Edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman
“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.