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The Good Immigrant gets even better

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Extract | 23 minute read
In 2016, Nikesh Shukla and a group of writers brought out the now-famous collection The Good Immigrant. Three years, one Brexit and one Trump later, a US version of the book has just been published. In it, 26 writers ask the question, 'What do we want America to be?' Here is one writer's answer

In 2016 we put out The Good Immigrant, a collection of essays by twenty-one British writers of colour who spoke about race and immigration. Actor Riz Ahmed talked about performing as a brown Muslim man, not only in auditions but every time he goes through airport security. Journalist Bim Adewunmi broke down what we mean when we talk about ‘tokenism.’ Actor and playwright Daniel York Loh spoke sadly of discovering that his only East Asian hero, a masked wrestler called Kendo Nagasaki, was actually a white guy. Each piece was bright and rich and necessary.

When we conceived of the project, it was about trying to diversify publishing. When we talked about the need for better representation in UK publishing, people would ask, ‘But where are the writers?’ Nikesh’s answer to that (patronising, incurious) question was The Good Immigrant. Here are some of them, all together in one book, doing what they do best.

The title was a response to the narrative that immigrants are ‘bad’ by default until they prove themselves otherwise. They are job stealers, benefit scroungers, girlfriend thieves, and criminals. Only when they win an Olympic medal, treat you at your local hospital, or rescue a child from the side of a building do they become good. We wanted to humanise immigrants, let them tell their own stories and finally be in charge of their own narrative.

What we didn’t know at the time was that Brexit was just around the corner, that the immigration debate was about to become truly toxic, and that the far right would use this as their moment to retake centre stage in our domestic political conversations. The book inadvertently became a political tool. And a bestseller. And an award winner. And a comfort for people of colour in the UK wanting to see themselves reflected somewhere, anywhere, in the culture.

Meanwhile, we looked across the Atlantic and watched a similar resurgence of far-right and white-supremacist rhetoric overtake the United States. By then, Chimene, who was a contributor to the original book, was living in the States and having frequent conversations with writers and artists about the precariousness of being a person from an immigrant background here, in this country of immigrants.

So we decided to talk to some of our favourite writers, actors, comedians, directors, and artists based in America, all with experiences of being first- or second-generation immigrants. We thought it was vital that each of them have an opportunity to express their experiences, as varied and as nuanced and as messy and as precarious as the immigrant experience is all over the world.

Their voices came together to create this book, the US edition of The Good Immigrant, in which twenty-six writers reflect on America as they have known it. In doing so, they engage with the most vital question we now face: What do we want America to be? They cannot speak for all immigrants, but their stories illuminate a whole world of experience that is too often hidden from view. The time has come to reclaim the narrative.

Chimene Suleyman and Nikesh Shukla

Summer 2018


‘On Being Kim Kardashian’ by Chimene Suleyman

I was three months new to America during the hour Kim Kardashian was a brown woman. She walked in a blood-red jumpsuit that was not the colour of blood at all and lay roses for a million Armenians lost to genocide. She ate Armenian food and dressed in traditional garb with the nerve of a person who would not be accused of confusing custom with costume. Because she was one of theirs, and it became this way when a young girl adorned her neck in jewellery as though she were not only a fellow but their queen, and an old woman kissed her face in the street as though there is magic in a grandmother’s embrace that can make you belong.

And when my television was turned off, Kim Kardashian was again a white woman, of spray tan, not West Asian tan, of Bo Derek braids, not fabric headdress emblazoned in coins. Because this was still a woman showered with riches for very little, who chewed through black men at an uncomfortable fetishistic pace, who greeted us with the mistakes of white people who had been white all along. But there in my living room, Kim Kardashian and I were briefly the same, softening into something brown, remembering the dazzling embroidered waistcoats over patterned dresses, the decorated palms of henna, the elongated nose that surgery would not wholly disguise, and Kim Kardashian was how I knew brown women with light skin to be, confused by it all.

Because with those fortunes I might have excised my sultan’s nose too, and hadn’t I already spent a lifetime combing the curls out of my hair, unprofessional and messy, as my mother called them? My mother, who would boast of Egyptian heritage while wanting nothing of its thick, textured head, and she was not alone. There were the rest of us too, who were light enough to be brown and then white in the space it took to air a television show.

On a road beside the waterfront, metres from Brooklyn Bridge, I am a white woman. A man I did not know told me so in the doorway of a popular Dumbo bar. ‘You,’ he said in the moment, ‘are a white bitch.’ I thought on this. For thirty-two years I had been—to men like this—a brown bitch. For the last three, I had been a white one.

