The Good Immigrant: BAME Authors Unite

We publish three extracts from The Good Immigrant, an essential collection of 21 BAME writers confronting the issues of race and immigration in modern Britain: powerful, timely and unapologetic

Feature | 19 Sep 2016

The Good Immigrant is making waves. In the upheaval of Brexit limbo it seems to be striking a nerve. You might have read actor Riz Ahmed's section published in The Guardian on Friday, or watched poet Salena Godden recite hers on BBC Breakfast that same morning. Pretty impressive for a crowd-funded work, financed by readers through the publisher Unbound (JK Rowling donated £5K and encouraged others to follow).

The 21 voices included within its pages speak with so much passion, anger, empathy and humour that they speak more than adequately for themselves. So they do, below. We are delighted to publish three short extracts from larger contributions within this collection. A gathering of 21 pieces of writing from a tapestry of talents – including the poet Inua Ellams and comedian Nish Kumar – which in different ways confront, through personal experience, the falsehoods, stereotypes and anxieties around immigration and Britishness.

The collection's title is inspired by a comment from one of the book's contributors, Musa Okwonga, of the burden ‘… that society deems us bad immigrants – job-stealers, benefit-scroungers, girlfriend-thieves, refugees – until we cross over in their consciousness, through popular culture, winning races, baking good cakes, being conscientious doctors, to become good immigrants.’

Your shade is not skin deep. Your shade is not just about your heart and soul; your religion and spirituality, your elders and your history, your connection to a country, to geography and to a time and place. Your shade is an industry, your shade is a token, shade is a passport, shade is a cage and shade is a status. 

You tick: Other.

Wherever you live, wherever you are from, it seems it is all about shade. Universally we are divided and whatever shade you are born it is not right or good enough. We are in a giant brainwash, we are being organised by colour and tone, the natural shade of your skin must be improved, altered and filtered. Your skin is a living organ. Your skin is the casing for your sausage-meat soul. And the armour for your muscles, bones and flesh. Skin is the protective layer of the interior of you with the exterior world, but it is always wrong.

Bob Marley was mixed, Jamaican and Celtic, same as me, his shade looks pale in some photos, sometimes much darker. You see, it all depends on the filter and the time of year, it all depends on the light, it all depends on the shade. It depends on what point people are trying to make, to advertise things, to sell you things, to make money. That is the point, to get the shade right, to make shade the issue. To give shade, to put someone in the shade, to put someone in their place, to let someone know they are less, more or less, because of their shade. Advertising companies, big corporations, banks and politicians need to maintain this, to control the division of people through racism and shade, throwing shade of difference and indifference, good immigrant and bad immigrant, refugee and benefit scrounger. This keeps us in our place, humans bickering, focusing on their differences, distracted, and at each other’s throats, competing and separating – 

Divide and rule.

Human colour is the colour I’m truly interested in, the colour of your humanity. May the size of your heart and the depth of your soul be your currency. Whatever shade you are, bring your light, bring your colour, bring your music and your books, bring your stories and your histories, and climb aboard. United as a people we are a million majestic colours, together we are a glorious stained-glass window. We are building a cathedral of otherness, brick by brick and book by book. This is the 21st century and we share this, we live here, in this, the future. It is a beautiful morning, it is first light on the time of being other, so get out from that shade and feel the warmth of being outside. 

We tick: Other

Taken from Shade by Salena Godden

At some point, the inevitable will happen. It will happen at a rave, or a club, or a party, where music is playing and people are dancing. A song will come on, usually a rap song, and amongst my generation it will nearly always be a song by Kanye West. This is when an elephant will sneak into the room, walking straight out of Kanye’s mouth, dressed as a word that can’t be spoken. They will notice it at the same moment they notice me: the only black kid at the party.

It’s Kanye, so everybody knows the lyrics, and everybody is looking at me. I’ve got 30 seconds to a minute before the chorus hits to decide what to do. If I chant the word it will be a public confirmation of my blackness, a deliberate display that says this word is mine and mine alone to say. That I am allowed. That this is damn near a birthright. And in that moment of vindication it seems obvious that I’m going to sing along, because if rapping along to Kanye is one of the few privileges afforded to me as a black person, then of course I’m going to take it.

