See Amer­ica through eyes of im­mi­grants

Es­say col­lec­tion leaves mind abuzz

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Books - By Bi­lal Qureshi

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 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 es­say.

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. 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 sur­round­sound 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 Ir­ish im­mi­grant liv­ing in the coun­try il­le­gally, 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 Wale Oye­jide. The African-in­spired tex­tiles and sil­hou­ettes of his cel­e­brated fash­ion line Ikire Jones are reg­u­larly shown on global run­ways and fea­tured promi­nently in the Os­car­win­ning block­buster “Black Pan­ther.” In an es­say about his artis­tic com­ing of age, Oye­jide 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 build­ing­sized 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.”

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.

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.

JO­HANNES EISELE/GETTY-AFP

This ban­quet of writ­ing by the fa­mous as well as first-timers is a tri­umphant cel­e­bra­tion of Amer­i­can mul­ti­plic­ity.

Edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Su­ley­man, Lit­tle, Brown, 324 pages, $28 ‘The Good Im­mi­grant’

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