#edbookfest: The Good Immigrant: “It’s not a marketing trend, it’s our fucking lives.”

Unwelcome welcome | It’s tough to be an immigrant, even in a multicultural melting pot. In The Good Immigrant, Bristol-based novelist and diversity activist Nikesh Shukla brings together 21 writers to explore why immigrants come to the UK, why they stay and what it means to be mixed race. He was joined by fellow contributors Coco Khan and Miss L, and chair Daniel Hahn, to ask how do you fit into the world if you feel unwelcome in the place you call home?

“We are constantly having to justify our place at the table.”
“I thought it would sell 1,000 copies… after two years,” laughs Nikesh, on the success of The Good Immigrant, whose supporters include Malorie Blackman, Zadie Smith and JK Rowling, to skim a huge and growing list.  To the beginning of its story, what was the trigger for the project? “In 2015, I was sitting on a diversity panel and a literary fiction editor was rounding off the number of writers of colour she had published,” he begins. “I had a flashback to a 2010 diversity panel – it was the same conversation. And then I had a flashback to an earlier diversity panel…”

“I’ve had enough of diversity panels,” he concludes, noting that he’s rarely given the chance to talk about what he likes, or what he does. It’s the same conversation year after year. Nikesh was once asked to offer some writing tips for the Guardian – “how controversial could that be? Turns out very” – and the top comment was from someone saying they hadn’t heard of any of the contributors, and as they were people of colour they must be friends with the person who commissioned them – it couldn’t be for their own merit. “We are constantly having to justify our place at the table.”

He longed for a progressive, contemporary book about race, and he also found himself out with an editor at Unbound who explained their crowdfunding model – cover the costs to make a book up front, so when it publishes it’s all profit. It felt the perfect fit.

“It’s not a marketing trend, it’s our fucking lives.”
People in publishing have argued that books by BAME people simply don’t sell, which is why they’ve never commissioned them, which becomes doubly insulting: “your skin colour is a marketing trend, but your skin colour is not a lucrative trend.” In the last year, they’ve genuinely heard people say: Diversity is so hot right now. “It’s not a marketing trend, it’s our fucking lives.”

Miss L knew pretty quickly what she was going to write about. As an actor, she already writes a lot on casting of women, and knew she would write about the bracket she was shoved into. “I never realised hot much I had to say.” Her reading deals with an the fated day that after years of studying drama your tutor tells you how to market yourself. Nurses, students – for Miss L? Terrorist. “No, wait… wife of a terrorist.” Her classmates laughed, and she’s certain the teacher wouldn’t have considered that a racist statement, nor themselves a racist. But, realised or not, it is damaging, and it is an issue that boxes women of colour in across the industry that needs to be addressed. She dreams of the day when a woman of colour can be cast as a character for reasons other than “it was written as a woman of colour”, that they happened to be the best fit for the character.

Coco Khan writes on “the tragicomedy of dating as a woman of colour.” She previously ran a blog called Brown Around Town, where she would document her life and dating as a student, the comments and pet names that came with it – she found women from all over the world getting in touch to say she it happened to them too.   Her blog ended when she had to get a job and thought sexual exploits at the top of her Google search might not be the best for her prospects, but ten years ago much needed to be done around these topics; ten years later when Nikesh approached her, the same things still needed to be done, and she had no hesitation in returning to the topic.

“We’re already diverse. We don’t need diversity.”
The Good Immigrant is packed full of brilliant writers, witty, eye-opening and powerful essays, highlighted through readings from the trio.  The power of people seeing themselves cannot be underestimated, and with white as the default it’s often taken for granted by many. Nikesh refers to the Junot Diaz quote: “You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror.  And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”

On top of offering the mirror, they want to offer new perspectives for those who are in a bubble. The commissioning piece of the culture chain needs a revolution – the demographic of 12-50 year old white dudes is more than catered for, they’re in everything. We need people commissioning more diverse content and creators. White and male is so ingrained that when Ghostbusters was redone with a female cast, men couldn’t relate to the universally known experience of women busting ghosts. “They could suspend their belief for the busting of ghosts, but not the women.”

It boils down to the need to break beyond the rigid defaults of culture, which is denying people both of their own reflection, and cutting off many from experiencing stories beyond what they know. They were done with excuses, and did it themselves – the result is a vital book which everyone should read, gift and share widely.

“We are already diverse,” says Nikesh. “We don’t need diversity.”

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