For the last several years, I’ve had a particular interest in immigration and immigrant experiences. This is in part because my husband is an immigrant from Peru, and in part due to the horrors I’ve seen unfolding in our country, particularly during the Trump administration. As such, I’m always eager to find more books by and about immigrants. I discovered one such book a little over a year ago at Barnes & Noble in Seattle: The Good Immigrant: 26 Writers Reflect on America, edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman and published in early 2019. This is actually a sequel to Nikesh Shukla’s 2016 book The Good Immigrant, which centered on the United Kingdom and was written by 21 British authors.
After reading books like This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto and Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration, I knew I needed to get The Good Immigrant next. In the end, I actually went with the audiobook version, and I’m glad I did, as it allowed me an extra layer of immersion and understanding.
The Good Immigrant is a collection of essays written by an array of authors living in the United States. They range in form and subject, in cultural background and types of experiences. Some contributions come from people who immigrated in their own lifetime, while others are the children or grandchildren of immigrants. Some immigrated from Asia or the Middle East, some from Africa, still others from Central and South America. We even get a few European immigrants. Through this diverse selection of essays and poems, readers get an expansive look at different immigrants’ lives and experiences, the hardships they face, but also the funny and positive moments of joy and connection.
This collection includes the following contributions:
- Porochista Khakpour: How to Write Iranian-America, or The Last Essay
- Nicole Dennis-Benn: Swimmer
- Rahawa Haile: Sidra (in 12 Movements)
- Teju Cole: On the Blackness of the Panther
- Priya Minhas How Not to Be
- Walé Oyéjidé: After Migration: The Once and Future Kings
- Fatimah Asghar: On Loneliness
- Tejal Rao: Chooey-Booey and Brown
- Maeve Higgins: Luck of the Irish
- Krutika Mallikarjuna: Her Name Was India
- Jim St. Germain: Shithole Nation
- Jenny Zhang: Blond Girls in Cheongsams
- Chigozie Obioma: The Naked Man
- Alexander Chee: Your Father’s Country
- Yann Demange: The Long Answer
- Jean Hannah Edelstein: An American, Told
- Chimene Suleyman: On Being Kim Kardashian
- Basim Usmani: Tour Diary
- Daniel José Older: Dispatches from the Language Wars
- Adrián Villar Rojas and Sebastián Villar Rojas: Juana Azurduy Versus Christopher Columbus
- Dani Fernandez: No Es Suficiente
- Fatima Farheen Mirza: Skittles
- Susanne Ramírez de Arellano: Return to Macondo
- Mona Chalabi: 244 Million
- Jade Chang: How to Center Your Own Story
The Good Immigrant is an immersive and eye-opening look at the diverse lives immigrants lead in America. I loved getting to know the numerous writers here, a group ranging from authors to comedians to musicians to sculptors to lawyers. I also loved getting to know people with roots all over the world — Pakistan and Nigeria and Jamaica and Argentina and more.
Sadly, but unsurprisingly, many of these authors have faced racism, xenophobia, and blatant discrimination. A powerful essay near the end, Skittles by Fatima Farheen Mirza, describes the fear her Texas-based Muslim family lived in, especially during Trump’s run for presidency. When he compared people like her family to a bag of Skittles, in which at least one must be poisoned, the discriminatory message was clear. And when the author’s family was given a plastic bag of Skittles by their unfriendly neighbors shortly thereafter, their hatred was clear. Another essay, The Naked Man by Chigozie Obioma, describes a Nigerian author’s move to America to finish writing his novel. When he first started facing discrimination, he assumed it was due to his being African. However, when a man purposefully tried to run him over, Chigozie understood it was more to do with his being black: it was racism.
Beyond hostile treatment from others, though, many immigrants also cite something more internal, a sense of straddling two cultures and not necessarily feeling like they’re “enough” of one or the other. Consider On Loneliness by Fatimah Asghar, in which she describes language like an experience and admits to having mastered neither English nor her family’s mother tongue. Or look at On Being Kim Kardashian by Chimene Suleyman, about being Turkish Cypriot yet British, being none of those things and all of those things.
On the other hand, some immigrants talk about being pigeonholed, expected to constantly perform — or overperform — their identity. The opening piece, How to Write Iranian-America, or The Last Essay by Porochista Khakpour, is a long-form second-person poem about only being allowed to write essays on being Iranian American. Nothing else she writes seems to be accepted or published, because readers expect her to only and always talk about her particular identity. Or consider No Es Suficiente by Dani Fernandez, a Mexican American actress who’s expected to “act more Latina” in order to get roles. Yet “Latina” isn’t just one thing, and how dare someone tell her she’s not enough of what she already is?
