[REVIEW] The Good Immigrant, ed. by Nikesh Shukla

 

Who gets to tell a story? The answer to that depends on who you ask. Mainstream directors (read: white men) would likely say nothing’s off limits and it’s anyone’s game, but some cinemagoers might beg to differ. #OscarsSoWhite has trended for the last two years on Twitter during awards season in protest at the lack of recognition of black and non-white nominees, all the while the Hollywood whitewashing bandwagon rolls on, with the kind of casting clangers that plagued Exodus: Gods and Kings and Gods of Egypt continuing to play out ad nauseam such as Scarlett Johansson’s upcoming turn as a Japanese character in a live-action remake of a beloved manga. You’d have thought filmmakers would’ve taken note after Cameron Crowe’s Aloha last year when the veteran director faced fierce backlash for casting the “so white” Emma Stone (the actress’ own words) as part Polynesian, part Chinese Allison Ng, but apparently not. The message here seems to be that the stories belonging to people of colour are attractive – just not the people themselves. Owning your own story is faring better on the small screen at least, with the commissioning and success of shows like Master of None, The Night Of and Luke Cage, which proves that audiences are hungry for smart narratives with central characters that go beyond the remit of male and pale. But what about literature? Much like the big screen it’s looking worse for wear, plagued with similar issues of misappropriation and theft. J.K. Rowling was called out earlier this year for appropriating aspects of Navajo culture for her own purposes and accused of neo-colonialism, whilst barely a month ago American author Lionel Shriver delivered a contemptuous and dismissive speech at a writers’ festival describing cultural appropriation as ‘a fad’ and asserting her entitlement to take the stories of others, which triggered walkouts from the event. And it gets weirder: novelist Ian McEwan, probably best known for Atonement has a new book out, Nutshell, which features a foetal narrator (no, I’m not kidding, though I honest to god wish I was) which he uses as a cipher for himself to voice the sort of conservative ideology you might expect from a 68-year old white man who rolls their eyes at trigger warnings and thinks identity politics are a farce; at one point the foetus ponders on how best to present as black or female to get ahead in the world, as apparently white men can’t catch a break anymore.

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All of this taken together is why The Good Immigrant is so vital. It’s important not only for the quality of work it contains and the range of voices it gives a platform to, but at a symbolic level it’s a fist raised in defiance against the rising tide of erasure and misrepresentation – and on a bigger, geopolitical level, the xenophobia, racism and general anti-immigrant feeling that have been lent legitimacy thanks to UKIP, Brexit and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. These are anxious and frustrating times we are living through and staying silent is no longer an option; if you do, there’s every chance someone else – director, author, politician – might speak for you. And odds are, you won’t like what they have to say. This collection of twenty-one essays then is more than just a book: it’s a robust chorus of voices, an antidote for a toxic poison, a place of refuge for the mentally besieged.

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In December last year, I first heard about the project to fund The Good Immigrant into existence and I was very excited. Finally, I thought, something that’s by us and about us. One of the contributors was a Twitter friend, and some of the other names lined up to write for it were already familiar, such as comedian Nish Kumar, actor Riz Ahmed, and writer Chimene Suleyman, who I know of primarily through her work for Media Diversified. I pledged on a couple of occasions and giddily promoted the crowdfunding campaign started by novelist and editor Nikesh Shukla on Twitter. Fast forward 9 months or so, and when a signed copy of the book landed on my doorstep 3 weeks before its release date, I was practically bouncing off the walls.

 

If such excitement over a book seems, well, foreign to you, I’d hazard a guess that you’re either not much of a reader, or you perhaps are, but you’re also white and so comfortably used to seeing representations of yourself in literature and everywhere else that you don’t even think about it. These are dark times for BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) writers and in turn, BAME readers; a report last year found that BAME writers have a much better chance of getting their manuscripts accepted if their fiction conformed to existing stereotypes of their communities, as defined by the white gaze. In other words, put the protagonist in a sari, weave in the mention of an arranged marriage and have her fret over reconciling western culture and her traditional background and readers will eat it up. But make the same South Asian girl, say, a detective, and someone whose race and culture are merely incidental to the plot rather than the focus and the driver for everything she thinks, says and does, and the complexity of such a character and narrative would likely result in accusations of inauthenticity from a publisher and a failure to be published.

