The long read: Justice Studio’s Shirley Ahura in conversation with Chimene Suleyman
Reading The Good Immigrant leaves you at several interesting points of departure, both in terms of the different talking points that are raised, and the many migrations that are made within it. The book itself has an interesting creation story. It is published by Unbound, a crowdfunder publisher that goes against the grain to provide a platform for voices that ‘fall between the cracks because they don’t fit the mould’. It is incisive, captivating and above all unapologetic in documenting experiences of 21 writers, exploring what it means to be Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) in Britain today.
The Good Immigrant could not have arrived at a more opportune moment. In the current climate of Brexit Britain, Fortress Europe, Donald Trump’s “Mexican Wall” and beyond, the figure of the ‘immigrant’ has never been a more recognisable one. Much of what characterises his or her burden, as posited in the book, is this tendency to split them into two camps: ‘good’ and ‘bad’; a tendency that is seemingly exclusive to the formerly (and presently) imperialist countries of the Global North. In Britain, you are an unequivocally ‘bad’ immigrant (read: “job stealer”, “benefit scrounger”, “undeserving refugee”) until you ‘cross over’ into the consciousness of the nation by winning gold medals and baking great cakes to become a ‘good’ one, all in the name of Queen and Country.
Crossing over from ‘Other’ to the proverbial ‘one of us’ is another point of departure defining this book. Here you have 21 writers, over half of whom are first generation children of immigrants, defiantly hanging up the ‘BAME’ coat at the door and crossing the threshold into the mainstream, telling some of the most enthralling stories along the way: stories of which are, importantly, populated by black and brown faces, bodies and voices. Nikesh Shukla, the book’s editor, once spoke out against the UK publishing scene for being “so posh and white”. Having a minority status emblazoned on your back seems to further vindicate this reality. What is commonly accepted without question, is not only that the stories of black and brown people are simply untold, unheard, underrepresented, and underserved, but that these same people have so few stories that can be universalised and undertaken by a British readership.
Which, paradoxically, makes the book’s victories all the more triumphant. These same minorit(ised) voices, having been propelled into popular culture, are now navigating their very own points of departure from invisibility to hyper-visibility, with high profilers such as J.K. Rowling championing the book.
Chimene Suleyman is a writer, self-confessed dog lover and author of the third entry in The Good Immigrant. I spoke with her to find out more about the book that has got every Tom, Dreya and Harinder talking.
How did the whole process of writing an entry for The Good Immigrant come about?
Nikesh and Musa Okwonga were having a conversation in one of our group chats with Inua Ellams, and we were basically talking about this lack of diversity in publishing. Musa suggested that, you know, if you wanna read the book that doesn’t exist, write the book you wanna read basically. So that’s where that started from.
Delving further into the pitfalls of the publishing industry in Britain, Chimene notes:
I think it was really important that it started off as a real grassroots project, because it was a little bit of a ‘fuck you’ to the industry as well. You know we spend a lot of the time complaining about the fact that there’s a real lack of representation of voices of colour, and writers of colour, unless they want us to tell like a very specific story that suits their narrative of what blackness and brownness looks like. I think that’s also why we didn’t pitch it to anyone… there’s constantly this battle between your voice and a white industry, whereas it wasn’t like that at Unbound at all, it was so respectful. We were trusted to be in control of our own narrative and our own voices.
Do you think the ‘invisibility’/ hyper-visibility’ dynamic mentioned earlier is something that the writers of The Good Immigrant are navigating, or that the book itself is experiencing?
Yeah, I don’t really think we saw it being as popular as it was…and I’ve said this before but it’s very bittersweet to me that it’s done as well as it has. Of course it’s amazing, of course it’s fantastic, not just in terms of our careers, but like how many people we’ve managed to reach with that. But what’s sad about it for me was how many people we needed to reach, you know? Like, I wish we didn’t need this book, and I’m glad that we have this book but I wanna get to the point where we don’t need a book like this anymore. It’s a weird dynamic… we’re in an incredible position, and it’s not lucky, we’ve worked hard for it. It’s needed, but at the same time, I don’t think any of us expected quite this response to this, and I don’t know if any of us were prepared to be this visible.
There’s still something quite perverse about [writing for a particular audience]. You know, like white people are paying people of colour to talk about being people of colour. It’s like a spectator sport, you know? It’s like, I have other interests, I wanna talk about dogs, and UK Garage and you know, like boys or shoes or whatever. But I’m constantly like wheeled out as this brown Muslim woman who just talks about brown Muslim women shit, and that’s great, and it’s vital, and it’s important, but there is a moment where like you realise that white people are just asking you questions…about your race. And it’s a bit weird. Like, I certainly never write with a white audience in mind, I’ve never written for white people, I don’t write to educate white people…I hope that it happens along the way but they’re never my audience. Brown and black people…that’s who I’m writing for so I don’t really worry all that much that I’m offending people or upsetting people or explaining things too clearly, because I’m genuinely writing for an audience that innately understands what I’m talking about anyway.
