My dad was a taxi driver in the 80s. The cab company he drove for was owned by a fat geordie man called Clarky. Clarky only seemed to hire black-or brown-skinned drivers, presumably because they were the only ones willing to work for the awful wages he was offering. So, in the extremely white town of Gateshead, north east England, the company my dad worked for was widely known as “Clarky’s Darkies”.
He left Iran at the age of 21, determined to find a decent education amid a dearth of university spots in his home country. He ended up in Gateshead because it was cheap. He was alone, with no English, studying English and maths and renting a small room from an elderly deaf couple for £12.50 per week.
I remember the racism he experienced over the years: people shouting at us in the street, and the time some kids tossed lit fireworks through the letterbox of our shop, and it felt like we’d been bombed. He told me stories about men in pubs trying to punch him for daring to date an English girl (my mum). I remember how 9/11 happened – and Iran went from being just somewhere in the Middle East to being “an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world” – and everything got ten times worse.
“Clarky’s Darkies” became a joke in our house; it’s a good way to disarm and cope with stuff like that. But it’s always remained etched into my brain. The thought of him, every Friday and Saturday night, driving folk from their house to the pub and home again, patiently nodding into the rear view mirror as his passengers drunkenly ranted about how, “You know what, mate – you seem alright, but the problem with pakis is…”
Some time later, his studies paid off, and he became a maths teacher. And then something weird happened. It was like the volume on his other-ness had been abruptly turned down and something else had been turned up. Abusive comments became less frequent. Hassle evaporated. He became respected, almost revered. He always swears that even the bricks and mortar of our little semi-detached house seemed to take on new meaning. “Some foreigners live there” became “A teacher lives there”. Neighbours who usually struggled to give us the time of day started turning up at the door step with a bottle of whatever was on discount at Oddbins, asking if he could tutor their kids on their homework. In the eyes of our immediate community, he had gone from being a threatening other, a ‘bad immigrant’ – that invades in hordes, steals jobs, sponges off the NHS, gobbles benefits, takes a dump on the economy, and is personally responsible for all that is wrong with life in Britain – to being someone worth their time, a ‘good immigrant’.
Nikesh Shukla, curator of ‘The Good Immigrant’
That’s the good immigrant/bad immigrant binary: that all immigrants are automatically deemed bad people until they somehow earn their right to be treated as humans, and to sit at the table. It’s one of many triggers that inspired the author Nikesh Shukla to put together a new book: an anthology of essays from 21 different BAME writers, titled The Good Immigrant, exploring what it means to be black, Asian or minority ethnic in Britain in 2016.
“Mo Farah is a good immigrant because he’s won Olympic Gold and Nadiya Hussain is a good immigrant because she won the Great British Bake Off,” Shukla explains to me, as we share a beer over Skype one Friday evening. “And we’re all bad immigrants until we prove ourselves otherwise.”
Obviously, the problem with the good immigrant/bad immigrant theory – I say theory, it’s more of a misconception pandemic – is that it’s fuelled by the toxic rhetoric that has always stenched mainstream British media and politics around immigration. It’s the same misconception that has resulted in the majority of people believing that immigration not only needs to be reduced but is bad for the economy, when studies actually show the complete opposite.
“When my brain started ticking about creating this book, and what it would look like, I started imagining all the reasons why a publisher would reject it,” explains Shukla. “One of the things you always hear as a person of colour in publishing is, ‘Oh, there isn’t really a market for that.’ You slowly start to realise that being Asian is a marketing trend and not a very lucrative one.” He smiles, “That’s a pretty shitty double whammy to be hit with.”
To say the publication of The Good Immigrant has come at a good time would be an understatement. As I write this, the news is gushing with hostility towards anything and anyone resembling otherness; from post-Tory conference notions that companies should be shamed for employing foreign workers (now hastily abandoned), to suggestions that non-British doctors won’t be welcome after 2025, to the revelation that the British Home Office has repeatedly ignored 400 unaccompanied child refugees who are legally eligible to come to the UK. Though this book was conceived and written before Britain Brexit-ed itself arse over elbow towards a grim future of prejudice, ‘celebratory racism’ and hate crime surges, it very much exists within this conversation. The writers of these 21 essays are citizens of a multi-cultural United Kingdom pondering – often with great humour – why it is they often feel unwelcome, unequal or unrepresented in a country they (and in some cases their parents, and their parents’ parents) call home. This tone struck a chord with the prospective readers that crowd-funded the book’s creation before a single word had been written. It reached its target within three days, boosted by a £5,000 donation from JK Rowling.
But while the good immigrant/bad immigrant binary might be the catalyst that provoked Shukla’s book into life, it is by no means its sole focus. In fact, once you get your teeth into these essays, the pages explode into a kaleidoscope of perspectives on race, identity, and apathy within modern Britain; administering a much needed injection of nuance into the heart of a national debate that has turned black over the last few months.
Each essay deals with a different aspect of life: What’s it like to be strip-searched every time you go to the airport because of the colour of your skin, to feel like your cultural history is being forcefully erased, to be told you’re loitering just for being “dark skinned in broad daylight”, to feel like you’re constantly switching between different versions of yourself to appease your environment, to have your career path negatively dictated by your ethnicity, to be chatted up or objectified just so someone can tick off some “Asian girl” shag quota.