 

In different ways, this is a topic that both Riz Ahmed and Darren Chetty touch on in their essays. ‘Airports and Auditions’ sees Ahmed drawing parallels between his experience of film auditions and navigating the indignities of airport security, both “places where the threat of rejection is real” and where your marketability/threat-level is assessed by your skin colour, ethnicity and the consequent stereotypes that arise from a convergence of the two: “… you are a type, whose face says things before your mouth opens. You are a signifier before you are a person”. He speaks longingly of ‘Stage Three’ roles, “the Promised Land” in which you are allowed to be just a person before you are a representative of your race, something we all want whether on screen or in real life. In his contribution, Chetty writes eloquently about the lack of representation in children’s books leading to a dangerous belief amongst children as young as 6 years old that stories have to be about white people and as a result they learn that “[their] own life does not qualify as subject material”. For obvious reasons, this is heartbreaking. To ‘learn’ so early on that you can never be the main character, not even in your own life, to experience marginalisation before you’re old enough to know what that means.

 

Other essays bring further lessons that ring a bell if you’re an immigrant, or the child/grandchild of one. Chimene Suleyman’s ‘My Name is My Name’ is a poignant homage to her Turkish Cypriot roots by lovingly delineating the heritage of her name and its family ties. It recalls, in a way, Warsan Shire’s “give your daughters difficult names”, and as one of those holders of difficult names, a fairly uncommon first one and an even more uncommon, consonant-heavy second one, it’s important to be reminded of the richness and history they’re often weighted with. From Inua Ellams we learn about “what Africans [think] of other Africans” via his fascinating, kind of Pan-African tour of the continent and its barber shops to illuminate the different cultural quirks and national tics of the countries he visits, all sparked by a Twitter hashtag. Varaidzo gives us a gift in ‘A Guide to being Black’, a wry conceit through which she explores various facets of blackness such as hair and the N-word and puts a new spin on that old thought experiment: “if a white person raps all the lyrics to ‘Gold Digger’ and there isn’t a black person to hear it, is it still racist?”, before coming to the final reveal that there is no one way to be black. From Wei Ming Kam and Vera Chok we learn about what it’s like to grow up East Asian, what that even means, and how it feels to belong to an invisible minority; as Ming Kam says, “I’ve noticed our long, gaping absence from the cultural landscape […] it often doesn’t feel like [we’re here]”. Thinking about how South Asians have been on screen often enough in the capacity of broadcast presenters and newsreaders that I can name at least half a dozen, this is a powerful reminder that some minorities are deemed more viewable – and visible – than others and it’s a humbling revelation. In perhaps the sweetest contribution to the collection, Vinay Patel writes movingly about learning of his mother’s death as a child and his attempts to explore and reconcile his Hindu background with living in a nominally Christian country and amongst friends of other religious backgrounds, before concluding with equanimity “[I’ve] accepted that I’m just a chimp with airs, no mighty sky chimp looking out for me”.

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There are plenty of less serious interludes, even if they’re of the laugh-so-you-don’t-cry variety and conceal darker realities. Nish Kumar spins a humorous and rather singular tale of how he ended up becoming the subject of a bewildering meme, the enigmatic Miss L puts a brave and flippant face on the perils of Acting While Ethnic and being tediously typecast as the wife of a terrorist, and Coco Khan injects comedy into the horror of waking up in someone else’s bedroom, seeing Union Jack insignia everywhere and wondering if you’ve just slept with a member of the National Front, “a stealth skinhead with hair”, before following on with a candid confessional on the intricacies of brown girl sexuality.

