Redefining the immigrant experience

Martha Salhotra reads The Good Immigrant compiled by Nikesh Shukla, and finds the experience to be like slipping on a new pair of shoes that fit perfectly the first time round

, 10 December 2016

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The first chapter of The Good Immigrant instantly feels comfortable, like meeting someone like-minded after years of feeling lost. Nikesh Shukla has compiled 21 essays written by people from different ethnicities and backgrounds. Well-known names included are actors Riz Ahmed and Himesh Patel, writer Bim Adewunmi and spoken word artist Selina Godden. It is a book which takes an unapologetic stance in relation to issues of race, culture and identity, and swiftly sets about dismantling the notion that we are all one, living in a post-racial world where social structures are undetermined by ethnicity, skin colour or culture. It is immediately real, speaks to many people and goes a long way in helping to negotiate the identity of anyone familiar with the immigrant experience.

As the daughter of immigrant parents from India, The Good Immigrant felt particularly close to my heart as it masterfully addresses the concept of feeling ‘other’. It allows the sense of being ‘alien’ to seem normal, with many of the essays highlighting how people from minority ethnic backgrounds in Britain try to blend into white spaces, often with the weight of their culture, race and ethnicity influencing how they feel. Many interesting subjects are covered: cultural appropriation, confusion surrounding names, skin colour, concepts of ‘home’ and cultural hybridity are just some the reader encounters.

One particular favourite essay of mine is Shukla’s own, ‘Namaste’, which comments on coffee shops selling “chai tea” meaning “tea tea” and of an Indian restaurant owned by a white man serving “chicken chuddi” – literally meaning “chicken pants”. It provided a rare feeling of being understood by someone who perceives the absurdity of appropriation of language the way some British-Indians do. It’s a sentiment that resounds with anyone who speaks another language. Reading the essay elicited the feeling of finding a safe space within the confines of a book.

Being a first-generation or second-generation immigrant is a constant grapple with who you are, who you should be and who you want to become

One of the stand-out lines for me comes from Reni Eddo-Lodge’s essay titled ‘Forming Blackness Through a Screen’. She says: “to be an immigrant, good or bad, is about straddling two homes, whilst knowing you don’t really belong to either.” It brought to mind the hyphen that stands between ‘British-Indian’. It’s a hyphen that is like an ever-swinging pendulum, its middle always tipping from one identity to another, one label to another and one experience to another – never quite knowing when to stop, find the balance and remain completely still. Being a first-generation or second-generation immigrant is a constant grapple with who you are, who you should be and who you want to become. The Good Immigrant captures that struggle in a vivid and refreshing way.

Shukla’s book is simmering with an array of different emotions; while some of the writers take a humorous approach and even have a positive outlook, many of the essays come from places of pain, sorrow and frustration. These emotions weave in and out of the writing and can make for intense reading, but there are occasional moments of relief in the writers’ worlds, worlds which are often quite unforgiving for ethnic minorities. Kieran Yates echoes this exact sentiment in her essay ‘On Going Home’: “We’ve never really been split, never been cut in half, we’ve just been silent about how we’ve been empowered because we haven’t always felt it, have been too busy being good immigrants, not making a fuss, and quieting down when people felt uncomfortable.” At the heart of it, these essays go beyond being personal – they are journeys unique to the individual writers, but shared with the reader. It is easy for a reader to feel like a companion, travelling side-by-side on the road that is mapped out by each writer.

The Good Immigrant is an outcry against whitewashing; an outlet for those who are done with silently accepting their position in society

But what comes to mind for me after reading this book is the idea of performing an identity. As BAME people, are we playing out roles assigned to us even before our birth – mere props set against a white backdrop that dictates the identities we fashion? The Good Immigrant has been published at the height of anxiety surrounding the position of both first- and second-generation immigrants in Britain. As our political landscape shifts in a direction that often seems against us, The Good Immigrant is an outcry against whitewashing; an outlet for those who are done with silently accepting their position in society.

Many of the writers convey the sense that their immigrant experience, or that of their parents, has to be erased in their everyday life, made more palatable to white people in order to exist. The essays generally underscore a lack of understanding, sensitivity and acceptance, and the continued pressure of having to explain yourself everywhere you go – either that, or stay silent and let people define who you are without your permission or contribution. The Good Immigrant identifies the feeling of being defined by rigid boundaries in other people’s minds. It speaks of being ostracised, excluded, neglected and isolated. As Chimene Suleyman neatly summarises in her essay ‘My Name is My Name’: “we have become chameleons navigating the land.”

The Good Immigrant is published by Unbound and is available to purchase HERE.

The image used is the cover of the book, obtained from Goodreads. It is a simple design. The title appears in large, black text at the head of the cover. Underneath, separated from the title by a line of stars, there is a quote by J.K. Rowling, which says: “An important, timely read”. “Edited by Nikesh Shukla” appears beneath this in orange block letters. Two dividers separate off the lines: “21 writers explore what it means to be black, Asian and minority ethnic in Britain today”. Beneath this, in orange font, appears the list of all 21 writers’ names.

Martha is a media and knowledge junkie who loves South Asian and intersectional feminism. She enjoys TV, theatre, books and all things Bollywood and India. That, and people-watching

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