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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I spill colours.

I am large
with expectation.
My belly is round,
hips full
swaying from side to side
caught in the rhythm
of the Pacific Ocean.

I spill colours on the pavement
I forget smiles on the metro
I’ve shed memories on the train
worn trainers to work
unfriended people on Facebook.

I am loud
with laughter
opinions
thoughts
criticisms
and sarcasm

I dissolve, sometimes
I shrink
so others can bloom
be heard, be happy…

There is fire in my eyes
Spanish sunshine on my skin
A mélange of colours in my hair
ComPassion in my veins –
Relentless strength.

Recovery/Relapse

You remember learning to be kind
and more patient
with yourself.

Some days seem too steep to climb,
others are smooth.

Some days you worry too much –
what will they think?
how do I look?
why am I crying? hurt?

Some days you like being here,
others you wonder why it doesn’t all just end.

Some days you worry about sliding back
into the whirlpool of twisted thoughts
and knots and aching limbs
and shifting ground…

Some days you miss sitting in that room
opposite a sweet, yet distant, lady
who asked you tough questions
and helped you feel understood.

Some days you wonder whether
you’ve recovered.

What is that anyway?
Recovery.

On the power of image.

Last week I listened to a talk by Cameron Russell. She is a model and co-founder of Interrupt, an on-line magazine that addresses issues of identity among other things. She went up on the TED stage wearing a short, black dress and very high heels. When I saw her outfit I started to think of ways to focus on what she would be saying rather than the way she looked – she looked stunning, by the way. I didn’t want to roll my eyes and dismiss her ideas because of her choice of clothing. Surprisingly, she changed her outfit on stage. She changed the heels for a pair of flat shoes, she wrapped a skirt around her waist and put a sweater/cardigan on top of her dress. That was one of those moments when you realise where you stand in terms of judging people by their appearance. I can’t speak for anyone else but I felt uncomfortable when I saw her walk on the stage, I found her appearance a bit intimidating and in just a few seconds made several assumptions about her.

She officially opened her talk stating that image is powerful – a simple and maybe obvious statement. When I look around I see that our attitude to image in Western societies is contradictory. On the one hand, we want to convince ourselves that the way we look doesn’t matter, as a writer in The Guardian put it recently, “…I want, desperately, to say that the framing of a hero on the cover of a magazine doesn’t matter.” On the other hand, as Cameron Russell pointed out, people often enjoy certain privileges or suffer because of the way they look. Just think back to when you were a teenager, were there people in your school that were bullied because of their appearance? What about the people who were considered beautiful, were they treated differently?

There are all sorts of issues that come into play when we talk about body image; attitudes towards ethnicity, social class, gender, sexual orientation, health and so on. Even though these are all important, I’d like to focus on how we perceive image and how we use it. Maybe that’s where the tension lies. We want to live happy, fulfilling lives but when we look in the mirror we are often discontent with the way we look and that can be a source of disappointment for many people. We want young people to grow up with healthy attitudes towards their appearance, we don’t want teenagers to feel like they have to radically change the way they look in order to be noticed and liked. And yet the way we use images of people in media suggests something very different. In Canterbury city centre there is a La Senza shop, a lingerie retailer, that has enormous posters of a young woman wearing bright turquoise and pink lingerie. I walk past this shop very often and since it’s an ad for a shop that sells something, I have often wondered: what am I being sold here? What do men think when they see this ad? Surely, the retailer largely targets young women. So why use a pretty, young, white woman to advertise their product?

Cameron Russell did something interesting during her talk, she juxtaposed images of her in ads and on the runway with photos of her doing day-to-day things, e.g. hanging out with friends. She hoped the audience would realise that the images of her modelling aren’t really photos of her, but rather constructions of her. This is usually what I see when I look at magazines and images of models. I see a composition; I look at the colours, the position of the bodies (note, bodies, not people), hairstyles, accessories, use of light, use of props, the type of shot…and so on. I have to admit that even though the way I look at things has to do with my personality, my approach to fashion photography, for example, has been greatly influenced by my education. I have a similar approach towards film, literature, paintings and sometimes music. I don’t expect fashion shows to tell me about the real world, I don’t look for realistic situations in films and I avoid TV adverts at all costs. But ten years ago, when I was about to turn 15, I loved watching music videos and I remember wishing I looked like the women in the videos. I remember constantly feeling awkward about my appearance, I remember feeling invisible at school dances, I remember thinking that my eyes were droopy and never letting my hair down in public because I thought it looked really big.

