Tag: Daniel José Older

The Good Immigrant

Cover image for The Good ImmigrantEdited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman

ISBN 978-0-316-52423-0

“Promises were made to those who arrived on this country’s shores. There were full-throated declarations about equality and all men breathing free. Regardless of how uncomfortable these words may now make some sons of the men who wrote them, we intend to hold those promises to account.” –Walé Oyéjidé

The Good Immigrant is an American take on a British best-seller of the same name, compiled by the same editors, one of whom is now living in the United States. The book consists of twenty-six essays about being an immigrant to the United States, or the child of immigrants. Some now have their own American-born children. Jim St. Germain writes that this is like “living with my heart outside my body in a warzone.” Some are refugees, and others come following family or economic opportunities. Some might even have preferred to stay at home, but were pushed or pulled across the ocean by the circumstances of life. Tensions about immigration remain a political flashpoint in America, leaving the writers to grapple with language, identity, and culture in the midst of a hostile environment.

The collection opens with an essay by Porochista Khakpour about her complicated relationship with being known for her essays about the Iranian-American experience. She struggles openly with the confluence between what she thinks people want to hear from her, what she wants to write, and what she thinks she can sell. Nigerian author Teju Cole also writes about feeling his identity shaped from the outside in this way. Cole describes becoming “African” only upon arriving in America, where the fifty-four countries that make up that vast and diverse continent are reduced to a shapeless monolith. He felt his Blackness more acutely once removed from a place where everyone was Black, and thrown against the white backdrop of America.

The question “Where are you from?” is a thread that runs through many of the pieces collected here. It is addressed by Fatima Asghar, who asks, “how much of myself can I give away to satisfy others’ thirst?” Sometimes the question comes from another outsider seeking connection, but most often it is a loaded question, almost an accusation, and an implication of non-belonging.  The question is at the heart of the essay contributed by Yann Mounir Demange, who is one of three mixed-race brothers, who share the same white mother, but different fathers. He settles on describing himself as a Londoner—but not British—but each layer of his life story that he peels back reveals how complicated and personal such a seemingly simple question can be. Our desire to taxonomize is deeply invasive.

Many of The Good Immigrant’s writers also reveal complex relationships with where they came from. “My people, my people. How I love you on sight, how you make my heart beat a crowded symphony in my chest. Half of the time I want every single one of you as my kin, and half the time I want nothing to do with you. Perhaps this is the source of my loneliness: belonging and not belonging, always, to you,” laments Fatima Asghar, reflecting on the push-pull of her South Asian identity. Priya Minhas writes movingly about women being forced out of her community for failure to conform to its ideals of womanhood: “Sometimes it is a luxury that I’m now able to define myself outside my community. Other times I’m so homesick that I forget I’m living here by choice.” Instead of people, the departed women become cautionary tales for the next generation of girls. Distance becomes a heartbreaking necessity for a woman who wants to build a life outside such narrow confines. For biracial writer Alexander Chee, it was necessary to find a path into his Korean identity that did not involve doing so through his father’s abusive family.

Another thread that runs through the collection is language and accent, which arise again and again as the contributors are continually policed by society for the way that they speak or write. Daniel José Older writes about his childhood refusal to learn Spanish, and the internalized bigotry that led to years of miscommunications with his own family members. Actress Dani Fernandez writes about being frozen out of Spanish by her parents and grandparents, who wanted her to sound American. But instead of her telling her she sounds American, people tell her she sounds white, and that she isn’t Latina enough for their idea of the Latina characters they want to cast for television. Fatima Asghar writes about being a native English speaker, and yet being told that her grasp of the language is wrong. But it is the only language she has, since her parents died and she no longer has Urdu or Saraiki with them. Nigerian Chigozie Obioma writes about how his “African” accent exoticized him, setting him apart from African Americans in the eyes of their White neighbours, at least in situations where he had a chance to open his mouth.

