After being told by numerous publishers that there “wouldn’t be enough interest” in such a book, Nikesh Shukla took his project to Unbound: a company where writers, readers, and bibliophiles crowdfund books. The concept was simple: compiling 21 essays from black, Asian, and minority ethnicity (BAME for short) writers who have migrated to the UK. Over 1000 people pledged money to the project, including J.K. Rowling, who called The Good Immigrant “an important, timely read.” Her positive review is surely enough to persuade you to pick up a copy – but let me tell you what this book means to me.
My dad emigrated from southern China and my mother from eastern Malaysia almost 34 years ago. My sisters and I were born and raised around Manchester and Liverpool. In our village, we are one of six non-white families. I’m glad to say that we’ve never experienced any serious hate crime. Sure, at secondary school, I had the odd racial slur yelled at me in the corridor – but at least I’ve never felt physically in danger because of my ethnicity.
But that’s a key aspect of The Good Immigrant: it’s not always about the newsworthy hate crimes. The “microaggressions”, as termed by Nikesh Shukla himself, are just as important because they affect all non-white people living in the UK. Sure, there is positive discrimination — like thinking that all Asians are good at maths and all Indians are good at cooking — but what happens when these stereotypes are not met? It really calls into question the widely held belief that the UK is a post-racial country.
These stereotypes pigeonhole people and close minds in ridiculous ways. In her essay, the part-Iraqi, part-Iranian, part-British actor ‘Miss L’ relives and grimaces at her final day of drama school, when she was told that the part she would be most suited to audition for would be “wife of a terrorist”. Darren Chetty recalls how a Year 2 pupil of his once said that “stories have to be about white people” and his subsequent encouragement to a Year 5 class to write characters that were ‘like them’, rather than the default white character with a western name.
This work is certainly unique. Never before have I been able to hear the stories of 21 people from 21 different places beyond the UK’s borders. Hearing Nikesh Shukla, Coco Khan, and ‘Miss L’ speak about The Good Immigrant at The Durham Book Festival really brought the book to life: each of the essayists read a section from their contribution and every word was soaked with lived experience. The most enjoyable part was the discussion afterwards; clearly the readings had inspired people of all ethnicities and ages to start thinking more diversely. Most of the questions were about how we could make the UK into a more diverse and open-minded place; the answer was almost always to keep talking and, equally importantly, to keep listening.