Book of the month: ed. Nikesh Shukla, The Good Immigrant

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One of the main points of this project has always been accessing voices that we don’t hear enough of in the anglophone world. Often, these voices are quite remote: stories by writers in minority languages and marginalised groups from distant regions where little gets picked up for publication and even less makes it through the translation bottleneck into the planet’s most-published language.

However, it’s often easy to forget that there are plenty of underrepresented voices closer to home, such as people writing in languages other than the dominant tongue (like Welsh writer Caryl Lewis, whose novel Martha, Jack and Shanco I read as my UK choice) or those from communities that rarely get the opportunity to tell their stories in their own words.

This is a problem that my November book of the month pick, The Good Immigrant, sets out to tackle head-on. Bringing together essays, think pieces and life writing by 21 black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) writers working in or connected to Britain today, the crowd-funded collection builds a compelling case for the importance of diverse storytelling. It is, as Nikesh Shukla states in his editor’s note, ‘a document of what it means to be a person of colour’ in the UK, assembled in response to ‘the backwards attitude to immigration and refugees, the systemic racism that runs through this country to this day’.

As Shukla’s comments suggest, much of this book does not make for comfortable reading – nor is it meant to. Many of the contributors narrate harrowing incidents that they or their family members have experienced, from being held at knifepoint by skinheads, as has happened to actor Riz Ahmed on several occasions, to receiving a prescription for drugs from a child psychologist in response to suffering racist bullying, as Daniel York Loh recalls.

Many of the anecdotes contain unpleasant surprises for white British readers like me. For example, I was unaware of the extreme abuse often experienced by people of Chinese ethnicity in the UK, but Wei Ming Kam and Vera Chok bring this home memorably, with Chok’s discussion of the sinister objectification of Asian women being particularly powerful.

Alongside these personal and specific examples, a number of the writers expand on larger themes that illuminate the mechanisms of the blindspots and doublethink that make such inhumanity possible. Reni Eddo-Lodge, whose forthcoming Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race promises to be brilliant, is great on the UK’s collective forgetting of black British history, while Sarah Sahim has thought-provoking things to say on Britain’s role in entrenching and solidifying the Hindu caste system.

And lest you get the impression that an uncomfortable read equates to an unpleasant one, it’s important to point out that the book has plenty of beauty, generosity and humour too. Stand-up comedian Nish Kumar’s account of his discovery that his photograph had been appropriated for an internet meme about Muslims (he’s Hindu by origin) is both funny and insightful. In addition, Salena Godden’s wry observations on the illogic of half the world spending money on skin-bleaching while white Brits strip off at the sight of sunlight in hope of a tan in ‘Shade’ – which also contains some of the collection’s most lyrical and playful writing – will no doubt raise a smile.

Perhaps the most important point, however, concerns the significance of complex, diverse storytelling and the role this has in allowing people to imagine and thereby appreciate the humanity and varied difference of those too often squashed into a box labelled ‘other’. This argument is made in many of the pieces, but most strikingly in the several accounts in which BAME actors share their experiences of typecasting and limited opportunity because of the paucity of roles available for people of colour in mainstream British culture. Miss L, for example, describes the day she waited along with her fellow drama students to be told what type of role was likely to be the mainstay of her career. ‘Wife of a terrorist’ was the verdict, a prediction that proved largely accurate, alongside a number of roles as powerless women in arranged marriages.

Representation, these accounts show us, is not enough. The mere tokenistic inclusion of a person from an ethnic minority in a well-worn, two-dimensional role does nothing to enlarge viewers’ or readers’ perspectives. Instead, we need to break free of those familiar narratives – those single stories as Chimanda Ngozi Adichie so memorably dubbed them – and push for a vast array of complex, challenging and even conflicting accounts.

This is important within nations like Britain, as much as across borders, because, as Bim Adewunmi puts it in ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Tokenism’, the superficial and inadequate representation of minorities in the stories we consume ‘leaks into the everyday too – if you cannot bring yourself to imagine us as real, rounded individuals with feelings equal to your own on screen, how does that affect your ability to do so when you encounter us on the street, at your workplace, in your bed, in your life?’

