Sana Soomro finds more than food for thought in Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman’s The Good Immigrant USA, their excellent follow-up to the UK original.
Created as the second edition to Nikesh Shukla’s UK original, The Good Immigrant USA delves into the complex American immigrant experience in all its glory. Shukla’s first edition is made up of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic experiences in Britain, while this collection is a compilation of anecdotes about life and people in America. Whether touching on the USA’s Irish migrant history, its blurred relationship with the Hispanic community or simply examining personal accounts of growing up in a country that stigmatizes your race/ethnicity as ‘other’, this book legitimizes the questions, concerns, and triumphs of anyone who has ever felt like an outsider.
One particular emotion that unifies the writers’ thoughts with our own is the persistent exploration of an immigrant’s sense of yearning. ‘The Good Immigrant is versed in many types of hunger,’ writes Rahawa Haile in the third essay of the collection, a lament on her father’s sacrifices that enabled her assimilation into American society (p. 29). As a food enthusiast myself, Haile’s analogy struck me as encompassing the aspirations that several writers had shown in the text, albeit in different ways. Using this metaphorical approach, the essays appear to be indulging in shared cravings, tackling the following gnawing concepts:
A hunger to exist outside of binary terms
Several of the essays consider existence outside of the stereotyped narrative accepted by the masses. For example, Teju Cole’s examination of the metaphorical survival of black people despite the black community’s historical ‘caging’ is just as captivating as Priya Minhas’ toxic experience of growing up protecting Indian cultural values from a fear of ‘whiteness’.
A hunger for survival
For immigrants, survival often means the continual reconciliation of contradictory parts – parts that make us who we are. In her refreshingly artistic process of showing the plight of immigrants, Mona Chalabi highlights the desire to continue journeying in peace despite these conflicting aspects of our identity. This is also shared in Fatimah Asghar’s poetic rumination on how a lack of home causes a deep unanswerable ambiguity of personhood.
A hunger to assimilate
This idea of acceptance or approval materializes itself in different forms. From Basim Usmani’s strangely comic tour diaries as part of a Muslim punk band to Fatima Mirza’s familial struggle growing up in Texas (captured in her essay Skittles), both pieces of writing reflect on the paradoxical feeling of wanting to belong, of longing for acceptance, whilst staying loyal to an unescapable otherness.
A hunger for fulfilment
Many of the authors are filled with ambition or a duty to strive for something greater. Despite being ‘forged in the fires of oppression and resistance’, Daniel José Older believes in language fulfilling meaning. Similarly, Chigozie Obioma’s impassioned essay discusses the guise and pitfalls of the ‘American Dream’ and creating your own American Dream for true satisfaction.
A hunger to redefine the entrenched parameters
Perhaps the most powerful form of “hunger” because of its call to activism, several (if not all) of the writers want to rewrite the future with the taste of hope and the bite of action. Unlike the previous sombre forms of hunger above, writing such as Tejal Rao’s entry (Chooey-Boeey and Brown) on the pride of embracing food as identity or Jade Chang’s self-help essay on being the ‘star’ of your own story offer an optimistic approach to satiate the hunger.
Through reading and reflecting on these types of hunger, we are able to feast on a rich reality of life and the world. Whether it’s recognizing the ‘radiation of colonialism’ (Cole, p. 39) in history’s narrative that is still perpetuated today or resisting America’s ‘own ignorance’ (by writer and co-editor of the book, Chimene Suleyman, p. 215) in a post Trump society, Asghar’s claim for ‘a desire to connect, to bridge the distance of land, sea and childhood in order to find a mirror we can recognize ourselves in’ encapsulates my reading of this book.
My own hunger to reflect & resist
As a West-London-born English Literature graduate and Secondary School teacher of Pakistani descent, every one of the essays in The Good Immigrant USA inspired a reflection that unnerved my sense of self. In particular, Porochista Khakpour’s essay, which confronts the sad reality about fictional writing, reminded me of my role in guiding students to write stories. The rumination of how students to this day, despite being in a London school of mixed ethnicities, use English names for their characters as a default is testament to the ingrained idea that such characters are the only ones who deserve to have stories written about them. It paralleled my own play acting as a child where ‘Jessica’ or ‘Sarah’ would seem the most obvious choice. Ironically, even when I taught in the Middle East for three years, this pattern of fictional writing belonging to the dominant majority was apparent and often resulted in my frustrated attempts to create and spread my own examples of fiction involving Omar and Khadijah. I resolved to persuade my classes that their stories were just, if not more, important and worth sharing. The book thus reassured me that my resentment of the muted current colonial imprints on language is widespread. But through recognition of this fact, it is something to be conquered; it is our form of resistance to parallel the subjugation of colonialism.
Another essay that forced me to consider my own reality was Tejal Rao’s examination of cultural food and its preconceptions. His response to people’s assumptions about his fondness for curry as ‘lazy, unimaginative racism’ (p. 99) mirrored my own past experiences. During the lunch hour, a colleague at a West-London school, with a pretense of innocence and genuine interest in my life, asked me what I cook every day and whether it was different types of ‘curry’. After an initial pause – I was used to being caught off-guard with kids, but not by supposedly intellectual adults – I calmly responded with an apology for clarification, as in my ‘culture’ ‘curry’ does not exist. To which a mumble and a reassurance of an awareness of different types of curry occurred. Looking back, I wish I could have spat Rao’s following quote as a retort instead: ‘Curry doesn’t refer to one dish, to one technique, to one point of origin, to one paste, to one powder.’ Her unguarded inaccurate assumption simultaneously saddened me and lit a fire of frustration – a disparaging feeling expressed repeatedly in the book.
Despite the feelings of grievance in some aspects of the book, I also felt a sense of unity and desire in other parts. I celebrated Jim St. Germain’s overcoming of his troubled life and Chimene Suleyman embracing her ‘thick stretched skin’ and her ‘nose fit for sultans’ (p.222). The fascinating essays collected in this book helped me come to the conclusion that writing, even in the colonizer’s tongue, is rehabilitating and truly inspiring. The Good Immigrant USA quenches your thirst and satisfies your appetite for the identification and discussion of political, societal and personal issues. It has the power to help you swallow and digest intricate truths and is a must read for everyone – identifying immigrant or not.