This isn’t the book on race, as Shukla often makes sure to state. It doesn’t try to define “the black experience” or claim to know how every Chinese person in Britain feels right now. It treats race and identity not as segmented discussions of skin colour or origin, but as a vast and nuanced spectrum of individual stories, spanning gender, age, ethnicity, upbringing, and environment – all underlined by a sense of hope and optimism. Some stories will make you feel uncomfortable, some will shine an awkward light on the shadowy corners where we all still harbour some form of subconscious ignorance. But mostly it seems astounding that these experiences, everyday otherness felt by the writers, are stories rarely heard.
Despite being a collection of personal essays, the book lends itself well to a being read through rather than dipped into. There are subtle threads dotted throughout, like the way it begins with an arrival (of a baby), ends with a departure (a writer who has chosen to leave Britain), and, almost slap bang in the middle, has Riz Ahmed’s weaving essay about his experiences in both arrivals and departures (at the airport). But one of the most prominent themes throughout is the powerful imagery of mirrors that each writer summons, both directly and indirectly.
It takes ideas that are often discussed in the abstract, like diversity in film and television, and demonstrates their importance in everyday life. For instance, numerous essays touch on the role of programmes like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and The Cosby Show played in writer’s lives, how important the first Indian family in EastEnders was, how annoying that there has never been a Chinese family, and how damaging it is to see your ethnicity finally represented, but only to be used tokenistically, or even for ridicule.
“There is a brilliant quote from White Teeth by Zadie Smith,” explains Shukla, “that goes, ‘There was England, a gigantic mirror, and there was Irie, without reflection.’ I think that really sums up the representation thing. If television is a gigantic mirror, it’s not reflecting all of us. There are people with no reflection at all. We need to see ourselves on TV, in books, in films, in the charts, because that’s where our aspirations are built. We need to see role models, people in spaces we want to occupy.” He pauses, “I often wonder if the Asian stereotype of being a doctor or a lawyer came from our parents looking at medicine and law and seeing us represented, then looking at the arts and thinking: ‘Well it’s all white folk, I don’t see you progressing there’.”
The essay titled ‘Kendo Nagasaki and Me’ by Daniel York Loh perhaps captures this best. It tells the story of the writer as a young half-Chinese boy – living in the south west of England in the 70s, surrounded exclusively by white people – becoming fascinated with a masked British wrestling villain he would watch on the telly called Kendo Nagasaki. Growing up surrounded by racial jibes at school and humiliating Chinese characters on TV, he sought solace in the bullish fighter, who, with a Japanese name, at least came from the same area of the world as him. Growing up in a world where he only felt put down, seeing Kendo Nagasaki body slamming English brutes every weekend was a joyous experience. But when he dramatically sees his hero eventually unmasked in an unexpected defeat, he’s crushed to discover it was just a blonde-haired white man in a costume. There are many parallels in this story to 2016, in Hollywood’s relentless whitewashing, as the anticipated remake of Japanese classic Ghost In the Shell approaches with Scarlett Johannson, not a Japanese actor, cast as the lead role of Major Motoko Kusanagi.
Later on in The Good Immigrant, in Darren Chetty’s essay ‘You Can’t Say That! Stories Have to be About White People’, you see the societal consequences of this problem. Chetty reflects on two decades spent teaching English in primary schools, finding that when young children of colour were encouraged to write a story, their characters would almost always be white characters with English names, instead of characters from backgrounds the same or similar to them.
“We learn so many things from reading stories,” writes Chetty, “including the conventions of stories such as good versus evil, confronting our fears and that danger often lurks in the woods. The problem is that, when one of these conventions is that children in stories are white, English and middle class, than you may come to learn that your own life does not qualify as subject material.”
Anyone with commissioning power or decision-making power needs to resign on Monday morning
Shukla has his own ideas about how we rectify this broad problem. “Here’s a revolutionary thing: in order for us to have proper reflective and inclusive diversity in the arts, it wouldn’t be quotas and statistic and guidelines, it would be that anyone with commissioning power or decision-making power needs to resign on Monday morning. All of those people need to resign, and everyone else needs to apply for them in some sort of colour blind, gender blind way. It’s the gatekeepers that are the problem.”
Five years ago, my dad retired as a teacher in the UK and moved back to Iran. But in that time, he’s discovered that maybe, after spending 40 years of his life in Britain, he actually feels more at home in Newcastle than he does in the Mazandaran Province. He’s a geordie; he doesn’t mind bitter winds and quite likes fish and chips at Whitley Bay. He’s coming back to Britain next summer. It’s odd that he feels more ominous about moving over now than he did in 1974.
It feels like we are always progressing as a society, but the last few years have shown that maybe we aren’t. Attitudes towards racism and immigration are approaching boiling point, and we desperately need voices of hope and progression to be heard. You don’t need to be an immigrant, or have immigrant parents, to get something from The Good Immigrant – in fact it’s better if you aren’t. This book is a mirror for those who rarely see their experiences voiced so candidly on the printed page, but it is also a valuable window for anyone who wants to better understand a situation radically different from their own. If 2016 has left you feeling helpless, desperately wondering what you can do to repair the damage of anti-immigration rhetoric, then reading it would be a good place to start: it leaves you feeling armed with empathy. As Chetty puts it in his essay, “Windows offer us a chance to look closely at a view of the world we may not have previously seen.”