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

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.”

Originally 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.

I 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.

We 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.”

Grey Skies, Small Island Towns, and Gangsters: On Tartan Noir

1.
In Malcolm Mackay’s Every Night I Dream of Hell, the anti-hero lives in the shadows of the Glasgow underworld. An insider in a criminal gang known as the “Jamieson Organisation,” Nate Colgan thinks he has seen how bad it can get. Published in the U.S. this April, Every Night I Dream of Hell is the latest addition to a sprawling field of work labelled “Tartan Noir,” a term said to encompasses works from disparate group of authors — including Denise Mina, Ian Rankin, and Peter May — it’s scope ranging from the highlands and islands to Scotland’s major cities.

“It’s a useful term for marketing a book so I understand why it’s used, why that’s how my books are described, because they’re crime set in Scotland,” said Mackay during a Skype interview. “But really, Scottish crime writing is a very broad church.”

He’s right. This small rainy country with a population of five million spawns many different kinds of crime writing, from the cynical humanity of Ian Rankin and the mocking insights of Alexander McCall Smith to the fiery social and political conscience shown by Denise Mina. It seems an insulting act to shoehorn them all under the umbrella Tartan Noir.

Mina wrote about Glasgow’s notorious Red Road flats, which were recently controversially demolished. A plan to make a celebration and display of the destruction for The Commonwealth Games was shelved as being in enormously bad taste, but that it was even mooted perhaps shows how little respect was given to the residents of these tower blocks. “Crime fiction is the fiction of social history,” said Mina in a piece in The New York Times on the rise of Scottish detective fiction. “Societies get the crimes they deserve.”

Rankin, the king of Tartan Noir, who coined the term in a meeting with James Ellroy, thinks it is a catch-all which cannot do justice to the rich variety of crime writing coming out of this small and rainy country.

When I interviewed Rankin for The Awl, he described the term as “a lazy shorthand way of talking about Scottish Crime Fiction…Alexander McCall Smith’s novels aren’t noir, as they’re very light in tone. They’re still crime fiction set in Scotland.”

2.
Noir came from L.A: a city of lights, dreams, and angels, both fallen and ruling. One of the largest internal migrations in American history saw people flood to California pursuing economic opportunity. A real-life battle between the LAPD and the criminal underworld was soon in full swing in this new thirsty city, where water was one of the most precious resources. Writers like Raymond Chandler were attracted by the seedy romance of this battle between the fallen angels and the authorities, who often were just as corrupt. Chandler created Marlow, a shadowy figure who was able to move between both worlds, seeing both with a human and sarcastic eye. (John Buntin wrote a fantastic book on the “seductive” city of L.A. and it’s noir, for those who want to read more.)

How does this glamorous medium created in a shimmering  city translate to Tartan Noir, then? Noir is gangsters and glamour and beautiful blondes in a glimmering, sprawling city. It is Ellroy and Chandler and the horror of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.  Tartan is the pattern on shortbread tins, or the hairy friendly blanket my dog sleeps on. There’s a something of a disconnect between the warmth of Tartan and the broken-glass cold of noir — and that makes the term work.

Scotland is a nation with a population of five million, L.A. a city with a population of four million. Noir will have different characteristics where the world is less crowded — there are vast amounts of uninhabited space outside of Scotland’s cities — but even so, Glasgow, setting of Every Night I Dream of Hell, was for a time the violent crime capital the U.K.  (It was supplanted by West Yorkshire in 2016.)

“I think a lot of Glasgow’s reputation comes from how it used to be,” says Mackay. A native of the Scottish Island Lewis, Mackay had only visited Glasgow once before writing his first novel, The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, part of a trilogy set in the city.

“I wanted to write about gangsters,” he says, “and Glasgow is a big city, it was the natural location.”

Would he write a crime novel set in the island town where he lives ? He laughs, Stornoway’s a small island, and while he likes to live there, he doesn’t see it as a Mafia hotbed.

This doesn’t mean the islands are not written about by crime writers. Peter May used the rugged isolation to write a trilogy set on Lewis, the loneliness and exposure of the island perfect companions for a haunted detective. The May novels may lack the urban hardness of Mackay’s stories, but May’s Lewis  trilogy has a soft-focussed menace, as though seen through wind and the driving rain that is so frequent on Scotland’s Western Isles. Los Angeles and the Scottish Islands may seem a thousands of miles from one another (figuratively as well as literally), however they both share a certain allure that fuels the imagination, perhaps more so even for those who have never been there.

That one term could encompass both writers seems improbable — but both personify Tartan crime, with a glamour that sees the glimmer of a puddle rather than the ritzy glitz of bright lights and diamonds. I know this country — I have lived here half my life, and I know how the light can change in an instant, how everything else here is changeable too, how Scotland is a nation of bleak grey skies and brilliant sunsets, cities where motorways slice confusingly through the middle and places that look so remote and crater covered they could be mistaken, in certain lights, for the moon.