Book Review: The Good Immigrant

“good immigrant and bad immigrant, refugee and benefit scrounger. This keeps us in our place, humans bickering, focusing on their differences, distracted, and at each other’s throats, competing and separating”

The Good Immigrant is a collection of essays, edited by Nikesh Shukla, where twenty-one British writers of colour discuss race and immigration in the UK. Many of the entries express anger at how the authors feel they are regarded and treated, especially by the white population. As I consider how to express my thoughts in this review I wonder if I will choose words acceptable to those who suffer the prejudices articulated. Language can be a tricky beast when dealing with contentious issues.

What is not in contention is the discrimination faced by so many descendants of various races and ethnicities. Although not universal, the problems they face are widespread and disturbing. Some of the authors have assimilated more than others yet all have experienced lazy assumptions based on stereotyping. Skin tone and other features, including how they choose to dress, have resulted in career limitations and, at times, threats to safety.

I picked up the collection in the hope of better understanding the immigrant experience, especially as viewed through the eyes of those of the second and third generation who were born and raised in Britain. The anger and frustration they feel at the way they are too often treated is understandable. It is harder to think of answers to some of the questions raised.

The subjects focused on in the essays vary and some are more on point than others. I found a few to be somewhat rambling although raising valid issues. There are attempts at finding humour. There is recognition that differing cultures – of all shades – are not always understood beyond their enclaves.

“I learned quickly that there are certain jokes the white community can’t ever really find funny because the punchline means wading through gasps of horror or sympathy, or worse, lengthy explanations whenever you make a quip about skin lightening, arranged marriage or hate crimes. Learning the comedic levels of rooms is part of the immigrant experience”

Those who travelled from another country to make their homes in Britain did so with a variety of aims. Some came for economic reasons, other to escape life threatening situations. There is talk of gratitude and the need to prove oneself by demonstrating an admirable work ethic. There is disappointment at the realisation that this will not be enough for many.

In certain examples explored, cultures are retained within the home even when beyond there are attempts to assimilate. For some there remains a hankering back to where the wider family originated, a wish to adhere to their traditional expectations.

“We are happy to change and adapt even something so fundamentally important to us as language in order to start sinking into our new homes. In death, though, so far they’ve all returned to the ‘motherland’ and had their ashes spread over the Ganges. There’s a religious element to that of course but, in choosing this way to be laid to rest, it suggests to me that this diaspora, these brave wanderers, always yearned for home no matter how successful they were at integrating abroad.”

In several of the angrier essays there are mentions of the impact of Britain’s historic empire building. This is blamed, amongst other things, for the damaging perpetuation of the Indian caste system. I didn’t understand this particular argument, nor the wish to hold current generations responsible for the actions of their distant forbears.

“you cannot and must not turn a blind eye to injustices that your people are responsible for.”

The lack of visibility in the media along with problems of acceptance of people of colour is blamed on many things including the fictions told of historic racial variety within the British population. It is pointed out that people of African descent stood guard on Hadrian’s Wall.

“America uses its stories to export a myth of itself, just like the UK. The reality of Britain is vibrant multi-culturalism but the myth we export is an all-white world of Lords and Ladies.”

Oppression, discrimination and the increasing violence encountered from white supremacists are all discussed. The hate detailed is distressing to read.

“As a minority, no sooner do you learn to polish and cherish one chip on your shoulder, it’s taken off you and swapped out for another.”

I did not understand the desire to import cultures that appear to limit individual freedoms and nurture it within families. Surely such perpetuation of difference makes assimilation more difficult?

There were complaints about appropriation – of clothing, music or language. Is the wish to copy not a compliment, a sign of admiration? I guess I have not understand the problem being articulated.

Other essay collections such as Nasty Women and Know Your Place I found empowering, recognising many of the situations explored. Thus I am left with a feeling that I am missing something key from The Good Immigrant.

The final essay is powerful as the author had been through an elite, British education yet still felt rejected by the society he had worked so hard to fit in with. In the end he chose to leave, to make his home in Berlin. If immigrants or their descendants take this option, understandable when considering how too many are being treated, the UK will become a lesser place for those of all shades who remain.

The Good Immigrant is published by Unbound.

I purchased my copy of this book at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath.

Book Review: In Our Mad and Furious City

In Our Mad and Furious City, by Guy Gunaratne, offers the varied voices of second generation, working class immigrants during a few days of enhanced racial tension in our capital city. An angry young ‘black boy’, calling himself ‘the hand of Allah’, has murdered a soldier on a street in daylight and then publicly desecrated the body. Far right troublemakers intent on blaming all people of colour for the country’s ills react by inciting further hate filled violence. This then spills into the streets of an enclave of north west London.

