The Good Immigrant is for everyone in Britain
As ethnic minorities in Britain it is easy to see how easily things can be taken for granted, how misinformation about non-white cultures can be spread without hesitation, how an all-white reading list says that white people have rightfully earned their spot as the universal voice of science, philosophy and literature. As “othered” people our parents have to fill us in, or we have to educate ourselves, on the Avicennas, the Una Marsons, the Marcus Garveys, the Claudia Joneses, the Sophia Duleep Singhs, the Sara Forbes Bonettas – names that give us an important presence in British history, names unheard by people who have gone from GCSE to PhD level without knowing how non-white bodies shaped British society.
In this context I’m really pleased about the existence of The Good Immigrant, a collection of essays by twenty-one writers exploring what it means to be black, Asian and minority ethnic in Britain today. This is an unusual book to be in the Guardian’s bestseller list as well as many “recommended reads” shelves nationwide. All of the writers work in media as actors, poets, journalists, comedians and educators. It was funded via an Unbound campaign led by Nikesh Shukla, which gained impressive momentum with ambassadors such as J. K. Rowling. I enjoyed reading this book; it was good to see essays penned by so many respected poets, including Sabrina Mahfouz, Inua Ellams, Salena Godden and many more. As someone of mixed Caribbean heritage who grew up in London, I wondered if this book would offer me any refreshing insights, and it certainly did.
Chimene Suleyman’s exploration into her Turkish Cypriot family history is a highlight. Suleyman writes of her grandparents with the tenderness and cultural complications of any immigrant story: the details of wars, street names and olive trees, where we are told of the shape-shifting identity of her name. “Forgive me for saying that my name is a burden. Every version of it.” Suleyman is a poet; language and its sounds carry meanings that anchor her in the world.
“At home my name would appear on birthday cakes and cards as Chimene. On my birth certificate, passports, it plainly read, Shimen. The name itself is not a Turkish one. Pierre Corneille wrote the French play Le Cid many centuries ago about the tortured love between a Spanish man and woman: Don Rodigue and Chiméne. The story is essentially that of Romeo and Juliette and my parents had enjoyed the sound of the name, perhaps even that it belongs to literature and love. It is scarcely recognised that my name is a French one, it is foreign and I am foreign and it is within this framework that I move”.
Although the naming analogy extends onto shaky grounds when Suleyman talks about a yoga class run by a white woman, when she assumes the teacher’s whiteness disqualifies her from an authentic relationship with the ancient Indian practice, laughing at the teacher’s “AUM” chant. Suleyman says “You can’t have meaning without knowledge of the environment from which it stems”, and while I agree – yoga is a multi-billion-pound industry and private gyms, not small villages in India, make a lot of the profits, so I do understand the need to challenge who really benefits from it – Suleyman doesn’t ask the teacher about her knowledge of the practice and what it means to her. Despite this, Chimene’s essay draws a powerful and personal conclusion that leaves us standing on her grandmother’s veranda in Cyprus, wishing the streets were called something different.
Vinya Patel’s wandering, heartfelt essay is also about family and tradition, specifically the search for existential meaning after losing his mother when he was born. It’s hard to paraphrase anything from this essay as it’s so intricately written. Patel suggests that growing up in London in a family of South Asian immigrants without his mother’s guidance left him spiritually adrift as he tries to make sense of her death and what death means to him.
Musa Okwonga, who also lost a parent at a young age and was forced to flee Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda to settle in the UK as a refugee, provides a powerful and incontestable essay about social anxieties in white spaces. Okwonga, who is Eton- and Oxford-educated, speaks openly about the everyday racism he confronted around white people who hadn’t had much real life contact with black people. “I believed that since my white peers had grown up seeing so many negative stereotypes of black people their entire lives, I had a duty to counteract as many of them as possible”. Okwonga says he matured out of that perspective when he moved to London and blended in to the city where he could finally “live for himself”.
In addition to our families and traditions, the way we experience education as children plays a major role in developing the adults we become. Former schoolteacher Darren Chetty’s essay explores working with primary school children of colour who thought, “Stories had to be about white people”. I too have worked in education and found Chetty’s essays resonated with my own experience. A teacher asked Chetty why he “makes an issue of race when children are colour blind?” and Chetty unpacks his argument, then asks: if children are colour blind, why are children of colour in his own classroom “writing exclusively about white characters”? These are vital perspectives to examine, especially post-Brexit when conservative and populist far right rhetoric forces people born and bred here to question the legitimacy of their citizenship.
I have added The Good Immigrant to my dream school curriculum alongside essays, talks and stories by authors such as Arundhati Roy, Gary Younge and Stuart Hall. The Good Immigrant is the paper form of that conversation after a show when you bond with some poets or artists or students about all the things that weren’t understood, heard or validated by that panel, that award ceremony, that film or those reading lists. It’s that thing you say on the tube home, looking around you because you need to know who is around before you say what you really feel.
I finished reading the book on a bus. The woman sitting next to me saw the title and said, “That looks interesting – my parents were immigrants”. In all honesty, I thought she was white British but she told me her mother was Irish and her father was Polish. They’d met in London, united by their displacement and dreams to start a family”. She smiled as she told me that her parents are still together after 30 years. Her story filled her out, not as “the white woman sitting on the bus” but as a Londoner, daughter and mother working in education as a fellow child of immigrants.
Although this collection forces dialogue and attempts to change dominant rhetoric, I feel the best essays here aren’t “performing” any kind of identity or making reductionist arguments (which is an occasional flaw of the book); they are simply telling their story, talking about where they are from and how their ancestors came to Britain. Perhaps if the education system hadn’t written out these kinds of stories we wouldn’t need 254 pages of evidence showing how much they matter.
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Raymond Antrobus is a British-Jamaican poet, performer and educator, born and bred in East London, Hackney. He is one of the world’s first recipients of an MA in Spoken Word Education.
His poems have been published in magazines and literary journals such as The Rialto, Magma Poetry, Oxford Diaspora’s Programme, British Council Literature, Shooter Literary Journal, The Missing Slate, Morning Star, Media Diversified, and Bloodaxe’s Ten Anthology.
Raymond has read and performed his poetry at festivals such as Glastonbury, Latitude and Bestival and universities including Oxford, Goldsmiths, and Warwick. He has also read internationally in South Africa, Kenya, North America, Jamaica, Sweden, Italy, Germany and Switzerland.
Twitter: @RaymondAntrobus Website: www.raymondantrobus.com
This article was edited by Kelly Kanayama