Author: Nikesh Shukla, Chimene Suleyman
I READ THE RECENT anthology The Good Immigrant in pieces, on trains and buses to Brussels, Berlin, Edinburgh. I read it as a British-Colombian (easily mistaken for British-Columbian) raised in the United States, who has a fraught relationship with each point on the triangle of her national identity. I was traveling, as I often do, to attempt to smooth out the edges of those points. To get to a place where I understood them as a Gestalt whole rather than orphaned islands only touching through the waters that surround them. As I read The Good Immigrant in the liminal spaces of transport, I found my own image mirrored in the neither-here-nor-there of the stories of diaspora. That in-between space then felt less like something to fix and more like a map, a blueprint to the global future.
“I don’t feel conditional,” Jade Chang writes in “How to Center Your Own Story,” “I feel like a fact.” With these words, Chang encompasses the tone of The Good Immigrant, a collection that serves as an archive of resistance against reductive notions of immigrant narratives. The 26 pieces from various voices in creative and academic disciplines range from personal tales to national histories, diagrams, even recipes that both refuse to translate yet also refuse to hide contemporary immigrant life in the United States. This refusal serves as self and cultural preservation: to tell their stories, but to tell them in their own way. As Daniel José Older writes in his piece, “Dispatches from the Language Wars,” “What matters is what the stories tell us about ourselves.” Between the pages of The Good Immigrant we see both the refusal to tell and the insistence on telling.
Such a distinction creates a self-imposed Othering, a productive “us” versus “them” in the text. It is a hand reaching for the right to individuate while slapping away toxic assumptions about US immigration. The text breaks with the idea of colonial complacency, showing through pieces such as Adrián and Sebastián Villar Rojas’ history of two mirrored Argentine dictatorships and the Independence efforts of Bolivian mestiza Juana Azurduy, as well as Susanne Ramírez de Arellano’s “Return to Macondo,” which tackles identity, Puerto Rico, and the US criminalization of El Salvador, where there have always been movements of resistance within colonized and diasporic communities. “Yo nunca me comí el cuento,” Ramírez de Arellano writes. I never ate the story. Instead, she sets the record straight, telling her own, highly subjective history of Puerto Rico through striking sensory memory as well as rigorous journalistic prose around the context of El Salvador’s political and social disintegration, in part due to US involvement.
While highlighting the social progress that immigration breeds (for instance, Walé Oyéjidé comments in “After Migration: The Once and Future Kings” on the novelty of the stay-at-home dad, unfathomable in his country of origin), The Good Immigrant editors do not forget the ghosts of colonialism. They let them loom, whether surfacing during a first date in Krutika Mallikarjuna’s “Her Name Was India” or the similar architectures of oppression across the West outlined in Jim St. Germain’s “Shithole Nation.” St. Germain writes, “The need to be resourceful was just as important in Brooklyn as it was in Haiti.” Priya Minhas addresses painful gender norms perpetuated within diasporic communities in her piece, “How Not to Be.” On brown love and accountability, she writes, “My heart aches for brown girls who fall in love in the shadows.” These writers remind us that immigration, like art-making, is an active process; where Mallikarjuna, Minhas, and Ramírez de Arellano talk back to their haunters, St. Germain and the Villar Rojases analyze and correct them.
The Good Immigrant flips the rampant host-parasite paradigm within mainstream US immigration discourse. In doing so, the authors disavow the fear driving bigotry and domestic terrorism in the United States. They give it back to white America as their cross to bear while taking the narrative space to analyze its effects in their lives. At its heart, the collection is a gesture of shoving back. A reaction against immigrant life in North America as borrowed space, as if to say this isour space, we are the space. As Chang writes, “How can America be done with us when we are America?”
Much of this healing divide is facilitated by the technique of the direct address. The “you” and the “we” pepper the pages of The Good Immigrant. Kinship is created between writers and diasporic readers, even when direct address is not formally signaled as such. Those of us who are immigrants, or sons and daughters of immigrants, feel viscerally the effects of, as Fatimah Asghar puts it, diasporic loneliness, a sense of never-arrival that permeates quotidian life.
Other second-person intimacies come in the form of advice. Chang writes, “Consciously and unconsciously, with both the very best and the very worst of intentions, people will try to make you feel like a supplicant.” Then, there is Porochista Khakpour’s powerful opening piece, “How to Write Iranian-America, or The Last Essay,” which addresses the responsibilities of being unwillingly marketed as the voice of your community — the vital necessity of diverse immigrant voices yet the inevitable reductionism that comes with it.
Through Nicole Dennis-Benn’s “Swimmer” we encounter the question of how to respond to the contemporary moment without being swallowed by one’s own subjectivity. Dennis-Benn notes the difference between her reaction to Trump and that of her white America writer friends, who speak about leaving the country “in low tones by candlelight over wine.” Upon being casually asked to perform her outrage over dinner, Dennis-Benn realizes that for white liberal America, 2016 signaled the decline of their empire, widening the chasm between her America and theirs. No matter how many degrees one receives, how many talismans of the American Dream one collects, Dennis-Benn realizes, the void between citizen and not remains — an “us” and “them” lying in wait. When Dennis-Benn opens her mouth to speak at dinner, nothing comes out, as if her body refuses an answer. “I learned long ago,” Dennis-Benn writes, “under the warmth of another sun, never to swim against a rip current, but to float […] to remain as calm as possible, drifting on the high seas of uncertainty.” Again, the acclamation to the in-between has the power to save.