Immigration can lead to a clash of cultures and a change in both ideas and behavior, especially from one generation to the next. In After Migration: The Once and Future Kings, Walé Oyéjidé talks about different ideas of masculinity. In his native Nigeria, men are not expected to take much, if any, part in childcare. As such, him being a stay-at-home dad was the kind of decision his family could never understand. Daniel José Older, in Dispatches from the Language Wars, admits that he didn’t learn his mother’s native Spanish until he was in his early 20s. In his adolescence, he’d internalized an anti-Spanish sentiment, something that saddened his mother; in finally learning Spanish years later, they became closer.
Moving to America can, of course, stack the odds against an immigrant. In Swimmer, Nicole Dennis-Benn talks about how she moved from Jamaica to America to attend college. But immigrants are often expected to only study subjects that will lead to high-paying careers — like medicine — so they can then send money back to their family; one is not meant to study subject they actually like. Or consider a powerful essay, Shithole Nation by Jim St. Germain, that describes his difficult childhood as a Haitian immigrant. He moved from abject poverty in Haiti to the rough streets of Brooklyn, falling into violence and drug dealing. But his story has a happy ending: After an arrest, he turned his life around and started a non-profit. Preparing Leaders of Tomorrow (PLOT) provides mentoring for at-risk and formerly incarcerated youth in poor and largely immigrant and POC areas.
And it’s important to note that not all immigrants faces the same hardships. Nearly all of these essays are from people of color — people originally from Africa and Latin America and Asia. One stark outlier is Maeve Higgins, who contributed Luck of the Irish. Years ago, she was an illegal immigrant in America. Like so many illegal immigrants, she simple overstayed her tourist visa. But unlike nonwhite immigrants, who live in fear and are routinely targeted based on the color of their skin or the accent with which they speak, Maeve never faced any such thing. She’s white and she’s Irish, so she was never at much risk of being caught. Even when she did leave the country, the repercussions were minimal. Contrast this with people of color who live in the shadows, fearing xenophobic attacks and deportation.
Some chapters here, though, shine a light on something more specific and even fun. Chooey-Booey and Brown by Tejal Rao, for example, provides an in-depth look at curry: its history, its many types, and the racism that it can carry. Or Basim Usmani’s Tour Diary, which offers snapshots of how he and his punk band — made up of Muslim men — toured the US and Europe in 2016 and 2017. Punk music can be so freeing, yet as a Muslim band, they still faced a certain amount of racism, transphobia, and travel-related discrimination.
Other chapters go into history. I enjoyed Adrián Villar Rojas and Sebastián Villar Rojas’s Juana Azurduy Versus Christopher Columbus, largely about South American — specifically Argentinian — history. Susanne Ramírez de Arellano also shared cultural perspective on Puerto Rico, Cuba, and El Salvador in her essay, Return to Macondo.
Some of my favorite chapters that I haven’t yet mentioned are the following:
- Rahawa Haile’s Sidra (in 12 Movements), a long-form poem about the author’s dad. He was a good immigrant — earning the title for this collection — but despite all he did to provide for his family, his life ended in tragedy. There aren’t always rewards for good immigrants; it’s heartbreaking.
- On the Blackness of the Panther by Teju Cole moves into the things we once knew and have forgotten. In his case, it’s knowledge of the big cats. Moving from Nigeria to America, he had to “learn to be black,” which was hard for him, as he didn’t come from the history of slavery that so many African Americans have. In America, to be black is, in many ways, closely tied with the generations of people whose ancestors were enslaved here for centuries. Those repercussions and caste relations are still wholly at play today, unfortunately.
Finally, here are a few key ideas that stood out to me during the book:
- Why can people talk about Paris at length without making generalizations about Europeans, but not about Lagos without making generalizations about Africans? Why isn’t a city like Lagos as “real” to us as Paris or Rome is?
- Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution. Trust that those who have experienced an issue — such as racism or poverty — are far more familiar with it than someone who hasn’t. Therefore, they are far more likely to be able to find a solution that works.
- America is a big con, pretending to be better than it is. We still believe in the American dream, and that this is a utopian country where everyone has opportunity. In reality, America is so full of racism and xenophobia that upward mobility isn’t always possible, equal treatment isn’t guaranteed, and we aren’t as free as we like to think
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to The Good Immigrant and each of the essays here. Some impacted me more than others, and some were more eye-opening or heartbreaking than others. But all of them offered unique and important perspectives.
The Good Immigrant: 26 Writers Reflect on America is a powerful collection of essays. It offers so many different experiences from all types of immigrants, and it will make every reader more empathetic to immigrants. This is a book I wish every American would read; we’d be a better population of people for it.
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