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Nearly all of the essays are personal in origin or form, except for one. In ‘Perpetuating Casteism’ Sarah Sahim takes an almost academic approach to the thorny and difficult issue of the caste system, and in a feat of research prowess manages to explain a damaging form of intra-racial segregation in a way that’s both concise and comprehensive – it’s a very good overview, especially for the unfamiliar. But the essay itself, written as it is by someone who honestly owns up to their caste privilege in an early paragraph, raises an uncomfortable question: does an essay on casteism, written by someone with caste privilege, accidentally perpetuate casteism? In case this seems like needless hair-splitting, Sahim’s essay shows that many Dalits (Hindi for ‘oppressed’) try to ‘pass’ as non-Dalit, if possible, to avoid the rampant discrimination and even violence that disclosure of their status can attract – however there are some who have been brave enough to come out and perhaps it would have been more apposite to have a Dalit writer, scholar, journalist or artist, who has lived experience on the subject and a vested interest in their liberation, speak out on something intrinsic to their lived identities. The Good Immigrant does a laudable job on inter-ethnic representation, but in this instance its success on intra-ethnic representation is up for debate; all of the South Asian contributors to the book appear to be some combination of either North Indian, Pakistani, fair or ‘wheatish’-skinned and have a comfortably lofty place in the varna (social system of caste). While it is editor Nikesh Shukla’s prerogative to people a book of his conception with whomever he likes and “create a brand new old boy’s network”, as he says in the foreword – a sentiment I heartily endorse, by the way – South Asians often have a shocking blind spot when it comes to caste and many anti-caste activists have and continue to criticise privileged South Asians for our calling out of white supremacy, discrimination and racism in the diaspora whilst not acknowledging our own parallel structures of oppression that hurt the most vulnerable within our communities. But upper-caste writers acknowledging oppression they don’t experience – and profiting from it by writing on it – is neither enough nor entirely appropriate. Dalits must be invited to a seat at the table to discuss their disenfranchisement and write their own narratives, and speaking for/over them could be tantamount to an act of erasure, much in the same way as a white person penning an article about Black Lives Matter, who doesn’t live the daily realities of being black, would be. The voiceless are only voiceless because those with voices forget to hand them the megaphone. Thenmohzi Soundarajan, a transmedia storyteller and journalist who campaigns tirelessly for Dalit rights, or Sinthujan Varatharajah, an Eelam Tamil refugee and scholar from Sri Lanka who’s currently engaged in PhD studies at University College London and an anti-caste activist, would have both been brilliant choices to write on this subject. In fact, they both co-wrote an excellent primer on caste for The Aerogram last year in which they themselves mention the trend of “countless upper-caste scholars and writers who have become ‘experts’ by studying our experiences”. While Sahim is undoubtedly right that we cannot stay silent about caste as silence equals complicity, the conclusion she comes to that caste “is not an inherently Indian convention” is a puzzling one, since many Dalit and Bahujan activists and scholars vehemently assert that the caste hierarchy was already present and entrenched long before the British arrived. One only has to look at the treatment meted out to Eklavya or Karna in the Hindu religious epic The Mahabharata, generally thought to be composed around 500 BC, to see how both were denied the right to fulfil their aspirations purely down to their position in the rigid caste hierarchy. Though overseas imperialism certainly solidified and manipulated the caste system for its own ends, savarna Indians rerouting the blame and responsibility for caste discrimination onto British colonialism is a source of immense irritation for many activists and could be considered a form of caste denial. To place the blame at the altar of British colonialism without explicitly acknowledging the Brahminical colonisation and Sanskritization that occurred first is an error that could have been avoided had a piece of this nature been written by someone within the community it aims to uplift, not by a well-intentioned outsider (for more information on Dalits and Bahujans, Round Table India is an excellent resource).

