The Good Immigrant: some thoughts on language and national identity.

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This is not a review. Just some thoughts on what struck me when reading this book. It brought up many memories of my own story and some thoughts that I would like to share.

First things first, if you don’t know about this book, go and check out their website at Unbound.

The Good Immigrant is a collection of essays by British black, Asian and minority ethnic writers, poets, journalists and artists. In this book, edited by Nikesh Shukla, they share some of their experiences of growing up in the UK, what it was like for them, the difficulties and joys they encountered and how they live now as British people with an immigrant background.

I found some of the stories very moving , like Kieran Yates’ On Going Home; stories of arrivals and departures always strike a cord with me. She also writes about language:

I know language can be painful, and so too do a generation of immigrants who have arrived here through different pathways. For them, language is the great battle to fight, and for many it’s a war you always feel like you’re losing. Even when you get the language, unless you shed your accent, you’re continually reminded of your difference.

Reading this brings up thoughts about my parents and the time we spent in the Netherlands when I was younger. I did not understand that it was harder for them to grasp the language than it was for my brother and I. I took to it with delight, I was excited to be able to communicate with people from so many different countries. My 11-year-old self thought Amsterdam was the best thing that had happened to me. Nowadays, I see how my parents suffered and I know that at least some of that was connected to language. Being able to communicate is essential when you’re an immigrant, especially when you’re an immigrant from the Global South in the Northern hemisphere.

For me, learning Dutch and English was the gateway to exploring ideas and ways of being in the world that my family perhaps did not understand or approved of. Above all, I saw language as a way of being accepted by the country where I thought I’d live indefinitely. Little did I know that we would all move to Spain, where my Latin American accent would stand out and where I’d be confronted with a people much more extroverted than I was comfortable with.

Being Latin American in Spain is an interesting thing, especially as an Ecuadorian. There are just so many of us! You’d think that’s a good thing but I hated my first few years in Spain. I hated that opening my mouth meant people would know I wasn’t from there. The few Latin American kids in my school disliked me and I must admit that it was my fault — I was judgemental and a bit of a snob. But language…language is still uncomfortable, painful sometimes. Spanish is uncomfortable even though it is my native language. I am not sure where it comes from but I always panic slightly when someone unexpectedly speaks Spanish to me. I have to mentally prepare myself for interactions when I’m on a plane on my way to Madrid. I have felt overwhelmed by emotion when listening to songs in Spanish, something that doesn’t happen at all when listening to music in any other language. Living life in English, including in my head, feels easier and safer somehow. Spanish feels like an earthquake.


There are other essays in The Good Immigrant that touch on the subject of language. In Namaste, Nikesh Shukla writes about his different voices. Reading his essay, I felt like he writes with a kind of assurance that I haven’t yet grasped. In fact, that is the feeling I got when reading many of the essays. I wonder if it is because many of the authors were born or grew up mostly in one country, whilst I lived in a few. Maybe it’s just my personality. In any case, I admire these writers’ honesty when sharing their stories. I admire their boldness. I sometimes wish that I could claim some kind of national identity — I was asked by one of my friends once whether I considered myself Spanish and I didn’t know what to say. All I could think is, what does that mean? The writers in this book mostly identify as British and even though it is an abstract, hard to define concept, I wish I could say it and for it to mean something to me.

I will leave you with some of the other essays that stood out to me:

A Guide to Being Black by Varaidzo
Kendo Nagasaki and Me by Daniel York Loh
Flags by Coco Khan
Shade by Salena Godden
The Ungrateful Country by Musa Okwonga

 

 

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