The Good Immigrant Book Review
With all of my other book reviews, I have reviewed it knowing nothing about it beforehand. This one is a little bit of a cheat because I have already read this book. I just felt like, because I refer to it quite a lot, and recommend it quite a lot, that it deserved a proper review.
I was recently asked what books I would recommend, which is close to impossible to answer because different people will be at different parts of their antiracism journeys and require different things. However, in spite of that, I suggested this one. I did so because it is a compilation of very different stories that humanises the lived experienced of immigrants (and therefore mostly people of colour). And because of the variety of accounts, there must be something impactful for every reader. Each essay is captivating, honest, and well-written and most are written with an unpretentious humour.
I have written before about empathy and how we need this vital tool to overcome inequalities that are rife throughout different sections of society. I have just also read about the empathy gap in the book Climate Change in Racist, which argues that White people, who are on average the main culprits of accelerating climate change often lack the real empathy needed to think about the impact they have on People of Colour, the people who are disproportionately affected by climate change. Empathy is the key to change and this book is the locksmith. Does that analogy work?
There are certain threads that link all of these stories together. All of them, in some way, talk about how challenging it can be to fit in. Immigrants constantly have to realign themselves according to the British way, as if the British way of doing things is the only way of doing things. Feelings of imposter syndrome, written about by Musa Okwonga in his essay The Ungrateful Country, Riz Ahmed writing about finding space in the film industry's white-centering norm in his essay Airports and Auditions, and challenging assumptions of being a 'model minority' as written by Wei Ming Kam in Being 'Good' Immigrants, are just some of the examples of feeling out-of-place referred to in this book. This book is a constant reminder that white, British people almost never feel out of place.
The other theme that is common throughout is identity. Either immigrants find it difficult to fit in to the categories ascribed to them, or British people find it difficult to ascribe categories to immigrants. Such is the European obsession with labelling, immigrants have to constantly bear the brunt of fitting into their boxes. A Guide to Being Black by Varaido concludes neatly that "There is no one way to be black. Our worst performance is entertaining the idea that there is."Yellow by Vera Chok highlights this obsession with labelling by talking about how Brits call her Chinese, despite being Malaysian. She writes:
"Who gets to label what? When I was growing up in Malaysia, I called myself Asian - I came from the continent of Asia, didn't I?... In England, I am reminded often: I am yellow. Chinese."
This month's newsletter is about cultural appropriation, the idea that we take ideas from other cultures without fully appreciating them. There are a few excellent references to this too, especially in the book's first essay. Written by the book's editor, Nikesh Shukla in Namaste writes brilliantly about this phenomenon.
'Namaste,' she says.
'Hi,' I reply.
'Namaste,' she replies and raises her prayer hands to touch to her bowing forehead.
She has faded henna on her fingers.
'It just means hello,' I say. She looks at me, confused. 'Namaste, it just means hello. That's it.'
'Namaste,' she says again, and I walk on.
As well as highlighting some shared experiences endured by immigrants, it exposes some other crucial experiences. Sarah Sahim writes about the duel battle of racism by the British and of casteism by fellow Indians in her essay Perpetuating Casteism. It's a conversation I have had with Indian students of mine. Caste is a discriminatory Indian class system, engrained by the British when we colonised India, that still exists today. One particular student I have talked to, tells me of her lived experience of living within the intersection of being Sikh, and therefore of being born into one of the lower classes, being an immigrant in a systemically racist country, and of being female.
Perhaps my favourite essay is by Darren Chetty, entitled You Can't Say That! Stories Have to be about White People. Chetty is an English teacher and recalls how one of his students was reading out a story he wrote, in which the protagonist's name was another boy's name, who was born in Britain and identified as Congolese, when he was interrupted with someone stated "You Can't Say That! Stories Have to be about White People." Diverse books is something I feel very passionate about and have written about it here. The lack of diversity in books perfectly summarises how far we need to go, with only 5% of main characters in children's books written in 2019 being an 'ethnic minority', up from 1% in 2017. And going full circle, I wrote in the blog post:
If we encourage our white children to read books with non-white characters, not only do we better shape their empathy but their humility.
It really is a great book. I hope I have conveyed that! With it's is digestible chapters, it is very easy to consume and enjoy. Books broken up in this way are often easy to get through (I'm thinking Proud by Juno Dawson, Gender Rebels by Anneka Harry and Black, Listed by Jeffrey Boakye). With so many insightful thoughts included, the book is so powerful. It has inspired me to collect the thoughts of some of my students and write a children's version. The thing that has inspired me the most, is reading about the common thoughts. Because identity gets talked about with such frequency and honesty, it drives home the point that immigrants feel under constant pressure to navigate through, and acclimatise to, the British way of life, whatever that means. It is, of course, in everyone's best interest to be welcoming, and to encourage diversity, but these experiences show we still have plenty of welcoming still to do.
As alluded to before in previous blogs, we cause issues by our need to categorise things. We label race and gender arbitrarily, we stereotype nationalities and cultures, and we seem obsessed with defining what Britishness is. If we stopped trying to answer these questions or, better still, ask better questions, perhaps we would open ourselves to more learning. Open-mindedness can encourage empathy and empathy can encourage change.