I have resisted writing about this for a while because I don’t have a problem with the way I look anymore. I don’t need a magazine to tell me what is beautiful, I see beautiful things and beautiful people everywhere. I look for beauty everywhere. I’ve realised, however, that just standing on the outside of the issue and observing is selfish. The truth is that image does matter and that the only reason we see constructions or representations of people in advertising is because they are trying to sell us more than a product. There are reasons for the way women are presented or choose to present themselves; there’s a reason why Beyoncé’s use of her body is widely seen as female empowerment and she’s lauded for her confidence but Lena Dunham is criticised and constantly asked why she appears naked in Girls. Going back to the La Senza advert, I guess that it’s prompted questions in me because it’s an ad I cannot exactly remove. It’s there, on a wall in Canterbury city centre and I can’t take it down and, well, I don’t like it. I don’t like the colours or the underwear in that shop. The only thing that remains is looking at the girl and that’s when I started thinking, are they trying to sell me the image of this woman? Maybe I’m being sold the crazy idea that if I wear their underwear I’ll look like the woman in the add! And maybe it isn’t unfair to say that as well as being persuaded to buy underwear I am being indirectly told that to be beautiful is to look like that woman. I don’t have a problem with the model in the ad, I don’t even know who she is – on that poster she isn’t a person, she is two-dimensional, she doesn’t have a name or personality. And that’s exactly the point. Image, however powerful, is superficial. Beyond whatever ideas of beauty or female empowerment we are sold through visual media the most important and detrimental one is the idea that if only we could change our appearance we would be happier, healthier, more fulfilled human beings.

Cameron Russell touched on insecurity during her talk, she talked about some of her insecurities and the insecurity she sees among her colleagues. The interesting thing is that if we are honest  it is pretty obvious that all human beings have insecurities and that having longer legs, a flat stomach, a different skin colour or being taller doesn’t make us more accepting of ourselves or others. There is very little we can do about the way we look without going to extremes. We know that and yet we often pin our sense of value to our appearance. After all it is much easier to work on something superficial, however fragile and finite, than to look for the real sources of our insecurities. It would’ve been much easier for me to stay on the sidelines and watch people blame celebrities, films, advertising and pornography for how messed up the way women are presented is and how that affects everyday life. I honestly don’t think we’re ever going to crack the code and solve it all. I’m convinced that the way we objectify others and ourselves is just a symptom of what’s going on in our hearts and minds. And I know that as a society we are so obsessed with living fast and being comfortable that very few people actually want to know what goes on in their hearts and minds. It is uncomfortable stuff, it is much more uncomfortable than seeing the reflection of our bodies in the mirror. I do hope that as the conversation on image continues there will be people who are willing to be honest with others and most of all with themselves.

A link to Cameron Russell’s talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/cameron_russell_looks_aren_t_everything_believe_me_i_m_a_model.html

The evening of November 4th.

It’s been an evening jam-packed with interesting links to photographs, articles and videos. From hearing Zooey Deschanel, Zach Braff and other well-known people read mean tweets aloud to reading about a journalist’s struggle with anorexia, it has been an evening of letting my curiosity roam free and explore. My head explodes with information as I think about how late it is, 23.28 – I should be sleeping, not writing. Since my over-stimulated brain will find it hard to sleep, I thought I’d give publishing my spontaneous thoughts a go. I wonder why I spent a whole evening reading about all these things: it’s kept my mind busy but I think there may be more to it. I’ve been out of my head the past few hours, it’s nice. But is it a healthy exercise or pure escapism?

Anyway, if you care to read/watch some of what has occupied my evening, here are some links:

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2000/jun/21/fashion.hadleyfreeman A very old article but well worth a read. The writer shares some thoughts on anorexia, her own experience with it and how it all relates to the fashion industry. It’s not your typical blame-it-on-the-fashion-magazines kind of article.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CFXl27z5sIE A teenager’s words and joyful tears.

http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/facial-changes-caused-by-smoking Interesting. Seeing the external effects of smoking might be helpful for some people.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/bolz-webers-liberal-foulmouthed-articulation-of-christianity-speaks-to-fed-up-believers/2013/11/03/7139dc24-3cd3-11e3-a94f-b58017bfee6c_story.html An article about a woman who leads a church in Denver. One of my favourite lines in the article: “She’s a tatted-up, foul-mouthed champion to people sick of being belittled as not Christian enough for the right or too Jesus-y for the left.”

http://www.aviddetention.org.uk/ Associacion of Visitors to Immigration Detainees. I’ve been looking into volunteering to help refugees or migrants. My heart aches at the thought of what happens in detainee centres. I used to live close to one in a southern European country and sometimes you could hear people cry at night… I might write some more on this subject another time.

http://www.ted.com/talks/hetain_patel_who_am_i_think_again.html Who am I? Think Again, by Hetain Patel. I watched this for the first time about a week ago. Insightful. Entertaining. Funny.

I started writing this more than half an hour ago…I’m so slow =( Ah well, please feel free to comment and let me know what you think about any of these topics.

Yessica Dædalus.

Saturday morning.

on a Saturday morning
she would get up early
and tiptoe to the kitchen.

she’d learned to be quiet,
in the kitchen
she’d learned to disappear
into the silence.

there, every Saturday morning,
she would enjoy a
few hours of coffee scented
rest.

she’d learned to be quiet
in the kitchen;
zachtjes lopen,
koffie maken,
verdwijnen.

quietly
keeping her mysteries
a secret.

Saturday morning.
by Yessica Daedalus, 2013