Title: The Good Immigrant
Author: edited by Nikesh Shukla
The blurb reads: ‘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’. The Good Immigrant is a collection of essays by writers, artists, poets, people in the creative industry in Britain. Each writer explores what being British means to them and the challenges they have had to face as immigrants and Britons of colour. They write about their everyday experiences as they navigate their lives, code-switching as and when situations call for it. They are often not afforded the privilege of just being in their professions without race descriptors being attached to them. It is a feeling that is familiar to black people who have ever found themselves in a country or a city or a space that is hostile to their presence.
The contributors to this collection touch on the evolving nature of racism and bigotry, often fuelled by the socio-economic and political circumstances of any country. In the eighties, brown people in the UK were thrown under one general definition as Asian or South East Asian and often referenced by the derogatory term of pakie irrespective of whether they were Pakistani or not. Post 9-11, being brown made you either a Muslim or a terrorist, despite your Sikh or Hindu or Christian beliefs. Now, with right-wing politics on the rise, being a person of colour makes you either an immigrant or a refugee. That refrain, popular amongst most far-right bigots, “Go back to your country!” has overtaken the more polite “Where are you from?” question as they have become more emboldened.
Darren Chetty’s essay titled: You can’t say that! Stories have to be about White people is a real reminder of what an absence of representation can mean for children growing up not seeing themselves in books or on television or in movies. Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race writes about respectability politics and the onus of acceptability being on black people yet guarded by White racist gatekeepers who will never accept Black people. This very issue of acceptability, or lack thereof, is analyzed by Musa Okwonga’s essay: The Ungrateful Country. A journalist with Ugandan roots who grew up in a middle-class family: both his parents were doctors; he went to a private Prep school, then to Eton and finally to Oxford. But he was not shielded from the reality of the anti-immigrant feeling that swept through the UK in 2014/15, the pre-cursor to Brexit. He emigrated to Germany, which he felt ‘had a great willingness to embrace newcomers from all quarters’. He was a good immigrant but even he still failed the acceptability standards.
The creative industry is always criticized for its lack of transformation, from cinema to television to book publishing, movements and hashtags are constantly cropping up highlighting the growing need for diversity in not only the creative spaces but in all the spaces in which black and white coexist. Miss L writes about typecasting and with self-deprecating humour muses over how she will forever be cast as ‘the wife of a terrorist’ in the already limited roles that she will be offered. Bim Adewunmi writes about tokenism and why it is still important to defend it in the absence of any real transformation.
These essays could have been written by any person of colour in the US, or in South Africa, or anywhere really where discussions on race are still tentatively touched on, or couched in political correctness, or delicately handled so as not to offend others. ‘Others’ in reality being the very people whose lived experiences require them to forever be ticking that box because they are never seen as truly belonging.
The book is edited by Nikesh Shukla. He fully discloses that his selection of contributors came from the pool of people he already knew, most of whom are from the creative industry. The issues of colourism, integration, assimilation, marginalization, and non-representation are equally as applicable to any industry across all people of colour in any country whether they are in the minority and majority.
A good read on topics that we still need to talk about, no matter how difficult. The Good Immigrant: 26 Writers Reflect on America is due out in March 2019. It is also edited by Nikesh Shukla together with Chimene Suleyman, who has contributed to the current book.