Book Review of The Good Immigrant

 

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The Good Immigrant is a brilliant collection of stories from young people from different ethnicities about their experiences living in Britain. For me this book represented many of the different experiences that I’ve had but also taught me about what people from other ethnic groups apart from my own and what they go through. Across the 21 essays there was a sense of collective lost, being at home but also realising that your home hasn’t fully embraced you for who are.

One of the themes was a general sense of seeing yourself through the lens of whiteness in everything you do. Dareen Chetty’s piece showed that even 7 year olds in year 2 have already learned that stories have to be about white people. I’m sure most 7 year olds aren’t even completely aware of their race the way adults are, however somewhere in their unconscious they have learnt that stories were never about people who looked like them. As a teacher he had to almost force them to create characters based on themselves before they could realise that they were allowed to bring their cultural diversity into their fictional stories. It shows that representation in literature is key in order for children to internalise that their stories matters.

The diversity of different minority explored through this book was one of the key elements I enjoyed. It wasn’t the typical narrative of black and south Asians stories that were told. Vera Chok’s piece Yellow really enlightened me on my ignorance of the Chinese experience in Britain. I had no ideas that they accounted for the third largest minority group in England yet they’re experiences are largely ignored. Chinese people are hardly represented in mainstream society or even as part of the image of multicultural Britain. When was the last time I saw a British Chinese person on a UK screen?
The sad answer is I can’t remember.
Although one could argue that compared to other minority groups the Chinese are generally seen by society at large to be a model minority, from Chinese children genius to the economic growth of China in recent years. Wei Ming Kam explained that these stereotypes can be just as damaging
” East Asians are the model minority because they’re quiet and hardworking, you imply black people are apparently loud and lazy”.

I learnt that these stereotypes can lead to a lack of support for Chinese when faced with hate attacks. Reflecting on the murder of a Chinese woman in Wigan whose partner was left without any support after his death. Win Ming Kam wrote…

“As a Chinese person she was stereotyped as being self-reliant and not in need of the kind of support offered to other families of murder victims”.

Being seen as a model migrant has negative implications as well. It’s these silent stories that we won’t here in mainstream media that really makes this book special.

There was a recurring theme of feeling that you constantly had to be on your best behaviour not simply because you wanted to be a good person but you felt that you had to be the ‘model immigrant’ to show gratitude to the host country even if you were born in England. This feeling can lead many of us 2nd or 3rd generation British citizens to feel that your actions represent your whole race. Therefore having to be a false version of yourself, the token black or brown person that others can refer to as defying stereotypes. Throughout the book there is a sense of having black skins and white masks which I believe is having a great impact on the mental health of many BME people.

With all the stereotypes and labelling what this book showed was that most of us want is just to be seen as ‘normal’ and that we have the same experiences as any other group. Miss L’s story about coming out of drama school only to be told that she could only play the role of the wife of a terrorist or a victim of domestic violence was humorous but so limiting that as a woman from Middle Eastern heritage she could only be casted as an oppressed woman. It doesn’t matter that she was born and raised in England, she is restricted as an actress due to her ethnicity not her skill.

I have just given a very brief snapshot of some of the narratives that stood out to me in this book. It’s empowering and uplifting collection. It made me feel that I’m not alone or crazy there is a problem with racism and prejudice in the UK as long as you look different.

I will end with this quote written on the front cover.

“A book that will make a lot of young Britons feel more powerful and less alone. Each essay s like another new friend standing up and saying to the reader. I see you”
Hari Kunzru

 

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