I knew our book of essays, The Good Immigrant, was making a difference when I stumbled upon a right-wing blogger calling me a racist and a chubby samosa. I'd recently made Foreign Policy magazine's list of 100 global thinkers for 2016, a prestigious award, for my work on The Good Immigrant, and tackling what they called “the unbearable whiteness of publishing”. I offset the racist remark with a humblebrag for two reasons: one, I have an ego that demands satisfaction. And two, nowhere can you see the full extent of reactions to The Good Immigrant than in those two instances. The thing is, when you write about race, racists will call you a racist, for invoking race in the first place. Because the way the modern racist disguises their racism, is to say they don’t see race and they don’t see colour. And because they don’t, I must be the racist for even daring to mention it.
It’s a tiring dynamic.
In 2015, I decided I wanted to put together a book of essays about race and immigration in the UK, and I wanted to use it as a way of pooling together some of the best BAME writers in the country. You can read more about the events that led up to my putting the book together in the editor’s note (go buy the book, etc) but I want to stress now why I chose to go with Unbound, a publisher that uses crowdfunding to pay for all the initial costs to get a book written, edited, printed and distributed to shops. Often, when I’ve been in conversations about the lack of diversity in publishing, which is a subject that comes up a lot, I’ve been told that “people don’t really buy books by BAME writers” and “BAME communities don’t really read”. Now, I know this to be preposterous, disingenuous and just untrue. How insulting, to be told that your skin colour is a marketing trend. And not a very lucrative one. So I thought, what a better way to prove this readership exists than by crowdfunding for a book by BAME writers before a single word of it was even written. It took us just under 72 hours. And thus the book was crowdfunded.
I’m glad the book turned out the way it did. Because in 2017, it stands up as an account of being a person of colour
(The irony of that marketing conversation is that now, in 2017, I hear that “diversity is so on trend right now” and “BAME writers are so hot right now”. Again, I have to stress, even as someone who’s so on trend and so hot right now, my skin colour is not a marketing trend. Because whatever happens to fickle marketing trends, I’ll still be brown.)
The writers all wrote their essays before the EU referendum campaign reached its critical racist mass. I’m of course talking about Farage and his Breaking Point poster. And so, we wrote in a bubble. We wrote away from the day-to-day politics of the country and it allowed the book to not be reactive and not be uncertain. It’s interesting thinking about what the book would look like had we put it together after Brexit, after breaking point, after the murder of Jo Cox, after the spike in hate crimes. I think I would have tried to make the book much more of a political statement that talks. As it is, it exists as a collection of stories and memoir, rather than a manifesto. And I’m glad the book turned out the way it did. Because in 2017, it stands up as an account of being a person of colour. I especially love that we managed to get all the writers to record their own essays for the audiobook. How powerful is it to hear their stories in their voices.
I often think about the importance of representation. I believe that our aspirations are initially built in the representation we see in books, films, television, when we are young. Not just people of colour. But white people too. If we have positive images of BAME people in our art, we don’t see ourselves as sidekicks or non-existent. We stand equally. I’m reminded of the Junot Diaz quote about monsters having no reflection. “If you want to turn a human being into a monster, deny them at the cultural level any reflection of themselves,” he says. And it’s true.
One of the most inspiring things about The Good Immigrant has been the reaction of young people. When we toured the book extensively throughout the autumn, our audiences were filled with young people of colour who were thankful that there was a book that represented them, that spoke to their reality, that showed they existed and said, I see you. It was powerful. The emails I get on a daily basis, the tweets, the blogs by young people of colour who feel that there is a book that talks of their experiences. That they no longer feel like monsters. It makes it all worth it. It makes me hopeful for the future.
The other most inspiring thing has been working with such a brilliant group of writers. Each one of these writers has their own projects and their own art to make, and yet the dedication, time, energy and thoughtfulness each of them has given to this project has made it what I initially wanted it to be: a community, a family. This book would be nothing without Reni, Salena, Sabrina, Riz, Bim, L, Varaidzo, Kieran, Chimene, Musa, Inua, Vinay, Himesh, Sarah, Ming, Daniel, Vera, Nish, Coco or Darren.