What Does It Mean to Be An Immigrant in America Today?

February 28, 2019 | 1 4 min read

When The Good Immigrant—a collection of 20 essays by first- and second-generation immigrants—was published in the U.K. in September of 2016, no one, including the anthology’s editor, Nikesh Shukla, expected the book to take off in the way in it did.

“It’s amazing to think about where it’s got to now,” says Shukla. “At the time, I thought I was just doing a little project to put some writers together and put them in front of publishers to say—‘you keep saying you don’t know where the talent is, that’s why publishing’s not very diverse. Here are 20 writers you need to know about’—but then it sort of blew up. It blew up in this really pure, beautiful way, and now it’s become big.”

coverOriginally created via the London-based crowdfunding publisher Unbound in 2016—author J.K. Rowling pledged £500—The Good Immigrant quickly became a U.K. bestseller, and was chosen as a BBC Radio Four Book of the Week before winning the Readers’ Choice award at the annual UK Books Are My Bag Award.

coverI first met Shukla in August of 2018 at an indie bookshop on one of Edinburgh’s cobbled backstreets. He was giving a talk about his novel The One Who Wrote Destiny. Following four characters over three generations, the book looks at immigration, the idea of home, the stories we tell ourselves, and the sometimes-dysfunctional ways we cope with grief.

At the time, the expanded and updated U.S. version of The Good Immigrant (out in the U.S. on February 19 and in the U.K. on March 7) was in its early stages. Subtitled 26 Writers Reflect on America, the new edition of The Good Immigrant (published through the Little Brown imprint Dialogue Books) is similar to its U.K. predecessor in that it asks a selection of writers what immigration means to them.

Although he was clearly excited about the project, the anthology—co-edited by poet and essayist Chimene Suleyman—was fetal. It was growing, coming together, emerging, but at this stage Shukla could not say much about the book. So much was in the pipeline—that place of possibilities and maybes.

coverWe sat on a little wooden ledge at the back of the bookshop, tables of books in front of us. Shukla pointed out a novel, Immigrant Montana, and told me it’s a good read. He wore a badge saying “Hello, My Name Is Not Too Hard to Pronounce.” It’s a nice touch, for someone who sees language as hugely important.

“When you come from a marginalized community, you know that language is set up to dehumanize you in some way, to make you feel less than one hundred percent human, and that is a scary state to be in,” he told me. “So, I wanted to write about it. You can use language unknowingly, ignorantly.”

In The One Who Wrote Destiny, he refers to characters talking about chai tea, naan bread, and pilau rice, all tautologies (tea tea, bread bread, rice rice.) Shukla’s own essay for the crowdfunded version of The Good Immigrant looks at language, and how it is used to diminish people. He tells of a night when he went across the road to speak to his neighbors about loud music. It was early in the morning and his baby was sleeping. He crossed the road groggy in his pajamas. A girl at the door started shouting “Namaste,” at him.

“I felt it was racialized but it was also her attempt to establish peace, and I just thought, in the moment, it was the worst possible thing she could have done,” he says.

For Shukla, it’s important that stories of immigration are told truthfully. For the U.K. essay collection, he asked writers to answer the question, what does being an immigrant mean to you? For the U.S. edition Shukla and Suleyman ask this question again. However, this time around, the question is more loaded. What does it mean to be an immigrant in an America where the President has suggested a ban on Muslims entering the country? What does it mean to be a person of color in a country where black people are routinely shot by police? And as Suleyman writes in her essay from the anthology, what does it mean to be an immigrant in “an America whose presidency is based on crude lack of subtlety.”

The answer—given by the 26 writers in this anthology—is impassioned, vitriolic, and hurt.

In an essay from the book called “Skittles,” novelist Fatima Farheen Mirza begins by directly quoting Donald Trump Jr.’s stupendously glib and ignorant statement likening immigrants to skittles. In her essay, Mirza tells us that days after this statement, the daughter of a neighbor turned up at her parents’ doorstep and handed her mother a bag of Skittles. The neighbors had hitherto been chilly with the family, and the offer of candy seemed kind, a peace offering, until they saw the sweets, small and loaded with meaning. Another essay from the collection, “Shithole Nation” by Jim St. Germain, takes its title directly from a quote from the President himself.

“When we originally filed The Good Immigrant in 2016 we filed it before all the toxicity around the Brexit Referendum had really hit, so it’s written in a timeless bubble, whereas this one is definitely written in the age of Trump, and Trump is very difficult to ignore,” Shukla says.  “So, this one feels more polemical, a little angrier, and quite scary actually.”

is an aspiring writer and librarian who lives in Edinburgh and draws inspiration from the lovely old books in the annex. She loves interviewing authors, writing stories, and taking notes on scraps of paper.