There had been, of course, a time in London under the damp ceiling of a Cannon Street pub, where the colleague of a loose acquaintance supposed that I did, in fact, deserve whatever camel-fucking country I am from. But in America no such thing was happening. I may tell my Brooklyn neighbours that I am Turkish Cypriot, but they do not hear. ‘It is an island,’ I say, ‘its most easterly tip reaching toward the edge of Syria and Lebanon, its south coast toward Egypt, the north running parallel with Turkey.’ ‘So – Turkey?’ they say. ‘Fine,’ I tell them. ‘Turkey.’ It is easier somehow –I am Turkish, with fistfuls of henna and palatial fabric on skin that is Kim Kardashian brown.

But erasure is twofold, after all, for in America it is my accent that walks ahead of ethnicity, where I may insist I am Turkish yet ‘I am English’ can be heard. To my Brooklyn neighbours, I am Downton Abbey, The Crown, and Doctor Who; I am fanciful, regal, and classy; fish and chips, the Beatles, and ‘I love the way you say that!’; Hogwarts, Brexit, and Churchill. In America, I have become the accent of my coloniser.

That is to say, New York has hijacked the way I speak. I am reduced to using the voice I reserve for rooftop publishing parties and white people I don’t know. I round off my vowels and remember my t’s. I may spend a lifetime asking the waiter for a glass of wa’er before he understands: water, I stress, wattter. They are stilettos in New York, not stile’os. Thank you, not fank you. It is not that I have grown tired of translating to sneakers from trainers, rather that I have grown tired of translating to trainers from creps. On being shoulder-barged by a man on the subway, I would like to call such a person chief without being mistaken for elevating him. But on these streets of New York, I am neither Turkish Cypriot nor Turkish nor the Londoner who found recognition in the underbelly of streets of confused and chaotic difference. I am, simply, English. Their English. ‘Say that again!’ English. BBC English. The Queen’s English.

‘But I ain’t English,’ I tell them. My voice, as I understand it, is not English. We studied the language not in Shakespeare but in the canon of UK garage, Ridley Road market stalls, and Peckham barbershops. Teased syllables in the streets around Holloway on match day, and the top deck of a Camden night bus. Our accents were taught to us by those who spoke Turkish first, and English after; Yoruba first, and English after; Hindi first, and English after; Twi, Greek, Polish, Hebrew first, then perhaps nothing after. Our English brimmed with Jamaican colloquialisms, a London patois rich in the tones of West Indian migrants, and their kids who carried it, evolved it, turned it, delivering whole sentences until it was established. Our English was not English at all. Our English was never fish and chips and Big Ben; it was chicken and chips and anti-establishment; roadside chirpsing and rebellion; it was stop-and-searches on a bad day, gun fingers on a good one; our English was immigration, subversion, and unending defiance.

On this evening outside a bar in Dumbo I am an accent that is not mine. I am a white bitch. I am the voice of a British nation that never quite knew what to do with brown bitches like me. ‘I’m not white,’ I tell the man, remembering this: ‘I’m Middle Eastern.’

Let me tell you that I didn’t mean it. That there was no conviction, and what I meant is that I am from the Levant, Turkish Cypriot, Turkish, Muslim during those cultural hours that have grown to suit me. I am a Londoner, a Finchley girl, a Spurs fan during those cultural hours that have also grown to suit me.

What he meant is that I am not black. He had a point. Still, inebriation outside a bar in Dumbo had rid us of any nuance. So had an America whose presidency is built on crude lack of subtlety. So it had happened this way: we were black or white, right or wrong, patriot or traitor. Life had become binary now, so you must pick one.

Everything is lighter now. And we had disregarded the warning signs; considered those who objected to appropriation and touching afros as oversensitive. But white boys with guitars who collected awards at black music ceremonies had warranted further analysis. So did the white girls who twerked onstage and received credit for inventing the move. Or the white faces reciting ‘Namaste,’ not in the Indian subcontinent but in Williamsburg yoga studios. It had been there already, insidious and casual in the day-to-day, brewing until finally white supremacy and fascism was mainstreamed, then installed in government. America has produced a president lighter than his predecessor, lighter, in fact whiter, than some presidents before his predecessor. But the joke is as follows: the man is orange, tangerine, mango in shade, a walking mass of apricot, carrot, or Cheeto. Maybe, had my ethnology aligned with the visibly grotesque, I too would initiate a new race, singular and orange, distinct in glowing colour and substance, unrelated to anywhere else.

