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Review by Amrita Paul
A common arranged marriage ad in a national daily in India would read, ‘Fair, tall, beautiful and convent-educated bride wanted.’ Sounds like an implausible task, considering beauty is subjective and an individual couldn’t possibly have control over the melanin content in their body. Here I must stop to boast about my thirteen-year long education at a missionary school at the behest of one French nun, Mother Anne Marie Javouhey who, more than a century ago had the intuition of civilising the natives in this small town in Eastern India, and teaching them about the tenets of Christianity.
I lived in India for 23 years before coming to the UK to pursue a masters degree in Creative Writing. A friend of mine who had already completed her postgraduate study here couldn’t stop talking about how the curriculum was extremely white. When I started my course, I understood why. I was the only person of colour in my class, so of course there was no need to read much writing from the Asian or African diaspora in English. Instead, there was the urgency to discuss Ted Hughes and Emily Dickinson again and again. I was somewhat left at my own defences trying to circumnavigate the label and almost pander to the stereotype of a Good Indian Immigrant, considerate and grateful. Remember I was used to this. I was growing up on William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw as opposed to Rabindranath Tagore or Sukumar Roy. I could ace this.
All the writers in The Good Immigrant were either born and brought up in the UK or migrated to the country at a very young age. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes in her book, Americanah, ‘I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.’ I became brown only when I came to the UK, because back home I was kind of fair (on the days that I remembered to put sunscreen) and thus prospective marriage material. For these writers, artists, journalists, actors and teachers, their appearances weren’t secondary but formative to their experience of living in a country for which their opinions, ideas, stories, might never be good enough.
Salena Godden writes in her essay, ‘Shade’, ‘The shade of your skin is not the whole content of you and your work. The shade of your skin should not be the measure of your worth.’ The book is funny in places, poignant, angry, hopeful and extremely timely. Here, comedian Nish Kumar writes about his plight on finding a publicity shot for one of his shows being reduced to an Islamophobic meme on the internet, Daniel York Loh recounts a childhood memory of being enamoured by one Japanese wrestler, Kendo Nagasaki on the English telly, only to realise that it was a white man behind a mask. Darren Chetty remembers that once when teaching a Year 2 class, a British-born Congolese boy stopped a Nigerian boy from telling a story about his uncle, ‘You can’t say that. Stories have to be about white people.’
So much has the American and British popular culture infiltrated and affected countries across the world, that the first story I wrote in high school was about an American teenager and her experiences of resisting and tricking her bullies while also coming of age, finding friends for life and a boyfriend. For reference, I had just seen Mean Girls.
Bim Adewunmi writes in her essay, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Tokenism’, ‘Whiteness – or, you know, white people – exists as the basic template. And that covers all human experience by the way…On the other hand, our presence in popular culture (as well as non-stereotypical ‘issue’ roles) must always be justified. Our place at the table has to be earned.’
The voices in this book are so diverse and yet so unified and articulate that I think of it as a good starting point for anyone who is unaware of the tribulations of being a person of colour in a so-called developed western society. Where getting a bursary to a posh private school wasn’t good enough, where waiting at the bus stop would mean getting frisked by the local police for being a youth of a certain colour, for being an acclaimed and recognised actor and yet being taking away for questioning every time one travels abroad.
The book ends with a heart-breaking essay by Musa Okwonga who writes about his growing up in Britain and why he chose to leave the country and settle in Germany, ‘Britain was not great because of its papers and politicians who relentlessly denigrated us, but in spite of them. Britain was great because of the spontaneous community spirit you saw as soon as a small town was flooded, because of the volunteers who turned out in their tens and thousands to act as stewards for the Olympic Games. But that wasn’t a spirit that I felt my country was doing nearly enough to nurture.’
The Good Immigrant is a powerful, emphatic book and I couldn’t recommend it enough.