21 young Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic writers pen short essays on their experiences as immigrants in Britain
You’re a Good Immigrant if you win an Olympic medal. You can be British that day. Until maybe you get caught stealing at M&S. Then, then you- the same person- are a Bad Immigrant. You’re whatever the hell nationality in Africa (or wherever) your parents are. It’s a familiar concept, discussion around the idea inspired Nikesh Shukla to put together this remarkable collection of personal essays on the immigrant experience in Britain today. It’s difficult to exaggerate the importance of this book- I’ve seen nothing as honest and inclusive about being an ‘other’ in the UK. The authors consider important questions:
Where do you feel at home? Should you make your name easier to say? Does it matter that hipsters are barstadising ‘Nameste’? Does it matter if people think you’re a Muslim? OK then, does it matter if people think you’re a terrorist? Should you tick ‘Other’? Why are we so used to seeing black identity through an American Lens?
Interestingly every writer’s interpretation of what this book required of them seems to be slightly different
Which stands to reason- everyone’s experience can’t be identical. Chimene Suleyman writes emotionally about what her name means to her family history; Bim Adewunmi takes the pop culture angle; Coco Khan reminisces on her fling with a potential skinhead. The variety is important- immigrants aren’t a monolith.
It’s hard to pick a favourite from these engaging pieces by young UK up and comers – Reni Eddo-Lodge (Why I Am No Longer Talking To White People About Race), Nish Kumar (comedian), Riz Ahmed (actor/ rapper) Varaidzo (Girl-Dem magazine) and a personal favourite Inua Ellams (Barbershop Chronicles). Ok, I’ve finished name dropping.
Riz Ahmed’s effort was particularly impressive since I know him as ‘Night Of’ guy and not a writer. In ‘Airports and Auditions’, he cleverly draws parallels between regular over-zealous scrutiny by airline security and that by audition room judges.
Sidebar: Watch that series, its incredible. I’m still waiting for season two?
I found a lot of this book relatable
Bim Adewumi’s ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Tokenism’ addresses the fact that the accepted default is white, a running theme in this book. It’s a topic that’s played on my mind recently with the events of the Windrush scandal and the slow march into Brexit. Incidentally, the idea of white people being the standard is an idea that popped up when I was reading Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind not long ago. It’s true to form as a theme for The Good Immigrant because it’s such a pillar of the migrant experience- you’re an other. The mainstream is the accepted default but you are a deviation, ‘they’ say. Realizing this can be very freeing- you can be whomever you want, you aren’t supposed to be the default anyway. Reject the idea of it. Darren Chetty also addresses this when he realises his primary school students think stories can only be written about white people and so don’t include themselves in their own work. Earlier on in the book, Varaidzo only actually realises she doesn’t belong to the default when she is nine!
The mainstream is the accepted default but you are a deviation, ‘they’ say.
Perhaps the essay that was truest to the book’s title was Musa Okonguwa’s ‘The Ungrateful Country’- a moving account of how one person’s attempt to be that model immigrant led to the sour realisation that such efforts will always be futile if ultimately, you are not seen as an equal.
The Good Immigrant is funny, moving and insightful. I think it can only be a good thing if everyone reads this book. Immigrants, to see themselves, ‘natives’ to see ‘others’.