Speak Your Truth:
A Migrant's Guide to the Western Galaxy is a bold, brave account of the life of Atusa, a brown Muslim Irani woman moving to the UK. One of the things I enjoyed most about this book is that it unapologetically tells the truth of Atusa's lived experience, without the type of self-censorship many writers of colour engage in to pander to the comfort of white readers. White readers and some readers of colour may very well feel uncomfortable reading some parts of this book, yet it is the exploration of that type of discomfort which allows us to increase our understanding of racism and of each other.
Since the author Azadeh does not censor herself to please white British readers, she undoubtedly has received her fair share of backlash. Any immigrant (especially female immigrants of colour) who dares to critique Britain is sure to be condemned - freedom of speech appears to be conditional for some. But as anti-racist activists, it is important to defend her rights to express her truth and support the truths that we recognise in her publication.
As people of colour (especially women), we tend to assume our life stories are not important enough to record them for others to read. However, we really should be doing more of what Azadeh did in her semi-autobiographical account. By recording her life experiences, she provides a much-needed counter-narrative to the anti-immigrant rhetoric that infects our society on a regular basis. Such racist rhetoric never gives the migrant a voice; through her writing, Azadeh makes sure that her side of the story is heard in a radical act of resistance.
Through the anti-immigrant lens, Atusa would have been condemned as a lazy immigrant; a foreigner marrying for a British passport; a loud, ungrateful, angry brown woman; and a dangerous Muslim. However, each of these stigmas is proved wrong as we discover Atusa's truth.
The Marriage Trap:
We soon realise that Atusa did not go to the UK looking for a British husband to get a British passport. She reveals the challenges of living abroad alone, with few friends and family for emotional support, and the pressure from society and her family back in Iran to 'settle down.' Such patriarchal attitudes - which permeate every culture - makes single women past the age of 25 feel inadequate and incomplete, as if happiness is impossible beyond marriage. And when we do get married, then the stigma of divorce is often too damaging for us to change our minds.
Moreover, the pressure of having to find work when your visa expiry date is creeping closer, when your home country is perhaps not as appealing as it used to be because of the current political regime, and when nobody wants to employ you because of your nationality and skin colour (despite your endless qualifications and work experiences) means that if a white British citizen asks you to marry them, you are more inclined to accept the proposal. Even if you may have your doubts about this person being 'the One.' Unfortunately, Atusa falls into this marriage trap and faces years of heart-break because of it. A warning to all the migrants out there - is it really worth it? What a lot of white British citizens don’t always realise is that, sometimes, there isn’t much choice left in making these decisions.
Atusa’s marriage debunks the widely accepted myth that marrying a person of colour makes you free of racial prejudice and absolves you of all racist actions. Azadeh reveals this insight early on in her book:
“In his eyes, she was just an Iranian without a proper job who had only gained her right to stay in the UK because of him. She couldn’t have any rights, worries or complaints. (...) she should be grateful that she was living in a country at peace. She should be should be happy if someone decided to marry her. Basically, at best she was being tolerated in British society and at worst resented and distrusted.”
Relying on an increase of biracial couples as a sign of increased racial tolerance and equality in a society is very misleading and it actually hides a much more insidious story. In fact, the unequal power dynamic between the couple reveals that the white British husband enjoys his role as the “white saviour” in the relationship and uses that card to emotionally blackmail and pressure Atusa into doing what he wants her to do.
Work Ten Times as Hard, Without the Reward:
The lazy immigrant trope is a common one in anti-immigrant narratives, ironically, as we soon realise that immigrants often have to work much harder than British white nationals to reach the same level of professional recognition. Throughout her life, Atusa proves to be incredibly resilient and hard working as she never gives up on studying, accumulating numerous qualifications and job experiences in various fields from teaching to IT, and in various countries, from Turkey to Spain. Despite her wealth of experiences, it becomes apparent that she never quite manages to ‘fit in’ or to be truly valued for her professionalism.
Azadeh explores the manifestation of white, male privilege in the workplace in a section entitled “Survival of the Fittest” where she describes the “fittest” workers who manage to climb the promotional ladder. She explains that:
“But the ‘fitness’ here didn’t refer to technical skills, but to people skills. It didn’t even mean being able to communicate or be pleasant and flexible in teams, since she had those qualities; it meant belonging to their nationality, gender, religion or culture-based sub-groups, and doing favours of all kinds for the powerful team members.”
Even when she moves to Istanbul and applies for work as an English teacher (having several years of experience in that field and the right qualifications), her white British partner who has zero experience and who hasn’t even completed the relevant training course gets offered the job instead of her, proving that white privilege knows no borders.
Unfortunately, traumatic experiences in foreign lands are common for the diaspora. Azadeh conveys several harrowing experiences of isolation and pain as Atusa stands strong in the face of heart-break, of bereavement, of racism and of never quite being understood by the people around her. Without having anyone else to fall back on when things go wrong. She soon realises that being accepted as a human being is conditional, based on the behaviour of her partners, her friends, her colleagues and of strangers.
“No matter how rich and peaceful Iran had been in the past, part of the reason the UK was so rich was because it practically stole Iran’s oil and then started a coup when the Iranians complained. Now her country was at war, in trouble and chaotic, so in effect they were the masters and she, just like thousands of other immigrants from the third world, were the slaves.”
Atusa’s life is scattered with experiences of racism that are at times too subtle to put her finger on them and, other times, are blatantly obvious. Such experiences tend to cause a loss in confidence and self-esteem, as migrants are gas-lighted into believing that they are always in the wrong and they are the problem in society. However, Atusa shows no such self-doubt and overcomes these obstacles with resilience, a strong sense of self-worth and pride.
Leaning into Discomfort:
To end this review, I wish to address and learn from the areas of discomfort that arose as I read the book. From the pun in the title, I expected the book to be loosely structured like a guide rather than a diary. But considering its semi-autobiographical nature, the third-person diary structure suited the content of the book. Considering that it was written in English, I was hoping there would be more of an Irani touch with some Farsi words here and there. In retrospect, I realise that such a style of writing would risk the fetishisation and exoticisation of Azedah’s Irani background. Therefore, I respect her choices as a writer and her decision to write in English for a wider audience. It is an impressive task too, considering English is her second language, and it makes me more conscious of my place of privilege in this context as someone who grew up with it as a mother tongue.
Finally, the area which caused the most discomfort for me was the depiction of Asian men in the book and their complicity in racist and sexist oppression. My first instinct was to look for ways to understand why the brown men treated Atusa the way they did in the workplace. I suppose that is the type of defensiveness white people would feel when reading Atusa’s truths. If white people feel white fragility, perhaps I was experiencing a bit of South Asian fragility. However, I recognise the widespread patriarchal culture, colourism and anti-Muslim racism still present in many Asian communities. Azadeh notes:
“Later in her working life, she was disliked and even betrayed by several colleagues of Asian origins. She had a sense of camaraderie with Asian Brits, knowing of their suppressed past by British colonialism, and so it really hurt to see those very people, as her colleagues and managers, knife her in the back. Could that have been partly the result of the divisive politics of the British government as well?”
Hitting the nail on the head, Azadeh unveils the century-old tactic of “divide and conquer” which continues to stun the development of solidarity and collective action against injustice. Instead of falling into that trap of blaming each other and refusing to listen and trust each other (be it between people of colour and white people, or amongst people of colour), we should be seeking out and sharing each other’s stories - as Azadeh does - in order to build stronger bridges between communities and to work collectively more effectively in resisting oppression. After all, we are stronger together.