| Bilal Qureshi |
TWO years before the election of United States (US) President Trump and the bitter politics of border walls, the American publishing industry was facing an identity crisis.
A viral social media movement led by writers of colour called #WeNeedDiverseBooks began push-ing the industry to acknowledge and address its resounding whiteness. The failure to cultivate and nurture the voices of American writers of minority and immigrant backgrounds was the failure to tell a full national story, writer Junot Diaz explained in a New Yorker essay. Soon after the 2016 election, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Viet Thanh Nguyen published a piece in the New York Times arguing that the outcome was partly the failure of writers. “The struggle over the direction of our country,” he wrote, “is also a fight over whose words will win and whose images will ignite the collective imagination.” Immigrants needed to tell their story – and tell it better.
The Good Immigrant is a culmination of the current political moment and a natural extension of the ongoing work to integrate American publishing. The 26 essays in this anthology are deeply personal reflections on adolescence, family, love and identity as experienced and felt by the American immigrant artist. From published heavyweights like Teju Cole and Alexander Chee, to newer voices like Muslim American punk-rocker Basim Usmani and Pakistani Kashmiri American poet Fatimah Asghar, this banquet of writing is a triumphant celebration of American multiplicity.
The book was inspired by an original British edition, which was published at the height of the Brexit debate with a largely different roster of writers. In the introduction to the American edition, the editors, Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman, explain that what both collections share is their desire to amplify the voices of immigrants through a kind of collective literary activism. In a cultural climate defined by xenophobia and anti-immigrant policies, this book seeks to showcase the gifts and humanity of immigrant artists.
It’s a noble mission that my own intersectional immigrant self can certainly appreciate. And yet, as a reader, I worried that a collection defined by politics could crumble under the weight of good intentions. Essays lifted from social media outrage or powered by reactionary rage can satisfy in the instant but fade as the moment passes. Thankfully, this collection is a resounding success on multiple fronts. Its righteous rage is perfectly matched by its literary rewards.
The American edition of the The Good Immigrant is best heard as a surround-sound chorus that bristles with an unpredictable, electric energy. Language, style and rhythm shift with each piece, keeping our attention. In Luck of the Irish, Maeve Higgins explores how white privilege helped her, an undocumented Irish immigrant, as brown families in similar conditions are prosecuted. In a love letter to her mother, Indian American writer Krutika Mallikarjuna finds humour in the ridiculous conundrum of dating in the multiracial mayhem of Brooklyn. “Of the many pitfalls of being a Desi woman swimming through Tinder,” she writes, “I never expected to find myself getting trashed trying to forget that I was on a date.”
Several of the essays are by first-time authors who work in other artistic mediums. My favourite essay is by Nigerian American fashion designer Wale Oyejide. The African-inspired textiles and silhouettes of his celebrated fashion line Ikire Jones are regularly shown on global runways and featured prominently in the Oscar-winning blockbuster Black Panther. In an essay about his artistic coming-of-age, Oyejide explores the struggles of stay-at-home fatherhood with biting humour and then widens his lens to a crisis of masculinity that fails to allow men to be more than conventional breadwinners and pursue the arts. He writes about his designs as a political instrument to restore dignity and beauty to black bodies draped in shades of violence and suffering in popular culture.
“Our uprisings don’t always come in the guise of smashed windows, overturned cars or respectable slave owners forcibly torn from their stone housings in front of Capitol buildings. Sometimes they come in the form of building-sized brown faces broadcast on cinema screens, portraying characters who are miles away from the token mistress we have to come to accept for want of more inspiring alternatives,” he writes. Immigrant creativity is about imagining new possibility, he explains, “There will be endless stories to write. And, increasingly, there will be audiences filled with us waiting to hear them being told.”
Like Jones’ essay, the best work here offers reflections on the creative process, alongside the fear of family, society and failure that keeps many immigrant artists from expressing themselves.