The TOAST Book Club is published on the last Friday of every month. The reviews are written by Betsy Tobin, author of five novels and joint founder of [email protected] – an independent bookshop just up the road from our head office, situated in leafy Highbury. Though the book club exists in a purely digital sphere we hope that you will add your own opinions and thoughts below.*
Every immigrant has a story to tell. So we should not be surprised that these stories from Britain’s established BAME authors are more powerful than most: eloquent, passionately argued and fiercely diverse, this collection takes us on a rocky journey into the heart of the immigrant experience; of what it is like to be ‘other’ in Britain.
The Good Immigrant was crowdfunded on Unbound by the writer Nikesh Shukla because he grew ‘so tired of shouting at closed doors’ about the lack of BAME representation in British cultural life that he decided to do something about it. Not fancying his chances making the rounds of London’s publishing houses, he took the project to Unbound, where it eventually raised nearly twice the funding it needed, including a £5000 donation from JK Rowling.
For white readers, these essays may make you flinch; they will certainly make you feel excluded, just as their authors have been – and they will frequently make you laugh. In his preface, Shukla freely admits that there is a ‘secret cabal of people of colour’ – because ‘when we’re the only ones in the room’, we tend to ‘gravitate towards each other.’
His essay on the importance of language begins with white appropriation of the ordinary Hindi greeting ‘namaste’ (which means simply ‘hello’) into a ‘bastardised metaphor for spiritualism’ that is repeatedly fired like a cultural salvo at him by ignorant whites. Shukla unveils the three voices he deploys in everyday life, depending on who is listening: his Gujarati-East London ‘yes bruv, we talk like goras be listening, innit’ ; his normal voice; and his ‘white, literary party’ voice.
Varaidzo’s A Guide To Being Black is equally eye-opening. Raised by a white mother, a black father, an Indian Godmother and a Japanese lodger, she only discovered she was black at the age of 9 when her best friend pointed it out to her. Varaidzo spent the next ten years learning how, a lengthy and painful process which led to the conclusion that ‘my black self is both a performance and a permanence.’ And to the final truth that there is no universality to the black experience.
This collection underscores that point time and again, for each of these writers has an utterly unique backstory and a different understanding of how living on the margins of white culture has shaped their identity. The project grew out of a conversation Shukla had with the poet and journalist Musa Okwonga that people of colour in Britain are automatically deemed ‘bad immigrants’ until they ‘cross over’ via popular culture – eg. by winning races, baking competitions, and literary awards – into ‘good’ immigrants.
Okwonga himself closes the collection with a powerful essay on growing up as a scholarship student at Eton saddled with the twin burdens of gratitude and the ‘ambassadorial responsibility’ to counteract negative stereotypes of his race—burdens he only felt free to shed much later as an adult.
Shukla has assembled a rich chorus of voices: from the actor Riz Ahmed on the necklace of labels minorities are forced to wear: ‘No sooner do you polish and cherish one chip on your shoulder, than it is taken off you and swapped out for another’; to the writer Salena Godden on the importance of ‘shade’ as a token of worth in a country where ‘white people die themselves as brown as tea stains’.
Last month The Good Immigrant was voted the British public’s favourite book of 2016, beating out The Girl on the Train and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. A good omen, but one that must still square with Shukla’s central point that while white people are prepared to debate diversity, people of colour must actually live it.
Words by Betsy Tobin
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Read more reviews from the TOAST Book Club or purchase our book club titles from [email protected].