, cities and the assimilation of her name.
Each essay in the collection is eloquently written, and ranges from being shocking, funny, uncomfortable, thought provoking, honest, factual and historical. At many points, the reader may find themselves laughing over the mock humour, while at other times, it may give goosebumps through simply connecting with what is being said. What really hit the message home was Kieran Yates’ essay, ‘On Going Home’. Yates talks about being a third culture kid and the different identities she acquires when she visits family in Punjab compared to London and how there is no ‘neat duality’ and ‘hollow insecurity’ in having these identities that can often leave her feeling rootless because they are additions, not losses to her identity. She finishes the essay by saying that,
We’ve never really been split, never been cut in half, we’ve just been silent about how we’ve been empowered because we haven’t felt it, have been too busy being good immigrants, not making a fuss, and quieting down when people feel uncomfortable. Rewriting the narrative of retracing our journeys has, for me, derailed those ideas of losing our internal battles of identity and cemented a simple fact – we’ve never had anything to lose, only everything to gain.
This incredibly powerful message arguably captures the essence of The Good Immigrant. Sometimes stories are all we have, but sometimes simply telling stories can be the most powerful way of evoking change. In a year rife with racism, Brexit, Trump and refugee crisis (to name a few), The Good Immigrant has bravely created an open dialogue and highlighted how much work there is still to do, while at the same time being a much-needed source of encouragement, healing and wholeness. It is one of, if not the most important books of the year. If possible, I would probably put it on every school, college and university curriculum and make every library, reading group or bookshop have a session on it.