It seemed like an insane, racially provocative, almost inappropriate title for a book to be published in today's political climate. When I was browsing the staff picks section at Foyles, these three words strung together on a binding was one of the last things I expected to see. But that's exactly what made me pick up the book. Because in today's insane, racially provocative and (in that context) wholly inappropriate climate, we need a book that is going to challenge our politics.
The Good Immigrant is, at least, one of these books.
"The Good Immigrant?" My mum asks again, when I showed her my latest purchase."You can't read this on the train! Especially in London! People look at you, they look at this book, please!"
"That's not my problem," I told her with an uncharacteristic defiance.
Okay, let's break it down.
The Good Immigrant is a collection of 21 different essay-style writings from 21 different Black Asian Minority Ethnic writers. Each of their stories highlights a personal or observed experience of race relations whilst living in the UK and elsewhere.
"Oh okay, so it's pretty obvious why someone like you would be reading something like this then."
I was sold on the title alone, but the thing which pushed it over the edge was this quote on the front:
"A book that will make a lot of young Britons feel more powerful and less alone. Each essay is like another new friend standing up and saying to the reader, 'I SEE YOU'" - Hari Kunzru
Never say no to more friends – even if they are in inanimate, written form.
Being black and having grown up in the UK, I approached reading the book with a childish arrogance. As if, all the points to be made about racism somehow wouldn't apply to me (because as we all know, black people cannot be racist) and that I wouldn't hear anything new because I've lived through the brunt of it already, apparently.
Naïvety doesn't even begin to describe it .
The collection of essays challenged me in numerous ways and served as a timely reminder that the people who look like me aren't the only ones who are facing discrimination or have arduous stories to tell.
One in particular deeply resonated with me:
When it came to sharing their stories, I noticed only one boy had acted upon my suggestion, naming his main character after his uncle. He had recently arrived from Nigeria and was eager to read his story to the class. However, when he read out the protagonist's name another boy, who was born in Britain and identified as Congolese, interrupted him. 'You can't say that!' he said. 'Stories have to be about white people.'
Darren Chetty goes on to describe how in his two decades of teaching in diverse schools, when it comes to creative writing, the stories his students produce almost always feature characters with traditional English names speaking English as their first language – i.e. little diversity.
I can vouch for those kids. In my youth, the stories I'd write would always include characters with traditional English names, speaking traditional English. It was the only way I knew books could exist. No one was writing stories in 2002 about a Nigerian girl who could speak Yoruba called Olatokunbo. And if they were, the chances I'd have at discovering and reading those stories were near impossible.
Now I'm older, I've grown to understand the importance of representation. Writing stories that include people from an array of cultural backgrounds is beautiful. The whole world is diverse and I feel like it's our job to promote that whenever and however we can. Creating this kind of narrative is something I'm trying to incorporate with a new project I've been working on. It's not easy in all honesty and that's coming from a guy with Nigerian roots. But I know that done properly, it would make for a compelling read.
Not all the stories in The Good Immigrant are so "safe", however. Perhaps to be expected from the title, some essays focus on the more harrowing aspects of life as a result of racism. Specifically, systematic racial profiling leading to harsh police treatment, misogynistic views towards women in today's society and death. These are real stories, written by real people and that lends itself to a strong principle I believe the book portrays: everyone is different. Maybe that's an over-simplification of a read spanning multiple different cultures, but it is the truth. After reading this book you learn that everyone is an individual, regardless of where they came from. It becomes implausible to suggest that all people who come from a certain place, or have a certain colour of skin should be treated a certain way. Equally, it becomes ridiculous to assume that they'd all act the same. Everyone is unique and ideally we should be treated as such– not lumped into predefined categories based on race, colour or beliefs. Over the course of 234 pages, 21 authors share their own story. And they're all different.
You might criticise the main positive I'm drawing out from this book, but surely anything which diminishes the distinctions between us is a good thing. Right?
My mum was right. On the train, people looked at me and they looked at the book, then they looked back at me as if to say, "Is he actually reading that?" I paid no attention to it. What others think and their ill-conceived conclusions about me, is not really my problem.
In all honesty, I'm used to people staring at me on the train. I attribute those looks to my raw, untamed, caramel masculine handsomeness.
Chetty, D., 2016. 'You can't say that! Stories have to be about white people'. In: N. Shukla, ed. The Good Immigrant. London: Unbound, p. 96.