Immigration has dominated the political agenda of late. Perceptions of immigration swing wildly from condemnation and fear to widespread indignation at the plight of people fleeing conflict and hardship abroad.
The Good Immigrant was originally conceived of in the rose-tinted pre-Brexit, pre-Trump era, and has become even more topical and more relevant in this light. It’s an anthology of 21 writers of colour exploring their perceptions of race. It was crowdfunded in just three days on publishing platform Unbound and has since been voted Britain’s Favourite Book of 2016, beating competitors like Harry Potter and The Cursed Child. We spoke to the book’s editor, Nikesh Shukla.
How did The Good Immigrant come about and what did you hope it would achieve?
I had done one too many panels on diversity and publishing and not enough panels on just being a writer, and I felt as though nothing was changing. Every time we sat down to talk about diversity, we concluded that it was an issue. Then I read two amazing books, Citizen by Claudia Rankine and Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Following some comments I received about diverse writing – such as ‘it’s always too domestic’, ‘it’s always box ticking’, ‘it’s always because we know someone or are friends with someone’ – I realised it’s never about how our writing is amazing.
Those things were kind of bubbling around in my head and after a conversation with a friend, in which I speculated about the idea of The Good Immigrant, he said, “Well, why don’t you go and do it?”
I wanted to showcase some amazing writers of colour and put them in a book to give a platform to these people. By choosing a crowdfunding platform, I was able to dispel the myth that people don’t need books by people of colour. People crowdfunded this book in three days, before a word of it was even written, and I feel like that has made the point that people want to read about diverse cultures. They are sick of reading representations of the great American or Great British novel, where a male writer writes about a middle-aged, middle-class, white English literature professor who has sex with an impossibly beautiful female student.
As the editor, how much did you guide the work writers submitted to you?
Ultimately, race is kind of all encompassing. It’ll come up. I gave them a very open brief. I said, “This is the title. I want you to be in the book. I think you’ll be amazing. It’s roughly about race and immigration in the UK. It’s up to you what you want to respond to.” My job was to get out of their way as much as possible and give them the space to tell their stories in their own voices, rather than me having too much of a tutorial eye. In retrospect, I don’t think I realised this at the time, but what was really nice was that you had a bunch of writers portraying all manner of viewpoints.
None of the writers were in conversation with each other about the content of their pieces. In the end you end up with a book where some stories disagree with each other and some are even at odds with each other, and I think that’s really important. People from marginalised communities – one person says one thing publicly and they become the spokesperson for that marginalised community, and neither they nor the marginalised community want that role for them. They want a multitude of voices.
Were you surprised by the book’s success?
Completely. I expected it to be funded, although I thought it would take longer than three days. I expected friends and family to buy it, maybe even people in the industry and people within our echo chamber, but I never expected the success it’s had. I put that success down to three things. First and foremost, the writing is amazing. Secondly, people are sick of not having diverse voices. And finally, the referendum and the growth of the Right.
Do you think new technologies and techniques in publishing have the potential to disrupt the traditional gatekeepers who might be preventing more diverse voices getting out there?
Hard to say. We want to ensure we’re not a one-off. I think the crowdfunding presents itself well. You get multiple acknowledgments, multiple contributors with multiple networks. There was an article by a guy called Mike Murphy about crowdfunding and how we were disrupting publishing, using The Good Immigrant as an example. I do think crowdfunding and anthologies are definitely ways of showcasing exciting voices.
In retrospect, how have the political changes since the book was published affected how you see it?
I think post-Brexit I would have felt a responsibility to make it more of a political act, rather than a piece of literature where I was looking for variety. One of the criticisms about the book is that, in the wake of Brexit, it would have been cool to have some European voices. I agree with that. I hope people express their voice and I hope that a book representing European migrant voices happens. I hope our book has helped to pave the way for it. There is space for it.
Do you think the climate of austerity and cuts to services helps stoke a fear of immigration?
I think they scapegoat immigrants for putting pressure on systems the government have put in place, when really it’s austerity that contributes to this, it’s the recession that contributes to this, it’s the banking crisis and the bailout of banks that contributes to this. All that unpaid tax of companies and individuals. Immigrants are being blamed for all these things because it’s the fear of the ‘other’. That’s how racism still manages to perpetuate, because we’re still ‘others’. We had this thing called political correctness, which was like a plaster put on all these feelings for so long, and now look at where we are. The plaster has been pulled off and people are screaming at other people in the street.
Are there any other particular works that you think are good at articulating people of colour’s experiences in Britain today?
There are some great magazines, like Gal-Dem, British Values and Media Diversified, that do amazing work. There is a great book called A Country of Refuge, which is all short stories about the refugee crisis. There is a book coming out by Mohsin Hamid called Exit West, which is a love story set against the back drop of the refugee crisis, and there are some good writings by David Smith concerning Brexit.
What other projects have you got coming up?
I run a youth magazine called Rife. We pay people to work jobs for six months and cover content that is important to them and see what it’s like for them to work those jobs. After the success of The Good Immigrant, we thought why not compile an essay book by young people about what life is like for them – given that they didn’t vote for Brexit, for Scotland to remain in the UK, for the Conservative Government and for Teresa May, and yet they’re going to be most affected. The crowdfunder for this new project is up now if people would like to donate to make it happen.
The Good Immigrant is available in physical and digital forms at unbound.com/books/the-good-immigrant.
Rife book crowdfunder: unbound.com/books/rifeJoe Kriss