The Manchester Literature Festival Blog
Review: The Good Immigrant
Our blogger Yezuan Calvis gives us one good immigrant’s perspective on an evening with the writers of the celebrated new anthology The Good Immigrant
‘Illegal’, ‘languages’, ‘exile’, ‘unmentionable’. Those are the first words that came to people’s minds when I asked them about the word ‘immigrant’ as a part of my research for this blog post; how different and ambiguous they are. However, there’s a specific one that resonated for me when somebody said it out: ‘me’, because I am an immigrant, a good immigrant.
When I arrived in the UK from Venezuela two years ago I never would have imagined that I would be celebrating my anniversary in this country by blogging about a literature event. What an event! An unusual venue (at least for this kind of occasion) Gorilla hosted four of the authors included in The Good Immigrant, a compendium of 21 essays on race, ethnicity, identity and immigration in the UK. Nikesh Shukla, editor of the book and the host of the night, welcomed everyone and immediately switched up what I thought the rhythm of the evening would be like. To be honest, I was expecting four people sat down in front of me having a sad/angry/resentful conversation about their tough life as immigrants; nothing could be farther from reality than that. The night was about sharing between friends who opened their stories to show us, between laughs, ‘what it means to be other in a country that doesn’t seem to want you’.
“My skin colour apparently was a marketing trend” – one of Nikesh Shukla’s phrases that has been stocked in my head since that day. When it comes to talk about being different, because of your language, skin colour, ethnicity, or even your way of dressing, there will always be a feeling of being labeled, not because of who you really are, but because of your origins. In publishing the book, Shukla was moved by the necessity of sharing stories and perspectives that counteract preconceived opinions that every immigrant is a bad one until they prove their worth to society, because most of them came here ‘to steal jobs, women and benefits’.
The evening followed by listening to the essays of the Festival’s guests. Himesh Patel opened to us his ‘Window of Opportunity’ (the title of his essay) through which he discovered that heritage linked with ethnicity only makes up a part of the role he plays in society. Miss L, with her charismatic and hilarious personality, read us an extract of her essay ‘The Wife of a Terrorist’, where she tells the story of how after years of hard work at her Drama school, she was advised, as it often happens in the industry, to seek roles as the wife of a terrorist because of her background.
Inua Ellams popped up on the stage to read his essay which took us on a journey across Africa. Different stories grouped by the hashtag #IfAfricaWasABar. And of course, Shukla read his own essay, ‘Namaste’. ‘Namaste means hello’. These are the opening words of his intelligent and funny essay, a piece that shows us the importance of language and illustrates why people should be bothered to do their research. He highlights the tendency of using non-English words to make things look and sound multicultural, even though they don’t actually make sense: ‘We often see on menus “chai tea”, but chai means tea. “Chai tea” means tea tea’.
Certainly, it was an enjoyable evening. One of those occasions where you feel connected with people, where you feel as though your thoughts are being shouted by somebody else’s voice. This evening left me with no doubt as to what book I will be reading next.
Yezuan Calvis is a Venezuelan actor and journalist pursuing a Masters in International and Digital Journalism. He has performed for the Royal Exchange Theatre, and is starting to write blogs. You can follow him on Twitter @YezuanCalvis.
Image: Jon Parker Lee