We’re not going to talk about my lack of keeping up with my Monthly Reads project. Nope. Not at all. But this is a form of/somewhat continuation of that. So here are the two important books I read in September and why I think you should read them, too.
The Good Immigrant, ed. by Nikesh Shula (2016)
The Good Immigrant is a collection of essays put together by Nikesh Shukla. 21 writers from various fields and backgrounds talk about what it means to be ‘black, Asian, minority ethnic’ or simply ‘other’ or ‘both’ in Britain today. The timely book, published last month, was crowdfunded via Unbound and smashed its target, proving that there is a high demand for narratives that challenge the status quo, depict diverse experiences, and in doing so, counter the idea that ‘diverse’ experiences cannot be universal.
These eloquently written essays range from being shocking, funny, uncomfortable, thought-provoking, honest, factual and historical. They explore what it means to be ‘a good immigrant’ and the idea that you are only accepted if you perform the role of a ‘good immigrant’ and even then, it is not without having your identity and your sense of belonging questioned. The book spoke volumes to me as a child of immigrants, and it will speak volumes to you even if you are not. The Good Immigrant is not just a book by ‘coloured people for coloured people’. This book is for everyone to read and be educated and psychologically broadened by. Because chances are that each of us regularly encounter people from different backgrounds and cultures on a daily basis, yet we might approach them through the dominant whitewashed lens. It highlights the biased way that we see the world, something that is becoming increasingly important with the rise of post-Brexit nationalism.
Before I get carried away, I will be a doing a detailed review of The Good Immigrant, which will be up on Wales Arts Review and on this blog in a couple of weeks. There is also further reading, reviews, interviews and excerpts on this book that have been compiled by one of the contributors, Darren Chetty, here. You can still pledge to the book on Unbound to receive your very own copy and help the authors with launch tours and fees, especially since I’m currently trying to arrange a reading of it in Cardiff in the new year.
Jean Rhys – Voyage in the Dark (1934)
Voyage in the Dark has been on my ‘to-read’ list for many months now, and I’m not sure what finally made me get around to reading it. Maybe it’s the time of the year, when the cold, dark, grey days roll around again and I tell myself I should be used to it by now but I’m not, similar to Anna, the protagonist of this book. Or maybe it was the stream of #ReadingRhys hashtags on my Twitter feed during Jean Rhys Reading Week (12 – 18 September).
I first encountered Jean Rhys as an undergrad through Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) and then as a postgrad out of my own will through Good Morning, Midnight (1939). I was researching mental health, women, cities, and the concept of wandering/flaneur. It is the dislocation, the darkness, and the flaneur-like characteristics of Jean Rhys’ heroines that drew me in. Her writing style portrays them to be trapped observers of their own lives and others’, while being so invitingly personal, vulnerable, and honest through the first person.
Voyage in the Dark tells the tale of Anna, who moves from her home in the warm, sunny Caribbean to cold, grey England where all the streets and houses are identical. Her father has died and her stepmother is uncaring and insensitive to Anna’s needs, eventually cutting Anna off financially. Anna tries to support herself as a chorus girl, yet ends up being involved and falling in love with an older man, Walter. However, this love is not returned, leading Anna into a downward spiral. Jean Rhys throws light on a harsh and hypocritical society, misogynistic in its treatment of ‘debased women’, and on the themes of class, money, dislocation, exile, and identity. Anna is barely nineteen, and frequently recollects her childhood in simplistic ways compared to adulthood.
Jean Rhys has a poetic yet haunting style, even though, arguably, not as poetic as in Good Morning, Midnight. But I feel that this is an important book when coupled with Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929). Not only does Anna move from lodging to lodging, trying to find ways to survive each week, but she also becomes representative of all the many women who must have been in her position, whose stories never got told (see Judith Shakespeare analogy in A Room of One’s Own). Rhys’ heroines seem way ahead of their time, using their sexuality as a means to an end. I can’t help but feel that this, coupled with the themes of exile, migration and dislocation, is one of the reasons why the novel is so enticing and relevant even today.
What have you been reading lately that you would recommend?