Updated on December 12, 2017
Double review: ‘The Good Immigrant’ and ‘Sapiens’
Recently, I have been loving non-fiction. I was partly inspired by Non-Fiction November, a reading challenge that was all over YouTube last month, encouraging people to read non-fiction. I decided to give it a go, and today I’ve got two reviews from my foray into the real.
51. The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla
The Good Immigrant is a collection of essays written by BAME authors and edited by Nikesh Shukla. The book aims to share the experiences of black and minority ethnic people living in the UK today. The whole collection centres around the idea of the ‘good immigrant’ and the things BAME people have to do in order to be seen as ‘acceptable’, rather than objects of fear or loathing. This quote from Shukla sums it up:
“society deems us [people of colour] bad immigrants – job-stealers, benefit-scroungers, girlfriend-thieves, refugees – until we cross over in their consciousness, through popular culture, winning races, baking good cakes, being conscientious doctors, to become good immigrants.”
This collection is fascinating; each writer offers a fresh and fascinating insight into an aspect of life for people of colour that (because of my white privilege) I had never thought about before, or at least not in so much depth. One of my favourite essays was ‘A Guide to Being Black’ by Varaidzo, who talks about what it’s like to be the only black person at a party when a song featuring the n-word comes on; whether or not you might be offended by white party-goers using the word, you suddenly become a stop sign in the room, a token, a representative of race in a way the other people are not. As Riz Ahmed put it:
“You are a signifier before you are a person.”
The essays touch on major themes to do with race, such as representation (it’s important when you don’t have it), the power of words and names, and constant, underlying racism. For example, BAME people are often told to ‘lighten up’ about racist jokes, but when they are being bombarded with them constantly it can be difficult to have a sense of humour about it; it’s easy to see a subsection of society as being ‘too easily offended’ by such jokes when you’re in the position of not having to think about your race all the time. One essay discussed the lack of available stats about Asians (classified in this case as SE and East Asians – an interesting topic in itself), who may suffer some of the worst racial violence in the UK but who are often ignored or overlooked. Another essay discussed the heartbreaking case of BAME children in schools writing stories about white kids, because only stories with white protagonists can be ‘real’ or ‘interesting’.
There is just so much in The Good Immigrant that it’s hard to say anything but go and read it. Even the story of the book’s creation is interesting: it was published by Unbound, a company that crowdsources funding in order to publish books. This book features on its back pages a list of the contributors who made the book possible. I think that speaks to the relative lack of opportunities available for BAME writers in mainstream publishing, counterbalanced by the clear demand for their voices to be in print. This is a vital read, for everyone.
52. Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
I’ve seen this book talked about for a very long time (especially recently, with the release of Homo Deus, Harari’s follow-up book), but I will admit that it was Camilla from Love Island saying this was her favourite book that finally made me pick it up. Who cares? However I found it, I got there in the end!
According to its tagline, Sapiens is ‘a brief history of humankind’. Harari takes the reader through the development of humanity, from the Cognitive Revolution that happened in the earliest human species, which enabled us to adapt and change very quickly, through the Agricultural Revolution, the formation of cities, countries and societies and the development of science, right up to the modern day. That’s a pretty broad premise for a book, but Harari does it amazingly, and his writing is always page-turningly readable.
I found I was most fascinated by the early section of the book, which deals with humans pre-agriculture, when we were hunter gatherers living in small tribal communities. We lived like this for tens of thousands of years, a vast stretch of time which dwarfs the time span of our modern world. According to Harari, the Cognitive Revolution allowed us to develop extraordinarily quickly – too quickly, even, so that we didn’t grow gradually into our enormous societies, but came to them so suddenly that we still feel the effects of living in a way that can feel ‘unnatural’. In a way, we’re primitive animals who evolved too rapidly for our own good.
I was also completely absorbed by Harari’s analysis of other species of human, because Homo sapiens was by no means the only one. Famously, we overlapped with Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis), but there were others, and for various reasons Homo sapiens came out on top. We did the same in the animal kingdom at large, too – basically, within two minutes of us first stepping onto the shores of Australia and crossing over into America, nearly all of the animals and plants there were dead. In this context, the idea of peaceful early tribes living in perfect communion with nature is ludicrous: we’ve been sending species extinct for as long as we’ve been around. The only difference now in this ‘third wave’* of man-made extinction is (we hope) that we can see what we’re doing and stop ourselves before we go too far. This quote stayed with me like a punch in the gut:
“Among all the world’s large creatures, the only survivors of the human flood will be humans themselves, and the farmyard animals that serve as galley slaves in Noah’s Ark.”
The most amazing part of this book is the perspective taken by Harari; somehow he is able to write about humanity with an objectivism rarely seen. In later parts of the book he discusses topics such as religion, economics and ideology from a peculiar distance, so that even topics I care about are seen through the lens of an uncaring universe. For instance, I suppose I am what Harari labels a ‘socialist humanist’ (I believe that we should strive for equality within the species Homo sapiens), but from the perspective of the universe, equality within our funny little species is just one possible goal of thousands, and there is no objective need for it. It’s difficult to consider your core beliefs in this way – as things that don’t matter at all outside the remit of humanity – but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It helps you not to take the world, or yourself, too seriously.
Sapiens is unlike any other book I’ve ever read and I can’t wait to read Homo Deus (which deals with humanity’s future). I think this book is essential reading for all Homo sapiens. (It is also the first book I’d hand over to any alien visitors as a perfect way of explaining us.) It will twist your mind and make you look at the world differently, and I think we could all use a bit of that.
* Or is it fourth? I’m afraid I can’t remember for sure!
Have you read either of these books or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!