Bilal Qureshi is a culture writer and radio journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times and Newsweek, and on NPR.
Two years before the election of President Trump and the bitter politics of border walls, Muslim bans and s---hole countries, the American publishing industry was facing an identity crisis. A viral social media movement led by writers of color called #WeNeedDiverseBooks began pushing the industry to acknowledge and address its resounding whiteness. The failure to cultivate and nurture the voices of American writers of minority and immigrant backgrounds was the failure to tell a full national story, writer Junot Diaz explained in a New Yorker ess ay. Soon after the 2016 election, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Viet Thanh Nguyen published a piece in the New York Times arguing that the outcome was partly the failure of writers. “The struggle over the direction of our country,” he wrote, “is also a fight over whose words will win and whose images will ignite the collective imagination.” Immigrants needed to tell their story — and tell it better.
“The Good Immigrant” is a culmination of the current political moment and a natural extension of the ongoing work to integrate American publishing. The 26 essays in this anthology are deeply personal reflections on adolescence, family, love and identity as experienced and felt by the American immigrant artist. From published heavyweights like Teju Cole and Alexander Chee, to newer voices like Muslim American punk-rocker Basim Usmani and Pakistani Kashmiri American poet Fatimah Asghar, this banquet of writing is a triumphant celebration of American multiplicity.
The book was inspired by an original British edition, which was published at the height of the Brexit debate with a largely different roster of writers. In the introduction to the American edition, the editors, Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman, explain that what both collections share is their desire to amplify the voices of immigrants through a kind of collective literary activism. In a cultural climate defined by xenophobia and anti-immigrant policies, this book seeks to showcase the gifts and humanity of immigrant artists.
It’s a noble mission that my own intersectional immigrant self can certainly appreciate. And yet, as a reader, I worried that a collection defined by politics could crumble under the weight of good intentions. Essays lifted from social media outrage or powered by reactionary rage can satisfy in the instant but fade as the moment passes. Thankfully, this collection is a resounding success on multiple fronts. Its righteous rage is perfectly matched by its literary rewards.
The American edition of the “The Good Immigrant” is best heard as a surround-sound chorus that bristles with an unpredictable, electric energy. Language, style and rhythm shift with each piece, keeping our attention. In “Luck of the Irish,” Maeve Higgins explores how white privilege helped her, an undocumented Irish immigrant, as brown families in similar conditions are prosecuted. In a love letter to her mother, Indian American writer Krutika Mallikarjuna finds humor in the ridiculous conundrum of dating in the multiracial mayhem of Brooklyn. “Of the many pitfalls of being a queer desi woman swimming through Tinder,” she writes, “I never expected to find myself getting trashed in a bar trying to forget that I was on a date with a white girl named India.”
Several of the essays are by first-time authors who work in other artistic mediums. My favorite essay is by Nigerian American fashion designer Walé Oyéjidé. The African-inspired textiles and silhouettes of his celebrated fashion line Ikiré Jones are regularly shown on global runways and featured prominently in the Oscar-winning blockbuster “Black Panther.” In an essay about his artistic coming-of-age, Oyéjidé explores the struggles of stay-at-home fatherhood with biting humor and then widens his lens to a crisis of masculinity that fails to allow men to be more than conventional breadwinners and pursue the arts. He writes about his designs as a political instrument to restore dignity and beauty to black bodies draped in shades of violence and suffering in popular culture.
“Our uprisings don’t always come in the guise of smashed windows, overturned cars or respectable slave owners forcibly torn from their stone housings in front of Capitol buildings. Sometimes they come in the form of building-sized brown faces broadcast on cinema screens, portraying characters who are miles away from the token mistress we have to come to accept for want of more inspiring alternatives,” he writes. Immigrant creativity is about imagining new possibility, he explains: “ There will be endless stories to write. And, increasingly, there will be audiences filled with us waiting to hear them being told.”
Like Jones’s essay, the best work here offers reflections on the creative process, alongside the fear of family, society and failure that keeps many immigrant artists from expressing themselves. The collection concludes with a call to arms by novelist Jade Chang, with a practical step-by-step guide to embracing one’s voice titled “How to Center Your Own Story.”
As I finished “The Good Immigrant,” my mind was buzzing with the multitude of voices, stories, heartbreaks and dreams featured in its 300-plus pages. The book is a welcome corrective to the nationalist calls for walls, borders and exclusion that seek to narrow the boundaries of what it means to be American. Each essay is a tantalizing introduction — and invitation — to the larger body of work these artists have already created and will continue to make long after this moment passes. What unites this defiant chorus of immigrant voices is best expressed in this variation on an enduring line by Langston Hughes: “We, too sing America.”
Edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman
Little, Brown. 324 pp. $28