As I was reading this collection of essays exploring what it meant to be Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic in the UK today, I couldn’t help but sigh that this conversation about identity was still being had. I was immediately transported back to when I was studying for my English Lit degree, and having lengthy class discussions about race and identity, and debates on whether we could ever be post race or post-post-colonial, where from a literary and I guess societal point of view, people of colour could transcend race.
But given the seismic shifts in the political landscape in the past 11 months alone, where issues of race and immigration have played a major part in much of the surrounding discourse, what with Brexit and the US elections, it’s clear that writing like The Good Immigrant is very relevant and very needed.
Having read similar essays and articles in the past, I was half expecting rant after rant about the injustices suffered at the hands of racist institutions, employers, peers, neighbours etc. But instead these were incisive and poignant pieces of work, painful funny at times and unflinchingly honest. There was often a sense a of weariness, as though the writers themselves were thinking as I did ‘Why are we still having this conversation?’ and ‘Will it ever be over?’.
The very idea of a ‘good immigrant’ conjures up this image of near invisibility and silence. Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people moving through white spaces being seen (just) and not heard. Only speaking when spoken to and always in deference, grateful just to be allowed to live on this fair isle. I think nearly every person who has immigrant parents has had the ‘talk’ at some point which one way or another essentially tells you to keep your head down so as to not invite or arouse undue attention – ‘you don’t want the Whites to think you weren’t raised properly’. But the very nature of this book defies that imagery because each writer boldly and proudly announces their presence and the presence of others like them. Us. We.
This has been one of the best reads of 2016 for me, partly because of it’s timeliness and also because the diverse range of voices. I don’t think I’ve ever read an essay on racial identity by an East Asian person and Wei Ming Kam’s essay ‘Beyond ‘Good’ Immigrants’ was as fascinating as it was insightful as it kind of answered some questions I’d always had about the Chinese community in the UK and where they stood on issues of race identity and representation. Though quite academic in its presentation, it was one of my favourite pieces as I felt I’d learnt something new from it.
Though not every essay ‘moved’ me so to speak, I do think The Good Immigrant is a book to keep coming back to and it would be interesting to see if opinions or feelings about the writing changes. Even more interesting would be if in years to come, if a similar project was undertaken would anything have changed?