Most of the writers are people of colour, whose outward appearance means that they cannot slip seamlessly into white America and disappear. But one essay comes from Irish immigrant Maeve Higgins, who writes about the blithe privilege with which she overstayed her visa as a teenager, utterly unconcerned that she might be caught or punished. Now acutely aware of her privilege, she writes about how preclearance programs discriminate against people of colour, and prevent legitimate asylum claimants from reaching US soil, a necessary first step in making such a claim. Another is contributed by Jean Hannah Edelstein, the daughter of a Jewish American father and a Scottish mother. She writes about how she felt Othered by being the child of an immigrant who might have preferred to stay the UK, and only later came to realize the privilege of her whiteness in contrast to her identification with the experiences of her peers who were the non-White children of immigrants.

As collection, The Good Immigrant is largely serious in tone, but it is also occasionally funny. Krutika Mallikarjuna writes about going on date with a white woman who goes by her middle name, Anita, but feels compelled to confess that the first name her parents actually gave her is India, after her likely place of conception. Bassim Usmani’s tour diaries about his experiences in a punk band composed entirely of Muslim men is like the premise of a dark sitcom about race, expectations, and double standards. One of the more unique pieces is by Mona Chalabi who uses a paper airplane to help readers understand immigration statistics. Long or short, serious or leavened with unexpected humour, Shukla and Suleyman have brought together a diverse collection of voices highlighting the breadth of the American immigrant experience in the midst of an increasingly xenophobic political environment.

The Fire This Time

Cover image for The Fire This Time, Edited by Jesamyn WardEdited by Jesmyn Ward

ISBN 978-1-5011-2634-5

“To Trayvon Martin and the many other black men, women, and children who have died and been denied justice these last four hundred years.”

Following the death of Trayvon Martin, only the latest in a long history of black deaths excused by the state, Jesmyn Ward turned to Twitter to raise her voice. She “needed words” in the face of this tragedy, but “the ephemera of Twitter, the way the voices of the outraged public rose and sank so quickly,” left her disappointed, and looking for more. The medium’s immediacy, so powerful and important in the heat of the moment, lacked permanency. So she turned to the work of James Baldwin, and from there reached out to gather the voices of a new generation of writers on race in America today. The result is this collection of seventeen essays and poems by writers as various as Kevin Young, Claudia Rankine, Garnette Cadogan, Daniel José Older, Edwidge Danticat, and Honorée Fannon Jeffers.

Ward divides The Fire This Time into three sections: Legacy, Reckoning, and Jubilee. But as she admits in the introduction, the pieces she received resisted the tidy structure she had envisioned. In some respects, this speaks to the complexity of the pieces, which refuse to be confined to past events or present reactions, but delve into the nuanced relationship between history and current events. Most of the pieces are essays, but each of the three sections begins with a more stylized piece or poem, such as Clint Smith’s striking “Queries of Unrest” in which he makes a metaphor of the fact that in school, he was taught never to write in the margins, even though he was marginalized.

Many of the essays resurrect events that have long since slipped out of the news cycle. Those events are also names. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland. The blackface of Rachel Dolezal, sent up by poet Kevin Young. Some writers name the man who murdered nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015. Others choose to excise his name in favour of remembering his victims. They are immortalized here in black and white, even as Claudia Rankine reflects on how hard that must be for the mothers and families of the fallen, who see their children transformed from individuals to evidence in “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning.”

In a collection of seventeen, everyone will have different pieces that speak to them most strongly. I made six pages of notes while I was reading, and in addition to Claudia Rankine’s essay, another whole page is given over to “Black and Blue” by Garnette Cadogan. You can read it on LitHub as “Walking While Black.” An inveterate nighttime walker in his native Jamaica, he discovered on arriving in New Orleans for college that his black body, no longer unremarked among many others like it, drew unwelcome attention from police, and fear from fellow pedestrians. The magic is diminished, because walking while black in America “renders inaccessible the classic Romantic experience of walking alone.” I was suddenly put in mind of Charlotte Smith’s poem “On Being Cautioned against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because it Was Frequented by a Lunatic,” which addresses how women are also stripped of that freedom. It is a connection Cadogan has already clearly made, not to the poem itself, but the general concept: “it is not lost on me that my woman friends are those who best understand my plight; they have developed their own vigilance in an environment where they are constantly treated as targets of sexual attention.”

