On 22 September, The Good Immigrant, the much-anticipated anthology of essays by British black, Asian and minority ethnic contributors, was released. The following day editor Nikesh Shukla kicked off a series of promotional events, beginning with a talk in Bristol as part of the Festival of Ideas. Shukla was accompanied by contributors Himesh Patel (the actor portraying Tamwar in Eastenders) academic and primary school teacher Darren Chetty, and journalist and blogger Coco Khan.
The evening began with an explanation of how the idea for the book came into existence. A few years ago, Shukla found himself troubled by the problematic language being used to describe migrants in Britain as the refugee crisis was escalating. At the same time, a discussion about diversity in publishing was beginning to take place, with a growing awareness of the lack of BAME voices in the media and stories being published. Tapping into the popularity of Ta Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me, Shukla has created a piece of work that could similarly reflect people’s experiences of growing up in the UK. The book was published with a wide target audience in mind, for white people and people of colour, the publishing industry, and due to a cover featuring a quote by JK Rowling, hopefully people who might otherwise never pick it up.
Each of the contributors then read an excerpt from their essay, beginning with Himesh Patel. Patel’s essay describes growing up in the only Indian family in his village and balancing the two cultures – sharing the popular music and TV shows with his friends at school, while watching Bollywood films at home. Finding his friends uninterested in checking out any of the Indian music he liked, he subsequently brushed that part of his life aside. Patel likened it to having two magnets repelled by each other, and simply burying one magnet was the easy way to deal with it. His propensity for imitation was encouraged in acting, and he finally felt accepted as a cast member on East Enders. His role as Tamwar showed him how important representation is on TV, and Patel was touched by the people who approached him to say they related to his character.
Patel admitted that he rarely thought about being different growing up. As the only Asian family in the village, it seemed normal to him. His desire to write his story came from an interest in exploring the naivety he had to the issue until he began acting.
Darren Chetty followed with a poignant depiction of how BAME children in a London school have absorbed the ‘white voice as dominant’ narrative. Chetty spoke of a child who used a Nigerian name in a story, only to be chastised by another child – ‘stories are about white people’. He noticed that all the children from diverse backgrounds used traditionally white, British names for their characters when writing stories. Reflecting on why his attempts to allow diversity in his classroom hadn’t worked, Chetty began researching popular children’s literature and found the majority of it telling stories about white, British children. In an amusing anecdote, he went into a bookshop and asked for children’s books featuring black characters, to the great confusion of a well meaning shopkeeper. Needless to say, there weren’t many books which fit the description.
As an exercise, Chetty asked his students to write a character from their own cultural background. In modelling the writing technique, he was surprised to find himself learning towards white British characters as well. The results were interesting in that rather than being a list of characteristics, as children’s characters tend to be, the students had created stories which reflected insight to the treatment of people of colour in Britain.
Ultimately, Chetty thought that the school curriculum is a story of its own, and one which lacks imagination. The knowledge fed down to children is limited; they learn the great achievements of Britain without any of the less desirable parts of history that could make them look anything less than great.
Coco Khan followed with what was the highlight of the evening for me. She began with a description of hooking up with a man, only to discover with horror in the early morning light that his room was plastered with Union Jack flags, from the coffee mug to the bedspread they were lying on. Did she miss the obvious signs and sleep with a skinhead? We don’t find out, but this intro launched us into Khan’s teenage discovery of the cultural messages sent to women about sex. What she ultimately learned was while everyone was doing it, nobody was talking about it. This meant relying on men to show you what to do, an idea Khan didn’t think was fair. Similarly, she noticed the double standards for men and women. She shared a depressing anecdote about a school friend who made a sex tape with her much older boyfriend and when it was revealed, got punished while very little attention was given to the predatory man she was with.
Khan was motivated to write her essay by her desire to create a new narrative for women and sex. She talked about studying English Literature and finding book after book written with a male centred depiction of sex. Seeing very little discussion about the reality of women having sex, Khan decided to create a space for all women, but women of colour in particular with the creation of her blog, ‘Brown Around Town’. Upon entering the world of journalism, she was dismayed to find that women’s writing was often considered ‘confessional’ whereas men were always taken seriously as journalists no matter how personal the content. (Brown Around Town has unfortunately been deleted!)
The final reading was by Shukla. He has written a piece centred around the white appropriation of the word ‘Namaste’. He recounted a dispiriting encounter with noisy neighbours, partying into the night and disturbing the quiet on the street. Upon asking them to turn their music down, they turn the word into a weapon, sneering ‘Namaste’ at him in the dim light. He told of passing a yoga studio in town, full of dreadlocked white people bowing and saying Namaste to one another, and one woman in particular who greets him as he walked by one day. ‘It just means hello!’ he repeated throughout the piece, baffled by the mystical connotations white people have assigned to the word.
The evening wrapped up with a Q&A from the audience. What followed was the author’s description of the book being written with a ‘furious hope’ which was reflected by an audience member describing growing up in a mixed race family in the sixties. While things have changed, there is still ‘beauty in the microaggressions’ according to Khan. From needing to use different voices (code switching) to be taken more seriously when talking to white people, to observing de-humanising language leading up to the referendum, we still have a long way to go. ‘If you don’t have hope it’s too depressing, I can’t be depressed about my position in society’ said Patel. So furious hope it is.