Your chapter in the book is called ‘My Name is My Name’. In it, you discuss the power of language; in particular the violence of (re)naming that is imposed by the colonizer onto the colonized, who in turn have, in your words, “learned to pronounce every violence put upon us as though it is sacred”. By the same token however, you note, “the rotation of names are as much the rotation of souls”.
In your opinion, does the act of naming bring about more harm than it does healing?
It depends on who’s doing it. Cyprus, where we’re from, was colonized by the British, and all of the ‘big’ things got named ‘English’. So, the larger ant got known as ‘The English’ ant, and the bigger tomatoes, were ‘English’ tomatoes. Anything deemed superior suddenly had the word English in front of it, and that was in Turkish. It so insidiously just kind of leaked into their language that they didn’t even realise they were doing it until much later.
I guess that’s the thing with language in general, like we all have a responsibility to language and that responsibility changes depending on what our dynamic within this world is. There are universal words but there isn’t a universal relationship with language, I don’t think. For that reason, if you’re in a position of power and you’re naming stuff, that’s largely going to be problematic and painful and cause a lot more trauma than needed. But when you’re reclaiming, or you’re in charge of your own language, your own narrative, your own sense of understanding, then I think that’s when it becomes a healing process, that’s when it becomes a remedy.
How big a part does the legacy of imperialism have to play on the discourse around immigration?
It does… if you just look at the NHS, the 1960’s NHS, the NHS that my parents worked for… I remember I always used to go hang out in hospitals with them and it was all, you know, Irish, Caribbean, Turkish Cypriot, Greek Cypriot… basically people from the colonies. You know, you can’t ruin people’s countries and then expect them to not go somewhere else.
That narrative around immigration actually still hasn’t shifted. People think that it’s, you know, that you just wanna come over and steal everything, you know, you wanna steal jobs, and women, and money and all the rest of it. I don’t know why people think moving is so easy. I moved to New York through more or less my own choice. I didn’t move under any acts of violence, I moved for a better life, you know, it was my own decision, and it was still, and still is 2 years in, one of the most painful decisions I’ve ever made. I don’t stop missing my parents or missing my friends, I don’t stop missing certain pubs or certain smells or certain streets… that never goes, so I can’t imagine what it must have been like for people like my parents, who didn’t want to leave. Who didn’t have a fucking choice because their country was literally torn apart because of the British. And that was something that I always struggled with, growing up in a country that, you know, ruined my motherland.
Do you believe that this kind of trauma can be passed down from generation to generation?
I know I have it. When my dad’s dad was killed, my dad was 13. His hair turned grey, like immediately, and I’ve had grey hair since I was eight. Since the age of about fifteen I’ve been almost entirely grey. That is a direct result of the stress that my dad’s incurred when his father was murdered in the war, like I’ve literally worn that on my head. There’s no escaping this in a lot of ways. Not just emotionally, but physically as well.
Is this experience of trauma a wholly negative thing?
I probably have more in common with a child of an immigrant than I do with like, my grandmother. I don’t have the same experience as her, growing up, but I do with someone else who has that same innate sense of loss and struggle and recreating home wherever you go. Learning how to carry that, and re-set up, and re-establish… I think there is a positive thing that comes from that. We create our own communities and I think we relearn how to kind of see each other. Because we’ve spent our lives having to navigate our own pain, and our parents’ pain I guess, I think we’re a little bit more finely in tune with what goes on around us.
The current climate looks bleak. How do you think the ‘immigrant’, ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’, will fare in 10 years time?
I think in 10 years time it will be the same as it was 10 years ago and the same as it was 100 years ago, we’ll just keep going, I think we always do. We create our own communities, we look after ourselves, we create shields for each other… occasionally we have neighbours who are good to us from the host nation, who will also create shields for us, and if they don’t then we do. No one else is gonna look after us, history has proven this, time and time again. Historically, the immigrant has been kicked out, battered, put in concentration camps, killed, spat at. And that hasn’t changed for centuries, and yet we still keep fucking going, you know? In 10 years time we’ll be the strength we’ve always been. And I think, we’ll always understand our reasons for moving…and that they either come from a place of safety or a place of love for our children. Wanting a better life, for the people that you love should not be something that is shamed out of anybody, and I think so long as we know that as immigrants, we’re okay.
The future of The Good Immigrant remains unbounded. With the news that the hugely successful book has been picked up by American publisher Little Brown for its very own US spin-off, The Good Immigrant seems to be destined, now more than ever, for several more points of departure.