I’ve lived in London for almost twenty years now. It’s been disturbing and fascinating for me as an immigrant to Britain from America to have witnessed the politically and socially disastrous onset of Brexit last year. Inextricably linked to this public vote was the issue of immigration and no matter who claims this was only about job protection it was really about race, class, language and power. Conservative white colleagues in my office vociferously complained about how we need to stop the flood of immigrants who steal British jobs and drain the benefits system. Amidst my angry arguments with them it felt pertinent to point out that I’m an immigrant as well. I first came to this country on a temporary work visa and took a job which could easily have been filled by a British native before I eventually became a citizen. I also took a British boyfriend who was dating a girl at the time we met. So, watch out people of Britain! I’m taking your jobs and your men! But, of course, my colleagues don’t include me as a threat in their paranoid critique because I’m white, educated, often dress in bland jeans/t-shirts and speak English as a first language (albeit softly with amusing American inflections). Their hatred was really directed at the brown men who deliver their mail and the women in burkas pushing prams in their London neighbourhoods. So rather than listen anymore to the feckless ranting of my colleagues I’d much rather listen to the inspiring range of diverse voices contained in the anthology “The Good Immigrant.”
In the same way that the “Black Lives Matter” campaign reinforces a message that should be perfectly obvious, this anthology makes a simple statement that unfortunately needs to be announced in bold lettering in order to be understood. These essays include a multitude of differing views, opinions, ideas and stories which are consistently engaging because they are written with such personal feeling. The authors include a range of BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) British individuals: artists, comedians, writers, academics, professionals and journalists whose voices speak powerfully about the experience of being seen as “other” or “foreign” within their own country. They include heartrending testimonies about the way people who are not white are regularly marginalized and under-represented within British society. Speaking specifically about depictions of Chinese people Wei Ming Kam observes “We're not seen as human, because we never get to be complex individuals. Our defining characteristic is generally our foreignness.” These essays range from lightly humorous recollections to provocative thoughts to shocking accounts of racial stigma and abuse. It’s so refreshing reading these huge ranging points of view that I found the experience of reading this anthology utterly absorbing.
Several of the essays are written by actors whose combined testimony makes an interesting reflection on the way their profession of performing oftentimes intersects with the compulsion to feel one must perform within racial expectations. These include Riz Ahmed pointing out the extraordinary irony of being rigorously searched at airports when travelling for auditions or acting jobs whilst having just famously portrayed a wrongly incarcerated man in the film The Road to Guantanamo. He also eloquently reflects on the levels of internalized identity conflict which results from such continuous “random” searches and type casting. Actor Daniel York Loh beautifully reflects on his East Asian wrestling role model who was in actuality something very different from what he expected and how his recollections have been muddled by the mechanics of memory. Actress Miss L states how after years and years of acting training she’s doled out the role of a wife of a terrorist and how “being told you can only play one role because of how you look is quite the rap across the jazz hands.” Actor Himesh Patel gives another viewpoint where he explains how he never felt self conscious about being racially different in the small English village he grew up in, but unexpectedly became more uncomfortably aware of it when moving to London. These actors consistently point out how often the non-white roles available to them tragically lack any sort of nuance and it leads a self-confessed fan of television and films like Bim Adewunmi to reasonably complain in her essay that “I like to see myself in the surrounding culture.” So a show like Aziz Ansari’s Master of None comes as a much-needed breath of fresh air.
It’s interesting to think about these perspectives on available acting roles in relation to Reni Eddo-Lodge’s contemplation of how black identity can be partly filtered through characters on television and how dangerous it is to subscribe to the conformist values which Bill Cosby declared in an infamous speech. As an alternative, Eddo-Lodge urges black individuals to “make your own version of blackness in any way you can – trying on all the different versions, altering them until they fit.” A self consciousness about the way to be black in a predominantly white society is also reflected in several other essays including Varaidzo’s exceptional 'A Guide to Being Black' where she notes how someone might be unaware of one's own racial heritage when others expect you to be an expert on it and how race is both “a performance and a permanence.” Salena Godden compellingly thinks through the social connotations of skin shade and Coco Khan recounts her experience of becoming sexually active. After a white lover points out to her that she is his first Asian she finds that when she meets a new lover she frets “does this person actually want me or am I a brown-shaped thing that will do?”
Other essays fascinatingly contemplate the way language and names are entwined with racial identity. Some words are incorrectly appropriated into the British lexicon as noted in Nikesh Shukla essay 'Namaste' where he describes the frustrating experience of being a tired father with casually racist noisy neighbours. Chimene Suleyman considers the ramifications of feeling compelled to change one's name to make it easier for people to pronounce/remember. Vera Chok dissects the way race labels are used differently while also pointing out stereotypes about the perceived sexual submission/compliance of Chinese women. Inua Ellams ingeniously structures his survey of what men talk about in barber shops within different African countries to illuminate and challenge blanket notions of what it is to be African and a black man. Amidst Kieran Yates’ very articulate contemplation on her dual national identity she notes “Even when you get the language, unless you shed your accent, you're continually reminded of your difference.” While she reflects on the pain of not entirely fitting within either her Punjabi or British culture, I found it very enlightening and moving how she also describes the sometimes advantageous position of being an outsider: “that I have a stake in two worlds is what makes me able to love and respect them and absorb the details that simultaneously empower and disempower me.” There's pain in this “plurality of strangeness” but there's wisdom and strength in it too because “Being aware of inadequacies or seeing your own strangeness through different eyes, gives us a wholeness that allows us to see the world with humour, nuance, and complexity.”
This anthology does so much more than politicians’ empty platitudes about wanting an inclusive society. It reflects the experience and complicated sensation of being made to feel like an outsider in your own neighbourhood. It informs and suggests strategies for keeping the conversation going - especially Darren Chetty's forceful essay about including books with racial diversity in schools. It articulates the frustration that so many people must have felt, but never had the chance to express. It annihilates the fantastical notion of idiots who want to “take back Britain” that there could be or ever has been a Britain that isn’t made of individuals with many different skin colours, cultural backgrounds and beliefs. Sabrina Mahfouz astutely observes “The rhetoric around the term 'British' insidiously attempts to equate it with a pre-multicultural England.” This anthology is a book that enriches our understanding of what Britain is. Personally, I would have liked to read one or two more essays about the unique experience of being a queer BAME individual. Other than some references and Musa Okwonga's mention of his bisexuality there isn't much discussion of sexuality in this book. Of course, that's not the focus but I think there's a unique range of experiences there to explore. For recent examples of this writing I’d direct you to new publications like Viet Thanh Nguyen’s story ‘The Other Man’ in his collection “The Refugees” or “No One Can Pronounce My Name” by Rakesh Satyal or Olumide Popoola’s exciting forthcoming novel “When We Speak of Nothing.” Otherwise, I’d highly recommend reading “The Good Immigrant” for its rich range of humour, intelligence, heart and enlightening perspectives. It also makes a wonderful companion to the anthology “An Unreliable Guide to London” which gives a multi-layered diverse picture of the capital.