Young, smart and anything-but-white: surprise British bestseller 'The Good Immigrant'
Nobody saw this British bestseller coming.
Last year, more than 180,000 books were published in Great Britain. That's more than 20 new books an hour, day in and day out. So when a crowd-funded collection of essays called The Good Immigrant rolled off the press, chances were slim to none that it would be noticed — let alone find hundreds of thousands of readers.
But the book shot up to the top of bestseller lists. It was voted favourite book of the year by the "Books Are My Bag" poll, beating out Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
The Good Immigrant is a collection of 21 essays by emerging writers about what it is like to be anything but white in Britain today.
Sunday Edition producer David Gutnick was in London just as Article 50 — the Brexit plan — was triggered.
He spoke to the book's editor and several contributors.
What makes a 'good' immigrant?
Nikesh Shukla is the editor and a contributor to The Good Immigrant. He says the title of the book challenges the notion that immigrants have to prove themselves to be worthy of respect.
People leave their countries to seek out a better life, he says, but the automatic assumption when they arrive in a new place is that they're here to steal jobs, women or public services.
You don't get to hear stories from writers about contemporary life and being a person of colour in this country.- Nikesh Shukla
"The thought that immigrants have to exist on a binary scale of good immigrant or bad immigrant is a frustrating one, because it presupposes that you start off from the position of being a bad immigrant and that your intentions to move to any country that isn't your birth country are often for negative or nefarious reasons."
'Tell me a story'
Shukla says the idea for the book came out of his frustration with the publishing industry.
Writers of colour who get published in the UK, he says, are often those who are "telling stories that are pretty well-worn stereotypes: arranged marriages, slavery, oppressive mothers, and saris billowing in the wind."
"You don't get to hear stories from writers about contemporary life and being a person of colour in this country."
Out of the tens of thousands of books that came out in Britain in 2016, Shukla says, fewer than a hundred were published by a person of colour — and only one by a black British male.
So he started crowd-funding for his book project and met his funding goal in just three days.
At the same time as it being a success, all of the writers would happily say I wish we didn't have to do the book in the first place.- Nikesh Shukla
Shukla says his instruction to all the book's writers was "tell me a story." He adds that he wanted to provide space for people to "tell counter-narratives and to attack the same issue from different perspectives."
"That helps us get past this feeling that, every time a person of colour speaks about race, they invariably become the spokesperson for their entire race."
But the scale of the book's popularity has been bittersweet for its creators.
"At the same time as it being a success, all of the writers would happily say, 'I wish we didn't have to do the book in the first place,'" Shukla says.
Brexit and the return of 'colonial nostalgia'
Shukla believes the coinciding of his project with campaigns around Brexit and a growing "colonial nostalgia" in Britain gave the book greater political legitimacy.
"That campaign quickly turned into a narrative about how much the English hate immigrants… So by the time [our book] came out, the interest was at a fever pitch."
Inua Ellams is another contributor to the book. He is also a poet and playwright who has been touring with his one-man play 'An Evening with an Immigrant.'
There are 65 million displaced people on the planet right now. All of them have stories as complicated and as harrowing as mine.- Inua Ellams
David Gutnick went to a London suburb to see the play, which features a monologue by Ellams about growing up in Nigeria, Ireland, and England.
"The world at the moment in the West has become increasingly politicized against immigrants. And it just happened to coincide with this show I wrote," Ellams says.
"There are 65 million displaced people on the planet right now. All of them have stories as complicated and as harrowing as mine. I'm just one of them," he adds.
Putting people of colour on the map
Most of the interest in the book, Shukla says, has come from young people of colour. The book helps them feel represented, he adds, because it gives them "a reflection of themselves."
"The ideal audience would be everyone's racist uncle...but, to be honest, they're not going to read this book."
Coco Khan, a journalist who also contributed to The Good Immigrant, says the project proves that these stories matter.
"For many years, there was this sense that people of colour stories don't sell. They don't make books. They're not interesting. The perception was that our stories are not relevant or part of mainstream discourse," she says.
"What we've proved as outsiders is that we are a part of it. We did do a book that had great sales and that had great support."
Khan says that, despite a national discourse that often fails to see the humanity people of colour, The Good Immigrant puts them on the map and inserts them into the canon.
Click the 'play' button above to hear David Gutnick's full documentary.
The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla, is not yet in Canadian bookstores, but it is available online.
You can read Shukla's own contribution to the book below.