Except, there are a few other things going on here. For a start, by being in the room, I am the only reason why the rest of the party can’t say it. I’m a big red stop sign in the middle of the dance floor, a symbolic reminder of why they shouldn’t use such a word and who they will offend. Without me there, the word is just another rhyme in a lyric. It’s a tree falling in a forest conundrum: if a white kid raps all the lyrics to ‘Gold Digger’ and there isn’t a black person around to hear it, is it still racist?

Secondly, I’ve never grown up with the circumstances where this word has been used. Never learned the difference between the -er and -a suffix, never picked up on the nuances of context. Where Kanye comes from, vocabulary has changed, history has been re-claimed in linguistics. That Which Cannot Be Spoken means so much more: means brother means friend means fool means black. I only ever learned the white rule for this word, of which there is only one: this is a word that should never be said. By anybody. Myself included.

Even when, at 14, I finally joined a school with other black people in my classes, it never came out comfortably when we used it. We said it because we could, because it was cool, because it was delicious to be entitled to something that everyone else wasn’t. Not because it came naturally.

Which is my third point. My white peers knew that we had only learned this word, not through any culture of it being used, but in the same way that they had, through hip-hop and American films. This was Somerset. Even those of us who adopted it smoothly into our lexicon would be lying if they

said they hadn’t done it consciously. Just because we could say it, didn’t mean we could pull it off. And because it becomes so glaringly obvious that this word doesn’t saunter so comfortably off of my tongue either, there is always a worry that white people will take me using it, me who was brought up by their rules, as confirmation that they can as well.

This is when duality hits me in the face. Is the problem that I grew up as a black face in a white environment? Or is the problem that I possess whiteness within me, that I came from a white household, and was brought up with the white rule books? I can’t provide the answers of what to do in this situation just yet. All I can suggest is to cross your fingers and hope for a radio edit.

Taken from A Guide to Being Black by Varaidzo

One of the many online arguments I’ve had about the importance of language, how language can hurt, has been about tea. Chai means tea. Chai tea means tea tea. The number of times you see this on a menu makes you wonder why people can’t be bothered to do their research. Like naan bread too. Bread bread.

A comedian, Kumail Nanjiani, an avid gamer, once expressed his delight that the Call of Duty series finally set a level in Karachi, the city of his childhood, now one of the top ten most dangerous cities in the world. He was appalled, on playing the game, to see that all the street signs were in Arabic. Not Urdu. He talks about the effort put into making each follicle on each soldier’s head stand out, into making their boot laces bounce as they ran, the millions spent developing this game, and how at no point did anyone decide to Google the language of Pakistan.

In Jurassic World, they refer to some pachycephalosaurus dinosaurs as pachys, or pakis – ‘the pakis are escaping’ one of the techs exclaims. The budget for the movie was $150 million.

If I had to place a value on how much people would have to pay me in order to call me a paki, it would be more than $150 million. Words matter. Words are important.

The casualness with which someone I’m working with refers to ‘two coloured girls’. The casualness with which a person having her photo taken with a nice view, and me obscuring the corner of it asks her husband to ensure he gets one ‘without the Indian in it’. The casualness of being on the last train home, from London to Bristol, in the same car as the bar, listening to two drunk men in their early twenties shout at each other, ‘n****r, we made it’, repeatedly, with excruciating enthusiasm. They’re just quoting rap, someone might think. They’re drunk, they’re harmless, they’re being exuberant. Dickish, but exuberant.

Language is important.

Years before, I sat in an Indian restaurant round the corner. It’s called Oh! Calcutta!. I found the exclamation mark alarming. The place was owned by a white guy. As I sat with my best friend and his then girlfriend, staring at the disco lights, I listened to Kula Shaker sing about ‘Taatva’, about ‘Govinda jai jai, gopala jai jai’. I read the menu. One of the dishes listed was Chicken Chuddi, described as an exotic blend of authentic spices, tomato and peppers. It sounded so generic. What was an exotic blend, what were authentic spices, also – tomato and pepper? These were the biggest tastemakers aside from chicken in the dish? What was Chicken Chuddi?

 Also, as you know, chuddi means pants.

Taken from Namaste by Nikesh Shukla

The Good Immigrant, featuring 21 BAME writers and edited by Nikesh Shukla, is published by Unbound on 22 September, RRP £14.99 

Salena Godden is one of Britain's foremost spoken word artists; Varaidzo is an editor at; Nikesh Shukla is a critically acclaimed author and writer