In a contrasting frank and funny style reminiscent of coffee with a close girlfriend, Dani Fernandez writes in her piece, “No Es Suficiente,” about overhearing her white acting instructor encouraging a white student to dye her hair and change her name so that she appears Latina. With swift humor, Fernandez responds, “An astronaut is a hat you can try on, Becky, not someone’s ethnicity.” Throughout the piece, Fernandez outlines her struggle with refusing to accept being dubbed not-Latina-enough by white folks profiting from perpetuating stereotypes of her culture.
However, several authors in the collection acknowledge the impossibility of making such refusals in the previous generation. Chimene Suleyman notes how she wields her accent like a weapon, clutching the golden ticket of her British passport to confront harassment at the airport. As Fatima Farheen Mirza alludes in “Skittles,” to many of our parents, identity can be a curse, threatening to impede their survival. Their names obstructed career pathways and educational opportunities, and invite bodily harm. When Farheen Mirza wrote of her parents smiling in the face of harassment, I thought of my time living in Virginia, when a white American woman, half-smoked cigarette hanging from her lips, insisted that my mother extract her apple core from a dumpster. As my mother fished for the core at the bottom of the bin, I looked at this woman with the red eyes of rage, sinking my teeth into a heated argument. My mother stammered for me to drop it and pulled me away by the arm. It’s not worth it, she assured me, but I kept looking back, convinced that this bigot would be disappointed come the 2016 election. As we all know, I was wrong.
As I continued spitting venom against this woman, my mom merely shook her head, listening but not engaging. Of course, to her it was nothing new. Pieces like “Skittles” show us that behind all the anger there is a sheer wall of sadness and exhaustion. We haul it from generation to generation, the load, hopefully, lessening each time. We are angry, which is to say, we are tired. Yet, “Skittles” shows that what may look on the surface like complacency is its own brand of resistance. “Don’t let them change you,” Farheen Mirza’s father tells her. “I will not resign my fate to feeling unwelcome here. I will still wave at my neighbors.” In the end, Fatima Farheen Mirza realizes that refusing to engage with racism has served as a form of self-preservation for her parents.
The problem of language plays a starring role in The Good Immigrant, unraveling the ties between communication, power, and cultural authenticity. Language is unequivocally tied to one’s emotional bonds to one’s culture, the umbilical cord to our mother and fatherlands. For some, it is the thin line that connects them to countries they may never be able to see again. For others without fluency, it carries on its wind the sensory memories of family foods, affection, offerings of love given in gesture and tone — all the subtle ways in which we are told that we are wanted. Yet, the authors and editors of The Good Immigrant know that though language is part of culture, it does not totalize it. Chimene Suleyman writes in “On Being Kim Kardashian,” “In America, I have become the accent of my colonizer,” highlighting the role that language plays in privilege, assumed privilege, and passing. Here, writer Chinua Achebe’s infamous recycling of English comes to mind. Nigerian visual artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby describes Achebe’s approach as re-appropriating English in order to “crack” the colonial bind. In “Dispatches from the Language Wars,” Daniel José Older writes:
Jose Luis Borges said the language is an aesthetic medium, just like painting or writing, that each word is a poem. And since each word arrives with its bags packed full of several centuries of secrets and insinuations, we see that the poem is an epic one, the story of a journey […] revealing and concealing itself endlessly and always growing. […] When you translate, something is always lost and something else gained.
Older’s insights into the function of translation and language justice reveal the power that culture bearers hold to pass on our languages in a way that authentically reflects our histories. It is our responsibility to move language, and therefore cultural legacy, forward, while embracing the changes that come with that process. While reading Older’s piece, I think of what writer Rosa Alcalá once said at an AWP panel on translation: “Of course I will make mistakes in Spanish. It’s the only thing I know how to do.”
Again, here I read the mirrored gesture of grasping and slapping away. Grasping for a sense of community possible through shared language and culture. Slapping away the open palms of culture vultures waiting for their honorary identity card after one study abroad semester in the Global South. Earlier in the collection, Jenny Zhang speaks to this mining of culture in her piece “Blonde Girls in Cheongsams.” Writing of cultural appropriation in the ’90s, she recalls the attitude of the time: “Chinese culture looked best as an accessory on a white person.” Her natural response was to (literally) steal power back by shoplifting, a teen rite of passage that takes on new meaning within the context of this piece.
In this collection, language is visual as well as written. Cultural innovators speak toward their desire to reduce bias through art-making. It is not lost on the reader that many of the authors in this collection have provided the United States with the crown jewels of its cultural production, the most recent of which, 2018 blockbuster Black Panther, author Teju Cole and designer Walé Oyéjidé discuss and debate at length. There seems to be a cheeky irony to compiling 26 voices that have made American art, fashion, film, scholarship, and literature great. Again, the editors seem to be asking the question, What would you be without us?
The pieces in The Good Immigrant knot together a variety of experience that, though sometimes at odds with one another, complicate contemporary notions of immigrant life. It’s a collection that speaks the language of the future with a keen eye to the past, molding tradition to its own needs. Many authors in The Good Immigrant allow themselves to question the authority of belonging while still yearning for it, embracing, as the late great Gloria E. Anzaldúa put it, a “tolerance for ambiguity.” They understand, as Anzaldúa did, that the point where cultures meet can be a site of social change. We begin to see the beauty in, in the words of Fatimah Asghar, belonging to many froms. Through The Good Immigrant, we learn to love the in-betweens because, as Alcalá alludes to, that’s all that we have.