Young, Gifted, Black and Asian
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Brexit and the rise of racist and xenophobic attacks across the UK make the 21 essays in The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla, essential reading. The book’s contributors – writers, actors, comedians, playwrights, bloggers and educators, among others – draw on memoir, history, critical and cultural analysis, and in some instances reportage – to provide a disturbing primer on life of color in contemporary Britain.
In “What We Talk about When We Talk about Tokenism,” BuzzFeed and Guardian columnist Bim Adewunmi writes: “Whiteness – or, as you know, white people – exists as the basic template. And that template covers all human experience, by the way: the ability to be special or ordinary, handsome or ugly, tall or short, interesting or dull as ditch water. On the other hand, our presence in popular culture … must always be justified. Our place at the table has to be earned.”
Anger is to be expected. The writing excels when contributors unpick on-going deeply ingrained adversity with caustic humor. In the white template of British-owned Indian restaurants and yoga studios, the appropriation of Indian languages makes entertaining reading in novelist Shukla’s essay “Namaste” on linguistic and other UK frustrations. Varaidzo’s “A Guide to Being Black” reinvigorates old chestnuts of hair and the N-word, while actor Daniel York Loh’s “Kendo Nagasaki and Me” recounts childhood betrayal in the unmasking of a blond blue-eyed Japanese wrestler. On a tour of African barbershops and masculinity playwright Inua Ellams riffs on the Tweet: #IfAfricaWasABar.
Mistaken identity unpins Nish Kumar’s essay about his Internet-wide misidentification as “a confused Muslim,” despite the comic’s background – Indian, British and Hindu. The white template is not color blind but blind to difference – even with the best intentions. Kieran Yates tells her coworkers: “ … why saying ‘Salaam Alikum’ to a Sikh is a misstep.” For this music writer who wears sari tops at raves, blasts Bhangra out of car windows and is considered “too London” in the Punjab: “Being a British Asian in 2016 is about being in on the joke when i[t] comes to reclaiming parts of our identity you’re supposed to feel ashamed of.”
Despite humor, violence is never far away. In “Yellow” actress Vera Chok writing about the objectification and abuse of Asian women cites the 2013 analysis of 2.4 million heterosexual encounters on the Facebook dating app “Are You Interested,” which revealed “all men except Asians preferred Asian women.” She continues, “In the US, up to 61 per cent of Asian women experience physical or sexual violence from a partner in their lifetime, and over 30,000 Asian women are trafficked into the States each year.” She notes that: “most data available on yellow women is American.” Little comes from the UK, about its third largest ethnic minority group.
In the white template, difference is undermined at an early age. Educator Darren Chetty, in “You Can’t Say That! Stories Have to be about White People,” criticizes the Harry Potter series: “The books are seen by many as arguing for inclusivity and tolerance, tackling challenging themes such as racial purity and oppression … explored through fantasy figures … At the same time, amongst the teachers and pupils at Hogwarts there are very few people of colour and no clear explanation of why that might be.” It is pertinent considering Rowling’s endorsement of The Good Immigrant.
The idea for the anthology came to Shukla after his inclusion in a Guardian article on writing and a disgruntled reader complained about the Asian ethnicity of the writers and journalist who penned the piece. The comment made Shukla consider the writers and artists he does hang out with, speak to and read – people like poet and sportswriter Musa Okwonga who reveals in the book the pressures of having to always represent ‘his race’ in the UK. He moved to Berlin.
The book’s best essays enlarge, celebrate and challenge issues of representation and notions of “British” culture. Playwright and poet Sabina Mahfouz’s “Wearing Where You’re At: Immigration and UK Fashion” includes a digression on the history of racial classification alongside sartorial family memoir – her immigrant Egyptian father’s white T-shirt and leather jacket – concluding with Amazon’s best selling British fashion item, the chiffon scarf, which originated not in Lancashire but India.
“Shade” by spoken word performer and writer Salena Godden is another text of great force. The immediacy of the diary-like entries and the cadence of the language have the effect of a prose poem. Voices like these show that Unbound, the press that crowdfunded The Good Immigrant, is a platform for diversity and experimentation in publishing.
The book misses only a few opportunities, for instance, an insider essay from immigrant communities voting to leave Europe. In journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge’s lively exploration of blackness through African-American TV programs, she addresses issues of class in “The Cosby Show” but neglects misogyny.
Many of the contributors such as Riz Ahmad (on ‘Airports and Auditions), Miss L (on being typecast as ‘The Wife of a Terrorist’) and Eastender soap star Hamish Patel work and or write for stage, film and TV, where BAMEs (Black Asian Minority Ethnics) are woefully under-representation. If these articulate, sharp and observant people are indeed Shukla’s friends, surely they and us are owed at the very least a late night TV talk show. In a country of white flight and racial and religious segregation, that would be a game changer.
Hey, white template, you listening or still runnin’ scared?