And if you wanted an example of the real-life consequences of such tokenism, the final piece in the book by British-Ugandan writer Musa Okwonga provides a salutary vision of the harm that insufficiently diverse representation can cause. As one of a handful of black students at the elite schools and university he attended, Okwonga felt an ‘ambassadorial responsibility’ to represent not simply himself but all those who shared his ethnicity to his white peers, holding himself to impossible standards in an exhausting effort to be a walking billboard for his race.

The encouraging news is that most of the writers of The Good Immigrant appear to believe that change is possible, that Britain for all its flaws and challenges has the potential to do better in the way it treats and values its citizens. Although many are saddened by the events of recent years – Okwonga, for example recounts his decision to leave the UK for Germany in search of greater tolerance and inclusiveness – the contributors seem to have faith in the power of storytelling and the healing quality of human connection, a sentiment Salena Godden expresses beautifully towards the end of her piece:

‘Human colour is the colour I’m truly interested in, the colour of your humanity. May the size of your heart and the depth of your soul be your currency. Welcome aboard my Good Ship. Let us sail to the colourful island of mixed identity. You can eat from the cooking pot of mixed culture and bathe in the cool shade of being mixed-race. There is no need for a passport. There are no borders. We are all citizens of the world. Whatever shade you are, bring your light, bring your colour, bring your music and your books, your stories and your histories, and climb aboard.’

The Good Immigrant, ed. Nikesh Shukla (Unbound, 2016)

Picture: ‘Know Your Rights’ by alister on flickr.com

Where’s the world in World Book Night?

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Tonight is a big night from for booklovers in my part of the planet. Following on from the original date of World Book Day (marking the anniversary of the deaths of Shakespeare and Cervantes), World Book Night is the time when bibliophiles in the UK, Ireland and the US give away free copies of some popular titles in an effort to encourage reluctant readers to get into stories.

There’s a serious point behind it: with 35 per cent of adults in the UK claiming not to read for pleasure, there is a huge group of people for whom books are a closed, er, book. It’s great that tonight might give some of them a chance to discover what they’re missing.

All the same, I can’t help being disappointed when I look at the list of the 20 books that volunteers in the UK will be distributing this evening. Though the genres vary from classic crime fiction in the shape of Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral to John Boyne’s Young Adult Holocaust novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and from former SAS sergeant Andy McNab’s memoir Today Everything Changes to Sathnam Sanghera’s The Boy with the Topknot, an account of growing up in the Punjabi community in Wolverhampton, there is not a single translated novel to be found on the list. Unlike previous years, all the books are by authors who write in English – most of whom are British, with the odd Irish and American wordsmith thrown in for good measure.

It’s a similar story when you look at the US WBN list, although there is one Spanish-language work in the mix: Puerto Rican author Esmeralda Santiago’s Cuando Era Puertorriqueña, which is also being given away in both Spanish and English.

According to the WBN UK website, this year’s selection was arrived at by an ‘expert editorial committee’, which looked for ‘good, enjoyable, highly readable books with strong compelling narratives [and] … a really wide variety as what will inspire one person will turn another off’.

I have no problem with that. I’m with Samuel Johnson in the belief that reading any book is better than reading none. ‘I am always for getting a boy forward in his learning; for that is a sure good,’ wrote the 18th century man of letters. ‘I would let him first read any English book which happens to engage his attention; because you have done a great deal when you have brought him to have entertainment from a book. He’ll get a better book afterwards.’

The one point on which I disagree with both Johnson and the WBN committee is that this has to be an ‘English’ book. If you want to give people a gripping crime novel, why not put a bestselling Jo Nesbo on the list or the latest translated French thriller? If it’s Holocaust fiction you’re after, why not pick from the fine array of German-language novels on the subject or plump for Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize-winning Blooms of Darkness – I certainly can’t think of a more intriguing premise than that of a Jewish boy being hidden in a brothel throughout the war.

The problem seems to be that those in charge of World Book Night have got so hung up on the issue of engaging non-readers with books that they have forgotten the world. Perhaps they are afraid that the world itself might prove another obstacle to someone picking a story up.

They could be right. But if they don’t give potential readers the choice, we’ll never know.

Instead, for now, the ‘world’ represented on both sides of the Atlantic this World Book Night will be a very narrow, inward-looking one; a place where the only stories non-readers will be offered are those written in the language they have been speaking all along.

What translated fiction would you choose to give away this World Book Night? Leave a comment and let me know…

Photo by wsilver