But Trump is white. He is as white as the cult of whiteness that brought him, not independent from it, nor its founder. Because America has not been free of racial superiority until now, and Donald Trump is neither capable nor required to convert the unprejudiced into fascists. Trump’s expertise was never in convincing a nation of what they needed but in giving a nation what they already wanted. A nation who should not be white at all yet sees only through the lens of whiteness.

Here is a man who may well subscribe to the temperament of reality TV, of candid straight-talk and keeping it real, but the freedom to speak outrageously and with reckless abandon was all along the bedrock of white supremacy. With it, the confidence to act however they wish and still remain confident that the law makes an exception for them – the police officer who murders a black child, the civilian who marches armed and dressed as militia, or the president who grabs a pussy, then tears up the constitutional protection of religious freedom.

When bigotry arrives camouflaged as fear, the outcome may see whole nations and their religions blanketed with the burden of extremist terrorism. Likewise, dogmatism disguised as danger will have Antwon Rose Jr. shot in the back at seventeen. When fanatic bias goes undercover as trepidation, fear becomes its own currency. Synthetic terror rattles in the veins of those who use the law as their own grievance counsellor – the short-sighted intolerance of a Starbucks employee who calls the cops on black customers waiting for a friend before buying coffee, the fragility of a woman witnessing a black barbecue who calls the cops, asserting they have no right to be there. America, it seems, has been victim to, and terrorised by, its own ignorance.

So you must claim him. He is one of yours. A product of symptoms from long before 2016. Born to an America of lynching, segregation, and internment camps, of capitalism and privatisation, where newspaper headlines and movies gave us black gangs, Arab bombers, and immigrant rapists long before the president did. Where legality and freedom of speech, at whatever cost, have become the shatterproof defence for illogical cruelty. America’s enthusiasm for intolerance, it seemed, was not centred in Trumpism; instead it was a template for a nation that had learned to divide and keep dividing until there was no group large enough left to fight.

With this in mind, I return to that night outside a bar in Dumbo, where the man I did not know called me a white bitch, then insisted if I do not like how things are I must go back to wherever it is I am from. I had heard these words spoken before, listened to them outside a petrol station along the A12, seen them written beneath my articles, and blocked them from Twitter. But the requirement had always been to leave England, not return to it, and perhaps the man’s girlfriend knew this, on some level understood the disorientation on my face as she explained that these were just words people used now, words that fell unmanaged from their mouths, the vocabulary to make America great, whether again or once and for all; and intolerance would find us, whether black, white, or Kim Kardashian brown.

Perhaps, outside this bar in Dumbo, what he had meant is that I am an English bitch. That I have been an English bitch for three years, which is also the length of time I have been a white bitch. Because in America a failed businessman with no smarts can become president, and a woman with a remoulded bottom and no discernible talent can become a millionaire, and an English accent can make you the smartest person in the room before you’ve even finished a sentence. Because to be white here meant, on the face of it, I was safe from being shot dead by the police, that I would be offered the apartment I liked, would be the model applicant for a bank loan, would be shielded, guarded by an outlandish power. And a part of me liked it, liked to bite back at JFK staff who gave attitude and pressed me when I returned from long trips to Turkey. The part of me that, pushing four fingertips against the scan, remembered the child who watched her father always pulled aside for further inspection, how he had warned me first that this would happen, how he was guided away from us, until his bags and his pockets and his skin were searched. And now I enjoyed my own arrogance, beneath the manically lit airport ceiling, to give lip or refuse a loaded question on why I had travelled frequently to the Middle East, to be obnoxious in this way; and I polished my accent, which had become my invisibility cloak in these moments, held my British passport tight as though I were addressing all those years, as if to say, ‘Now what you gonna do about it?’

What I had wanted to know all along is if I spoke without this voice, the kind they believe they are hearing – if I sold them cheap cigarettes and late-night deli sandwiches, carpets in Sheepshead Bay and Midtown falafel, as they might expect my people to; pronounced my words with harsher r’s and softer vowels – would they still think of me as white? If I wrapped my hair in yemeni, shayla, or niqab – simply, in hijab, as my grandmother had – would I be white then too? And it was on this night outside a bar in Dumbo that I recalled the disorder of being everything and nothing at once, and so I said, ‘I’m not white. I’m Middle Eastern.’ Which is to say, Step back. You don’t know me. But he had turned to face me by then, and I don’t remember if he laughed or if he only looked as though he wanted to, and asked, ‘Are you Iraqi, bitch? Are you Syrian?’

