The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla (Book Review)

I always have a book list several pages long. The Good Immigrant, which is a collection of essays on what it means to be ‘other’ in the UK today, had been on my list for some time before I finally read it.

In the end, I read it quickly. Too quickly, in fact. I wanted to gobble up each essay in rapid succession. Sometimes this is a good way to read a book, other times it isn’t.

In this instance, I wonder at my motives. Perhaps it was the heaviness of the content. I was aware that I needed a lot of time to truly chew over and digest what I was reading, but part of me felt unequipped to do so.

On the other hand, it is also a bit like eating a delicious meal too quickly. The rational part of your brain knows that you should savour each bite, but you are too wrapped up in the joy of eating that you practically inhale it rather than eat it.

Maybe both of these things were at play. Now, enough of my experience of reading the book and onto the actual review.

The book’s Unbound page says the following:

“We are a country in flux – our media condemns refugees one day, sheds tears over them the next. Our narrative around immigration is built on falsehoods, stereotypes and anxieties about the diminishing sense of what Britishness means.”

The Good Immigrant is edited by Nikesh Shukla, who also writes the first essay. Twenty other writers contribute, providing their own insights and experiences on race and immigration in the UK.

The result is a vibrant collection of essays by actors, writers, comedians, journalists and poets. I wasn’t expecting so much humour in the book, but I actually found myself laughing out loud at several points, including in Nish Kumar’s Is Nish Kumar a Confused Muslim? and in Daniel York Loh’s Kendo Nagasaki and Me.

At points it is both funny and painful at the same time. Consider the following extract from York Loh’s essay:

“I give you 1970s Great Britain: a place that many believe was a land of joyous liberty before the totalitarian oppression of The Political Correctness Brigade committed the heinous Stalinist crime of actually making it a bit difficult to take the piss out of ethnic minorities, gay or disabled people, and only ever regard women as either battle-axes or sex objects.”

Each author brings a unique voice to their essay. Some are humorous, others are serious. Some are journalistic in style, others are personal accounts.

Reni Eddo-Lodge (author of Why I’ve Stopped Talking To White People About Race, another book on my long to-read list) wrote a direct and hard-hitting piece titled Forming Blackness Through a Screen.

In pondering her blackness, she raises the important issue of the lack of black British history in UK education, forming part of “Britain’s collective forgetting of black contributions to British history”.

The fantastic Riz Ahmed is another contributor. His essay, Airports and Auditions, is a personal account of his experiences in the Post-9/11 era. One example is his treatment at Luton Airport after returning from a film festival where a film he’d starred in, The Road to Guantanamo, had won an award:

“When it won a prestigious award at the Berlin Film Festival, we were euphoric. For those who saw it, the inmates went from orange jumpsuits to human beings.

But airport security hadn’t got the memo. Returning to the glamour of Luton Airport after our festival win, ironically-named ‘British intelligence officers’ frog-marched me to an unmarked room where they insulted, threatened, then attacked me.”

I think that this collection will be informative and thought-provoking for readers of any background. For myself, the sections exploring racism against the Chinese and East Asian communities in the UK were especially eye opening. In Beyond ‘Good’ Immigrants, Wei Ming Kam notes:

“The Chinese in the UK have been called the ‘hidden’ or ‘invisible’ community, given that we are perceived as ostensibly successful, assimilated into British society and self-reliant.”

Other issues explored in the book include the Indian caste system and the way it was used and exacerbated by the British, the influence of immigrant groups on British fashion and the importance of diversity in children’s books.

The collection is particularly illuminating because it focuses on the experience of immigrants in the UK, when most of the literature and press attention on race and immigration seems to be focused on America.

Overall, I would highly recommend it. If you can take your time reading it, unlike I did, even better.


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