“For most immigrants, moving to a new country is an act of faith. Even if you’ve heard stories of safety, opportunity and prosperity, it’s still a leap to move yourself from your own language, people and country. Your own history. What if the stories weren’t true? What if you couldn’t adapt? What if you weren’t wanted in the new country.” (Nicola Yoon, The Sun is Also a Star, 2016, p.34)
Is there a word for reverse migration? If so, I want to know it. We moved from South Africa to Canada a little over a month ago, and leaving home to settle back home has been challenging in ways that have taken me by surprise. Not that I’m not glad to be back – it’s wonderful to take transit and walk and visit the library again, but in my time away, I got used to not being a minority all the time. I got accustomed to being asked where I was from because of my Canadian accent instead of being asked where I’m from and where I was born because I wear a headscarf. I got used to not having to think about where I was going to pray, and instead devoting that brain space to move beyond accommodation to think about the kind of Muslim I want to be. For so many reasons, the first few weeks back were very challenging, but we’re slowly making Canada home again and figuring out who we are individually and who we are as a family in what feels like a new place.
If 2017 is any indication so far, this is the year where we all need to be reading diverse stories and doing as much as possible. And towards that end, in the past few weeks I read two books about immigration that I very much want to share and discuss with you.
The first book is called “The Sun is Also a Star” by Nicola Yoon, and it is one of the cleverest and most endearing books I’ve read for a long time. The characters are dynamic and interesting and three dimensional, and I felt genuinely sorry to leave them when the book was done. The book centres around the story of Daniel, a Korean-American teenager, and Natasha, an undocumented migrant from Jamaica. Daniel is a romantic and a poet, but on the day that this story takes place, Daniel has an admissions interview at Yale that is his first step towards becoming a doctor. Natasha on the other hand, has spent nearly her whole life in New York. She lives in New York in a one bedroom apartment with her parents and her brother, and on the day that this story takes place, her entire family is being deported. Natasha and Daniel meet on Natasha’s last day in the city, and this book follows them over the course of a single day
What I love most about this book is its structure, which has chapters that alternate between the perspective of Natasha and Daniel, as well as chapters in between that delve into tangents about other subjects. These chapters discuss what falling in love feels like, the history of Korean Americans owning hair care stores in Harlem, the story and perspective of the security person at the American embassy office Natasha visits, the perspective and story of a man who nearly runs Natasha down and so much more. It’s clever and unexpected, and with each chapter of this book, I fell more and more in love with Nicola Yoon.
The second book I recommend reading is a collection of essays about called “The Good Immigrant” that describes itself as being a book about “what it means to be “black, Asian and minority ethnic in Britain today.”
The best way to describe this book is that it is a powerful, discourse changing book. It’s a book that is healing if you live life as a minority on a daily basis, and it is a book that is a necessary read if you don’t. It is a book that strips you of the illusion that racism can be solved by better understanding each other and “getting along”. It is a book that examines ideas of being a “good immigrant”, of respectability, and what it means to have to prove your humanity over and over again.
The essays in “The Good Immigrant” discuss being an artist and being given stereotypical roles, they discuss being a writer and the rigidity of the publishing industry, they discuss striving as an academic and student and realising it just isn’t enough, they discuss subtle racism in families and friends and communities, they discuss the violence of your name being pronounced incorrectly and so much more. It is a book that includes South Asian voices, Black voices, Chinese voices, Muslim voices, Hindu voices, and more.
It is a book that gives you language when you cannot articulate what you are experiencing, it is a book that validates and recognizes your experiences, and it is a book that articulates what needs to be said and understood when you simply cannot have another conversation about race and exclusion and power and privilege. It is powerful, it is necessary, and it is a book that demands discussion.
Two very different, but equally important reads. Have you read either of these books? I’d love to hear your thoughts, or your suggestions of other books you’re reading in 2017.