Wednesday, 19 July 2017

The Good Immigrant (ed: Nikesh Shukla)

How do I even begin to review a book like The Good Immigrant?

If you have been paying attention, you will know that the book began life as a crowdfunding enterprise on Unbound. As Shukla writes in his Editor’s Note, it exists “because <immigrants > are done justifying our place at the table.”

The book is a collection of 21 essays revealing the reality of the immigrant experience in Britain today. Its authors are novelists, playwrights, poets, journalists, actors, comedians and teachers. It clearly touched readers, because it won the Books Are My Bag Readers’ Awards Book of 2016, beating both Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and The Girl on the Train. And yet it undeniably makes [white] readers uncomfortable too. When three of the authors spoke on a panel at the 2017 Hay Festival, audience members walked out when they were challenged to reform their own communities. <From a thread by @chimenesuleyman on Twitter, 30th May 2017>.

The title itself is a swipe at the notion of the ‘good immigrant’ – that imagined exception to the rule that allows us to go on denigrating the rest.

The essays are as varied as the backgrounds of the authors. Nikesh Shukla’s ‘Namaste’ takes on the casual, shallow cultural appropriation that results in such absurdities as a menu offering Chicken Chuddhi (literally Chicken Underpants). Author Chimene Suleyman’s ‘My Name is My Name’ recounts her Turkish Cypriot family’s tragic history. Journalist Kieran Yates describes the culture shock of returning to India in ‘On Going Home’. While in ‘Is Nish Kumar a Confused Muslim?’ the comedian discovers he has accidentally become an internet meme.

Reni Eddo Lodge (author of the recently published Why I Am No Longer Talking To White People About Race) – rebels against ‘respectability politics’. Teacher Darren Chetty describes the frustrations of convincing children that stories don’t have to be about white people. Coco Khan navigates the hazards of dating. Sabrina Mahfouz explores the relationship between immigration and the fashion industry. And Inua Ellams describes a journey across Africa pursuing the viral hashtag #IfAfricaWasABar.

If any group is erased more than any other in modern Britain, arguably it is those from East Asia (China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Thailand...) Actor Vera Chok and author Wei Ming Kam both tackle cultural stereotypes, while actor and screenwriter Daniel York Loh writes about the one childhood hero he felt he could identify with and how he lost his illusions.

If we British are tempted to feel smug that ‘at least we are not the USA,’ actor Riz Ahmed describes how, in the aftermath of 9/11, he was slammed up again the wall by the customs officer at Heathrow, and how he is still picked so regularly for ‘random’ searches at airport security he’s started to call some of the personnel ‘uncle’.

The book closes with poet and broadcaster Musa Okwonga growing weary of the constant expectation of gratitude. And indeed, as the book shows, if we take the scales from our eyes, the host country has as much and more to be grateful to its immigrants for – and shows it only too rarely.

This book is would be an important read at any time, but in a climate of increasing hostility to immigrants, when the country seems intent on putting up barriers instead of reaching out its hands, it is vital.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Country of Refuge (ed: Lucy Popescu) Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahisi Coates

Avoid if you dislike: having your preconceptions challenged

Perfect Accompaniment: A sample of world cuisine you’ve never tried before (washed down with a slice of humble pie)

Genre: Non-Fiction, Essays

Available on Amazon

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