Had I thought to at the time, I might have asked him if the only Middle Eastern countries he knows are the ones repeated in the news because of their violence. If so – and it is only geography steeped in the offenses of America and the West we are listing – I can name for him many more. I may draw a map on the road between us, circling a chalk outline of the aforementioned island of Cyprus. I will tell him that here, only sixty miles from the Syria he believes he knows, my parents were born to a British colony. That this colonisation, this American interference, erupted into civil war between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. I will tell him that my father’s father was murdered with an axe to his head. I will say that my father was a child soldier, a prisoner of war, a refugee.

I may tell this man, beside the waterfront on a street in Dumbo, that ten years after a man I should have known was gone, Turkey came from both sea and sky, and the island divided in two. I will show this man newspaper headlines and Wikipedia entries describing the intervention as the ‘1974 Turkish invasion,’ as though Turks had not lived and been killed here before, as though Turkey claimed no right to save the lives of my parents. I will tell him that there is no need to erase my heritage on this street in Dumbo beside the waterfront when Western history had already done so. Don’t worry, I will say. You have done nothing new. And yet the invader, the barbarian, the savage, the terrorist – are we white then too? Perhaps it is easier to think of us as white; perhaps the body count of brown people will lessen this way.

A friend tells me I am white here. Another says I am ‘spicy’ white, swarthy, tawny. In college I was asked to mentor a boy because he was sallow like me, the teacher said. Not brown, but sickly brown, unhealthy in our brownness. He cared as little for the role as I did. He smoked weed and wore a loose tie beneath his blazer. I let him – this boy as pallid in his brownness as I am, who could have been fully white had it not been spoiled, perhaps ruined, by an air of illness. I never did find out where he was from. Spicy white, my friend says. Italian, maybe, or Portuguese, this friend means. I think back to a time on the train, hurtling toward east London, and the man I never saw again. ‘Paki,’ he had called me, chin resting on the dark blue lapel of his smart polo shirt. A glimmer of difference has always been enough to cause offence. I wonder, was I spicy white then as well?

Still, what we understand to be white comes with its own price list. You may know this if you have ever taken orders from a sign that reads no blacks, no dogs, no Irish. Perhaps, too, if you are Eastern European in any suburb of the United Kingdom where UKIP votes hang between neighbours, or Italian in any part of Bensonhurst, or Jewish in the eyeline of a Nazi or the KKK. White supremacy benefits no one, not even those who think of themselves as white. Remember this:

I first hear the term ‘White Turk’ on a panel in Izmir where I am discussing The Comedy of Errors. What I would like to do is lean across to the author co-leading our presentation and ask him who he is talking about. Over dinner, I hear it again. Then, the next day at lunch. I suppose, now knowing what it means, I had spent those few days working and dining in White Turkey, had spent it with people who were secular, intellectual, and Western. People who sharply distinguished themselves from the demographic of religious, less educated, and rural Turks, of which there are many.

I thought on this. Whiteness had always been keen to claim intellectualism as its own. Likewise, to position Islam and Middle Eastern conventions as mindless and problematic, conflicting with progressive values, conflicting with whiteness. But there are still the Turks who do not want to be white. Perhaps if you have seen your neighbours killed by Western powers for praying in a mosque and not a church, playing doumbek and not percussion, shooting guns into the sky at village weddings and not Texas gun ranges (or schools), you may want to hold your identity more dearly, retain your Anatolian distinction, a memorial for the brothers and sisters who have had their traditions pried from their hands by US drones. Or you might want to rid yourself of your differences, throw in the towel, surrender Allah to US forces and be done with it. Maybe, if you are not just a Turk but a white one, you have understood you have a higher chance of survival this way.

Yet I think of the Muslim ban, as we have come to understand it, and whether we expect US officials to first ask individual Yemenis, or Iranians, how deep their relationship with God is. Whether they prefer the music of Farid al-Atrash or Post Malone. Whether they are a modern wearer of jeans or would rather move in shalwar. If their mother has never worn hijab, will it make any difference to letting them in? No. Simply put, there is no need to cover your hair to still be considered a raghead. In a world that has used ‘They all look the same’ as a basis for foreign policy, many of us are only white by name.