Around the tower blocks of a Neasdon housing estate a group of teenage friends, raised under a mix of creeds, are seeking ways to carve a future for themselves. Life in the mixed community is hard with options further limited by family circumstances. The boys come together to play football, chat about girls and listen to music. They rarely talk about the detail of what is going on inside their homes and heads.

Selvon lives with his mother and ailing father off the estate. He is accepted as he regularly hangs out there with his friends. Focused on his training – regular runs and visits to the gym – he is biding his time before escaping to university. His father, Nelson, came to London from the Caribbean in the late 1950s. Nelson taught his son to be disciplined, to focus on self-direction and not get swayed by the wrong crowd.

Ardan lives with his mother, Caroline, who was sent to London by her family in Belfast when she was seventeen. Ardan focuses on his music, Grime, recording creations but keeping them to himself. Caroline fights her own demons, drowning them in drink.

Yusof also lives with his mother but their family is more recently troubled. His father was Imam at the local mosque before he died in a car accident. His brother, Irfan, has since brought shame down on the family. The new Imam has radical ideas and was granted power over the boys by their grieving mother. This Imam and his ardent followers, including former schoolboy bullies, are determined to rein Yusof and Irfan in.

The story is written over just a few days and focuses on the male population. I found the supporting roles granted the women unsatisfactory – where was their strength of character and influence? Given the power of the narrative this remains a minor irritation.

The young residents of the multicultural area are portrayed going about their lives. These are shadowed by circumstances not of their making – they deal as best they can with the world they have been given. When hate filled actions encroach there is fear and anger, a powerlessness in the face of demands from a fracturing community often at odds with personal desires.

The writing adopts a local vernacular that took some time to engage with. It is not difficult to read but I am still unsure what some phrases mean – how does one ‘Kiss my teeth’? Selvon has a sexual encounter with a girl he meets on the estate which was unpleasant to read. What comes across though are lives that are beyond my experience. The portrayal appears searingly authentic.

Having recently read The Study Circle I could empathise to a degree with the Muslim strand of the story. Caroline’s background was familiar. In offering three young friends, raised in the same place but by parents from differing backgrounds, the challenges of lazy attitudes to skin colour and poverty can be explored and contrasted. We need more voices like this in our literature if we are to to better understand the weight of limitations imposed on those raised in such communities. There may be a few who get away but what of those who remain?

This is a dark tale posing questions not easily answered but which, for the good of all, need to be more widely considered. A well structured and captivating read.

Book Review: My Cat Yugoslavia

My Cat Yugoslavia, by Pajtim Statovci (translated by David Hackston), is a somewhat fragmented story involving metaphors that often slip into the surreal. It tells of a family of Albanians living in Kosovo who move to Finland when the increasing conflict threatens their safety. As refugees they are caught between their old culture and that of the country that has taken them in. What is regarded as respect by the older generation is clearly abuse by the Western European standards in which the children are now raised.

The story opens with an on line hookup between two men, both described as superficially handsome. One wishes to see the other again but is rejected. Thus we discover the problem Bekim has with trust, his fear of settling into a loving relationship and then being hurt. Instead of men he decides to share his life with a snake, the boa constrictor he purchases allowed to roam free in his apartment rather than being confined to its terrarium. His next relationship, which starts in a gay bar, is with a talking cat that wears clothes and has hateful views on homosexuals and immigrants. The snake and cat metaphors are used in subsequent encounters with Bekim’s wider family.

Born in Kosovo, Bekim moved to Finland with his parents and siblings when just a few years old. He was viciously bullied at school for being poor and a refugee. He learned to dread the question, “Where do you come from?” and the judgement that followed. As soon as he was old enough he cut off contact with his parents, ostensibly to further his education. He hated how they treated him, their desire that he behave as would have been expected in their homeland.

Although Bekim’s personal demons are represented by creatures, the second plot line unfolds more clearly. This takes the reader back to 1980 when Bekim’s mother, Emine, first meets the young man she is to marry. Although still at school she has been raised to be a good, Kosovan wife and is happy with the prospect of living with the handsome Bajram. Unlike her parents, he is from a wealthy family. He promises to treat her well.

Preparations for the wedding are described in detail, involving days of prescribed, public ritual where true feelings must be hidden. When Bajram and Emine are finally allowed to be alone together she discovers that he is brutal and demanding. Kosovan men are raised to believe that within their homes they are as gods. The women must acquiesce and serve them quietly, never complaining however disdainfully they are treated.

When the family flee to Finland they live first in a refugee centre and then in a cramped apartment. Although Bajram eventually finds work this does not last as he refuses to accept the concepts of equality and multiculturalism. He mixes with other immigrants and refugees, expecting his family to continue to treat him as the most important member of their household.

