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: The Speech

The Speech, by Andrew Smith, is set over a ten day period in April 1968 during which Enoch Powell, as local MP, gave his infamous Rivers of Blood speech. It is written from a variety of points of view thereby enabling the reader to gain a better understand of each of the protagonists. The era is evoked with a perceptive wit, whilst the story told – the machinations surrounding a Jamaican immigrant’s wrongful arrest for GBH – reminds how little certain people have progressed.

“He moved on to the effects on the “native population” of the granting of rights to so many immigrants – people were confronted by crowded maternity wards and their children forced to study in overflowing classrooms. Their neighbourhoods were being transformed against their will. He applied words to the British public such as “defeated” and attributed to them the feeling that they were “unwanted”. Powerful words […] painted a scene of utter degredation of ordinary native citizens as a result of immigration”

The tale opens with some background to Powell’s ancestry and upbringing, wryly salient given the opinions he developed. By 1968 he had been Wolverhampton South West’s MP for eighteen years and was serving in a shadow cabinet led by Ted Heath, who he wished to usurp. Powell’s constituency home is in a neighbourhood becoming popular with an increasing immigrant population and he is concerned about the effect this will have on property value.

Powell is supported in his local Tory party office by the intelligent and loyal Mrs Georgina Verington-Delaunay, known as Georgy. Whilst she acknowledges the strengths of Powell’s work ethic and values, she is increasingly disquieted by his beligerance. His regard for the days of Empire and conviction that England should not change frustrate her efforts to demonstrate the benefits of enabling recent arrivals to integrate.

Meanwhile, Wolverhampton art student, Frank McCann, is in his favourite bar examining a set of photographic prints taken at the previous day’s student demonstration in support of racial equality. The bartender points out that every face in his photos is white, suggesting that the images would be more powerful if a darker skinned person were portrayed. Frank accepts a wager from a couple of fellow students, disparaging his talents, that he will successfully doctor a print to replace one of the marchers with the image of a Jamaican friend, Nelson Clark, in a manner that makes the change undetectable. This challenge sets in motion a series of events that result in Nelson’s incarceration. Frank, with the help of his strong minded girlfriend, Christine, must then try to find a way to persuade the police, who are all too eager to prove Nelson guilty, that the photo they are using as evidence is a fake.

Racism, intolerance and hatred are never going to be comfortable subjects to read about but the warmth and humour of the narrative, and the breadth of characters populating each page, make this an engaging tale. Even Powell comes across with a degree of poignancy, notwithstanding his damaging rhetoric. It is sad that, despite improvements in many other areas, his ilk are still being listened to today.

The author uses dialogue to expand on arguments which, although succinct and well constructed, did not always segue with plot progression. The denouement relied on a stroke of luck, admittedly a familiar device. These were minor niggles in a work that offers an entertaining story as well as an evocative history of a period this country should by now have learned from. This is an intelligent and recommended read.

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

Book Review: What to do with Lobsters in a Place like Klippiesfontein

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What to do with Lobsters in a Place like Klippiesfontain, by Colette Victor, explores the all too familiar battles being fought between necessary progress and the fear of change. Set in a small town near Springbok in South Africa it opens with the delivery of a tank of lobsters to the general store. The locals have never seen anything like it and cannot understand what the proprietor, Oom Marius, can have been thinking of bringing such a thing to a place such as Klippiesfontein. Change is frowned upon by the land owning white folk and city ways are regarded with suspicion.

Oom Mariius was trying to impress one of his lady customers but his mind is soon distracted from her by an announcement by his wife. They must travel to Cape Town which means leaving someone else in charge of the store. Oom Marius asks around town but can find nobody willing to step in to help. Eventually he settles on a radical solution which will upset his peers far more than a tank of crustaceans; he announces that his coloured assistant, Petrus, will be running the store in his absence.

The Afrikaans population is appalled and vows to close the store down rather than allow a coloured man to assume such responsibility. The racism and tension rise although not all of the residents are comfortable with the angry men’s actions. A few openly stand up to them while more continue to support the store quietly. A tipping point is reached when one of the vigilantes is turned down for a job by a coloured man and vents his anger in a drunken rage.

The story develops at a gentle pace but is constantly simmering beneath the surface. The lengths some will go to maintain a status quo that suits them is a world wide problem. The residents of Klippiesfontein appear more appalled at the idea of boiling lobsters alive than in confronting their treatment of fellow men.

In this tale the author explores the unasked for impacts of change on those who are oppressed. It looks at rifts within families when views differ. It shows that even those who have reaped the benefits of progress can still struggle to stand up for that to which they are entitled.

As a simple example, although segregation had been outlawed, areas of towns remain coloured or white. Those who stray outside boundaries find themselves feeling uncomfortable when they are stared at. It can easier to stay away.

The story contains much humour alongside the pathos but I found myself feeling angered and saddened. This is how things are and it is hard to see by what means change may be effected. Education plays a part in raising up those living in poverty but they also require opportunity. Perhaps it is the privileged who now need educating, although they seem much less willing to learn.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Cargo Publishing.