When they say you are a white bitch, they mean you had it easy. That your life was gifted, stolen, pillaged, from creations elsewhere, because good lives are not distributed equally. And haven’t we as a family always spoken of whiteness as a curse, a blight that arrived on our lands, then changed them beyond repair. But white lives are not even white lives, and a Pole in Ilford or a Jew in Charlottesville might tell you the same, that the parameters of whiteness are always changing, and so it is that I have become a white woman on canvas, but on paper I am still everything that had killed my grandfather.

On this night outside a bar in Dumbo I refused the accusation that I am a white bitch. ‘I’m not white,’ I declared, protesting all I had known whiteness to mean, and then I was hailing a cab, sliding into it, ridding myself of a foolish argument on a street corner with a man I did not know, when he said: ‘Fuck you, Kim Kardashian bitch.’

Where there was no range for brownness, there was still Kim Kardashian. There was still ambiguity, an exoticism whiteness could still claim as its own, sunbeds without the racial profiling. And there was Princess Jasmine and the Prince of Persia and Aladdin – characters, just as Kim Kardashian is a character: was I a Syrian bitch character or an Iraqi bitch character? But I was not drowning in a boat; or handcuffed on the front pages of the Daily Mirror; or holding some noble American hostage on Homeland; or Abu, who was a monkey, or the genie, who was blue; or a ravenous sheikh character; or a bejewelled, belly-dancing character; or anyone in The Mummy, brimming with white actors and CGI; or an Iraqi character on Lost played by a person of Indian origin; or a Palestinian character on Community played by a person of Indian origin…

And where were our faces? Our beautiful faces, that were not beautiful South Asian or beautifully drawn but ours, in abundance – in government, on billboards selling Gucci or Adidas or Pepsi, collecting a Grammy or Emmy, seizing it close to our chests before thanking crew and cast and Allah alike?

Where were we? In all our vastness and difference, in our beautiful darkness and beautiful lightness, our cascading straight hair or wiry curls. Had you been allowed to see what we truly look like, in all our difference, I may have known myself. I may have loved my ugly sultan’s nose, which was not ugly at all. I may not have wondered why it arched down my face, longer than the noses of the European girls, the American girls, the white girls I could have been but was not. For had I not spent a lifetime moulding and arching my body to fit the look I almost achieved but still missed?

I had spent a lifetime being Kim Kardashian brown, which is to say I had been without race. I was not the rich darkness of Sri Lankan brown or Bengali. Nor the deep bronze of the Caribbean. Instead I had not known myself to be brown at all, just that I was not white. And such a distinction was made by virtue of pain – we had been killed, imprisoned, and colonised, and was this not what whiteness did to those deemed not white or not white enough? So I had learned to identify myself by everything I lacked – I was neither safe nor beautiful, and how can one be white without either?

On a road beside the waterfront, metres from Brooklyn Bridge, I said these words to a man I did not know: ‘I’m not white.’ Words I had said to myself before, when I had believed my nose was not beautiful, that my hair was not beautiful, that my hips and my chin and my name and the accent thick between my parents’ lips were not beautiful. ‘I’m not white,’ I said, long before a night in Dumbo, not with resilience but with disappointment. I had become defined by all that was wrong with me, not all that might be celebrated. Because I had not yet seen it – that we were beautiful palatial fabric, we were the brilliant blue-eyed amulet protecting from all that was evil, we were fistfuls of henna, and a nose bent and long and magnificent, a nose fit for sultans. We were the kissed hand of an elder pushed against our forehead, and the high, sweet whispers of the ney flute, expanding and almighty and holy. We were the thick stretched skin of a darbuka drum, where fingers and palms struck at an exceptional pace, flexing and echoing, a single powerful note, beaten and beaten and beaten again, still glorious, still alive.

The Good Immigrant USA, edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman, is published by Little, Brown Book Company. It includes essays by: Nicole Dennis-Benn, Rahawa Haile, Teju Cole, Priya Minhas, Wale Oyejide, Fatimah Asghar, Tejal Rao, Maeve Higgins, Krutika Mallikarjuna, Jenny Zhang, Chigozie Obioma, Alexander Chee, Yann Demange, Jean Hannah Edelstein, Chimene Suleyman, Basim Usmani, Daniel Jose Older, Adrian Villar Rojas, Sebastian Villar Rojas, Dani Fernandez, Fatima Farheen Mirza, Susanne Ramirez de Arellano, Mona Chalabi, Jade Chang