“He blindly believed in his own world.”

“People’s attitudes and values seemed to have remained unchanged from the time when they left the country, and they were preserved in tight-knit communities in overcrowded European apartment buildings in disreputable parts of town”

When Kosovo enters a fragile peace, the family become immigrants rather than refugees. The Finnish people’s resentments at their continued presence perpetuates divisions. Bajram feels no gratitude for the home he has been given. He feels justified in taking what he can by whatever means.

Emine does her best to put up with Bajram’s behaviour but understands better than he how their children are torn between the culture of Kosovo and that of Finland.

“How could he possibly have thought that his children would work, pay taxes, then return to him and help make his dreams come true instead of their own?”

Emine, Bajram and Bekim each struggle to find ways to exist having been displaced from everything they were raised to be. They are not the people they once were, but neither do they fit easily into the expectations of their adopted country.

It is always interesting to learn of different cultures, however shocking their accepted behaviours appear to a Western European reader. I was surprised by the attitudes of the refugees and immigrants portrayed as, like the Finnish people, I expected more gratitude. Perhaps I would understand better had I experienced the openly hostile reception they suffered. From that point of view this was a thought-provoking read. As a story though I found the more surreal scenes unclear.

This tale evokes less rapport than I am comfortable with for the characters portrayed due to their reluctant assimilation and demands made of their children. An unusual but not entirely satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press. 

Book Review: The One Who Wrote Destiny

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The One Who Wrote Destiny tells the story of a family of immigrants across three generations. It explores the meaning of home, culture and inheritance. When the British Empire granted those it had subjugated independence, its architects did not acknowledge that what they had regarded as benevolence was in truth oppression. They instilled a vision of Britain as great and then baulked at the idea of being open and welcoming. Despite the serious issues being explored, the experience of immigration portrayed here overflows with humour. There are no heroes but rather moments of unanticipated heroism.

The story is told in four sections, each concentrating on a key character, all interlinked.

The first of these is set in 1966 when Mukesh, a teenager of south Asian descent, moves from Kenya to England and ends up in Keighley. Mukesh plans to continue his education in London, living with his good friend Sailesh who has been offered work as a juggler in the clubs around Soho. Mukesh is perplexed when he discovers that Keighley is 213 miles from the capital city. He is comforted when he discovers that other Gujuratis live nearby. Drawn to a beautiful girl, Nisha, who inspires him to write bad poetry, he stands near her house each day watching as she arrives and leaves, believing he is invisible. When he is hit by a bicycle trying to offer Nisha assistance they speak and Mukesh finds himself agreeing to perform in a show she is organising for Diwali. Here he has his first experience of violent racism. The pale skinned residents of Keighley are happy to enjoy the tea and anglicized curry from the sub continent but will not tolerate the open presence of its people.

Mukesh is telling the story of how he and Nisha got together to their daughter, Neha. He repeats this each time they meet, his way of remaining close to the great love of his life now that Nisha is dead. In the second section of the book, set in 2017, Neha is told that she has terminal cancer. This is the same illness that killed her mother but Neha had not realised she could be at risk. Her adult life has been wrapped around her work in tech. She decides to explore her wider family history, to see if there is a way that knowledge may be used to escape one’s destiny. She hopes that in doing so she may help her brother’s future children avoid the same fate.

Raks is a comedian. After his sister dies he puts together a show that achieves critical acclaim. The break he had hoped for appears to be within his grasp until an error of judgement sends him off course and he feels a need to disconnect. He has ignored the warnings to stand up for his people, allowing himself to be manipulated by white men resentful of the diverse quotas they are expected to embrace. Raks travels to New York, and to Lamu in Kenya. Much of his section of the tale is told from the points of view of those he meets along the way. He and Neha had been to Lamu as children with their maternal grandmother. Before she died, Neha told him it was here that she had been most happy in her life.

The final section of the book is set in Kenya in 1988. Nisha’s mother, Ba, has left Keighley and returned to Mombasa following the deaths of those she most cared for. She is lonely and grieving but accepting of her destiny. When Mukesh brings his two young children to spend a week with her she begrudges their invasion of her quiet routine as she waits for death. Gradually the three find a way to be together. This week will prove pivotal in all of their lives.

The stories within stories are presented lightly but with subtle depths. There are entrenched views on all sides, subjugation and resentments sitting alongside tolerance and acceptance. The immigrant’s desire for assimilation in the place they choose to make their home is, at times, at odds with retained aspects of their cultural history. The dehumanisation they encounter is painful to read yet skilfully presented.

The idea of destiny adds interest but this is a story of family in its many colours and shades. It is entertaining yet never trivialises the inherent difficulties of each situation.

Any Cop?: An exuberant, full flavoured read.

 

Jackie Law