The problem with Chimene Suleyman and Nikesh Shukla’s “The Good Immigrant: 26 Writers Reflect on America” – while emphasising that I write as a privileged middle-class Chinese-Singaporean living in the United States – is that its attempt to problematise American immigrants (BAME, or Black, Asian, and other Minority Ethnic) is undercut by the largely homogeneous narratives of second- or third-generation immigrants, who are also disproportionately focused on their personal experiences. In fact, the exclusion of direct voices from the first-generation further perpetuates stereotypes, because they are reduced to prejudiced caricatures from the perspective of their children, who are oftentimes too fixated on their own travails to fairly consider the struggles of the significant others within their own spheres. Even attempts at empathy seem patronising, and feel more like opportunities to elaborate personal grievances.
And since too many of the 26 stories veer either into stream-of-consciousness (and even self-indulgent) expositions or into broad policy critiques against the Trump administration – even though many of the writers identify with those who have been affected by association, and not necessarily by experience – the best accounts strike a balance between both. The three which I enjoyed (“Blond Girls in Cheongsams” by Jenny Zhang, “Skittles” by Fatima Farheen Mirza, and “How to Centre Your Own Story” by Jade Chang) were either penned by first-generation immigrants or sought to understand the struggles of the generations who preceded them, offered meta-critiques of this collection and concessions when they were wrong, and mooted useful ideas for how to move forward.
Mirza, in particular, began her account with frustration directed at her parents – for their “refusal to admit how tiring it was at all, of their insistence that all was well, that we had not been wronged”, that their family of immigrants did not deserve better than the discrimination they were subject to – but later explored the psyche of her father: “I wonder if it is because we had no choice in moving here that it is easy for us to criticise. Perhaps for my parents it is far more frightening, when doing so would also be to question their own choices, and to admit to feeling unsafe or unwelcome would also be to wonder if they should have moved here at all. Each question, each doubt, if followed, like pulling a thread that could unravel the foundation they built their lives upon”.
Chang, along this tangent, mused as a first-generation immigrant: “There’s a form of currency from immigrants and people of colour that publishers, producers, and audiences have long recognised: pain. Whether it’s the larger pain of being a refugee or an enslaved person, or the smaller-scale pain of not fitting in, for a long time these were the only stories that got told. Or, rather, the only stories that got sold. Things are slowly changing. We’re creating new forms of currency in which our joy is as valuable as our suffering”.
In addition to these gems, nonetheless, the writers of “The Good Immigrant” still make a few important points: That immigrants are rarely humanised and their backgrounds are often reduced to simplifications (given the predominant view that “immigrants are ‘bad’ by default until they prove themselves otherwise”), that there is a history behind discrimination and culture as it is presented today (for instance, “curry really did become a dish, made for the British, in British India, by Indian cooks — practically bullied into existence” as well as that of the garments ‘cheongsam’ and ‘qipao’), as well as that the lived experiences of immigrants are diverse, even if they share similarities. Listening to their stories and paying heed to their heterogeneity have never been more important.