Still others call out to be described. Daniel José Older writes to his new wife about her decision to come live in America with him despite current events. Edwidge Danticat addresses her daughters on the smothered hope of Barack Obama’s election to president while still holding onto hope for their future. Honorée Fannon Jeffers calls for a reconsideration of the use of Margaretta Matilda Odell as a primary source on the life of black poet Phillis Wheatley because the biographer’s claim to connections with the white Wheatley family that freed Phillis cannot verified. Jesmyn Ward’s own essay about discovering that the largest part of her genetic heritage is European. But the purpose of a review is not to summarize the book in whole, so I will leave off here.

This is the part where I admit I still haven’t read The Fire Next Time. I meant to read it after I finished Between the World and Me, but didn’t get around to it. Having just finished this one, and with Between the World and Me on the horizon again for discussion with my book club next month, I decided it was time, and placed a library hold that hasn’t come in yet. So I can’t speak to this collection in relationship to its predecessor and inspiration. But The Fire This Time stands powerfully all on its own.

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More Books on Race in America:

Cover image for Citizen by Claudia RankineCitizen by Claudia Rankine

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Shadowshaper

Cover image for Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older by Daniel José Older

ISBN 978-0-545-59161-4

Fair Warning: The last paragraph of this review is more spoilery than I usually get, but it was necessary in order to discuss one of the key elements of this book.

“Her voice carried the voices of a hundred thousand souls in it; a whole history of resistance and rage moved with her.”

Sierra Santiago starts out her summer painting a giant mural of a dragon on an ugly concrete tower, a small act of resistance against the uninhabited building that sticks out like a sore thumb in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood of Brooklyn where her family has lived for three generations. But as she works on her own painting, she begins to notice something strange; other murals around the neighbourhood seem to be fading unusually quickly, and more than once she swears she catches the portrait of Papa Acevedo weeping. The strange happenings raise questions only Sierra’s nearly catatonic abuelo could answer, but he has barely spoken since his stroke the year before. Her mother stonewalls Sierra’s every attempt at getting answers, and meanwhile her grandfather’s old associates have begun to go missing. As she digs into her family history, Sierra discovers a legacy that has been hidden from her for her entire life.

The magic system in Shadowshaper is not particularly well explained, but it is very cool, harnessing the power of creativity and the spirits of the community towards a common goal. Sierra has always had an artistic bent, but she begins to understand that her talent for drawing can be much more than that when she learns that drawings can be animated by willing spirits channeled through the shadowshaper. We see interesting variations of this with her brother Juan, who is a musician, and learn that her grandfather did his ‘shaping not through visual media but with his exceptional skill for storytelling, making his stroke particularly devastating. She also meets Robbie, another young artist who can direct his creations and even his tattoos through his skills.

Shadowshaper strives hard to maintain a fast pace. As such, the dialogue can be a little direct or on the nose, sometimes clearly aimed at moving the plot along. The rest of the time however, Older is able to capture slang on the page in a way that feels quite natural and lively. Similarly, some actions seem a little bit unlikely but again, directed towards making something happen that will drive the story forward. Something gets lost in the way of character development and world-building in this rush, but since Shadowshaper is first in a series, Older has space to continue developing these elements in future books.

As Sierra investigates her grandfather’s old associates, one stands out; a white professor from Columbia University known for studying “urban spirituality systems” had been hanging around with her abuelo shortly before his stroke. As she digs into his past, she hears strange rumours about Professor Wick’s studies, that he was actually acquiring the powers he was supposed to be observing. It is here that the core of Older’s narrative becomes clear; Shadowshaper is an allegory for cultural appropriation, as Wick begins to feel entitled to the knowledge the shadowshapers have entrusted him with, and tries to assume a position of power within the community that welcomed him. If the old guard will not bend to his vision, he will destroy them and begin again, stripping Sierra of her heritage and her birthright in the process. Ultimately it is a cautionary tale about entitlement, and what happens when traditional knowledge meets a Western academy that doesn’t share its core values.

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