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Taking it back to the personal, Kieran Yates’ ‘On Going Home’ and Salena Godden’s ‘Shade’ occupy the imaginary bookshelf closest to my heart, being as they both approximate my own experiences. Yates’ retelling of the confusing Third Culture Kid dance she performs when back ‘home’ in Punjab and the missteps she makes, sometimes amusing, sometimes awkward, are only too familiar: “we fine-tune the ability to find the nuances funny, deflecting the crushing weight of displacement and diaspora drama that becomes a part of our everyday life”. Godden’s essay on skin shade and the ambiguous place she occupies in its hierarchy, her golden-brown skin rendering her undefinable: “not black enough. But not white enough”, ultimately leads to that same infuriating question so many of us, mixed-race as well as monoracial, are asked: where are you really from? As someone whose countless trips back to India since infancy, and even living there as a child, have done little to mitigate my feeling of not really belonging there either, and whose skin tone is pitched somewhere right in the middle of the colour spectrum – neither fair nor dark, but also sometimes one or the other depending on lighting and time of the year, so I never quite know where to place myself – both essays were like the mirrors that Junot Diaz speaks about that we need to see ourselves in in order to feel human. It’s a good feeling.

 

In perhaps the most viscerally powerful contribution to the collection, The Good Immigrant ends with Musa Okwonga’s ‘The Ungrateful Country’, a brutally honest assessment of the state of the nation in regards to race relations. It bristles with impatience at the unspoken acceptance that “even though we had been born here, we were still seen as guests, our social acceptance only conditional upon our very best behaviour”. Its righteous indignation is borne of weariness and boredom with racism; something all the essays touch on in one way or another, but laid bare here in a way that pulls no punches: “Here’s the truth of the matter: I find racism boring – really dull. I wish it didn’t exist […] I wish that I never had to write about it again”. Okwonga’s own reprieve from the tedium is a dramatic one (I won’t spoil it by saying what it is). If this seems like a defeat, especially for a closing essay, well, that’s one interpretation. But maybe a more hopeful way to view it is that it’s adaptation. Like Darwin in the X-Men comics, he’s done what all immigrants, and the children and grandchildren of immigrants learn to do early on – adapt to survive.

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The Good Immigrant is ultimately not about good immigrants. Or bad immigrants. It’s not a descriptor as much as it is a question mark. It’s about smashing the binaries that would allow anyone to put the racialized amongst us into either of those categories, rather than seeing us through the lens of humanity as the complex, three-dimensional, not-good-and-not-bad individuals that we are. Through twenty-one thoughtful and exquisitely crafted pieces of work it exposes the lie that props up the notion of the ‘good’ immigrant; that if we’re good (modest, hard-working, quiet, polite, grateful) we’re welcome here. After all, embodying all those qualities hasn’t stopped nationally beloved Nadiya Hussain from being subjected to racist abuse and her success even made her a target for a bizarre attack by Daily Mail hack Liz Jones, in a pointless piece reeking with resentment. It goes to show then that being too good is also not allowed, lest we forget our place in the grand scheme of things.

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At a house party a few weeks ago, mostly composed of fellow health professionals from the same specialty I work in, I happened to end up in conversation with the publicist for Unbound, the publishing house that’s home to The Good Immigrant. And not only her, but the brand manager and community manager for Unbound, the latter of whom said she recognised me from the launch party for the book the previous week. I was astonished to find people from such a disparate profession to mine end up at a house party of people I know – what are the odds? – and we all marvelled at how small London can be. The publicist revealed she had been behind Riz Ahmed’s essay ending up in The Guardian; the community manager informed me how she was responsible for looking after Unbound’s customers and liasing with patrons; and the brand manager, though he had no direct involvement with the book, jokingly told me how he’d wanted to pitch a follow-up idea to Nikesh Shukla except told from the reverse perspective. A parody sequel called something like The Reprehensible Expat,  he imagined it would be full of essays by sour-faced expats, tanning themselves to a leathery finish on a Spanish beach, going to a pub called the St. George for lunch, and complaining about how none of the locals speak English. I told him it was a great idea.

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2016 has been an unforgiving and bruising year so far, what with the ascendancy of Trump and the cold shock of Brexit putting to rest any farcical notions that we live in a post-racial world. I’ve found myself wondering lately what the history books will say when they come to pen the entry on this year of regressive horrors. Unlikely thought it is, I naïvely hope that along with everything else they document, there will be a little space reserved on how a group of descendants of the former British empire struck back and asserted their right to be here, in their own words. Sometimes our stories are all we have.

– SS

The Good Immigrant is published by Unbound and available to buy from Amazon and at all good bookstores now

 

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