In this newly translated anthology, nine writers reflect on their city of adoption
The immigrant experience in London provides the framework for this anthology, which contains a photographic portfolio and eight essays by writers born outside of Britain (mainly in Europe) but now resident in the capital. Yet what transpires is more a meditation on the culture of the English than on the condition of being from elsewhere.
Zhejiang-born British-Chinese novelist Xiaolu Guo takes the reader through her first arrival in the UK in 2002 to undertaking a citizenship test a few years later. One day she was sitting in a café, puzzling over the drama playing on the radio in the background. When asked, the owner of the cafe informed her it was The Archers (1950–), a long-running soap centring on the inhabitants of a rural village. ‘Their conversations seemed to be too indirect, touching on topics like climate change or organic farming, but never ever truly entering [them],’ Guo writes. It was through listening to the series – rather than all the facts and figures the citizenship test required her to learn – that she came to understand her adopted country. ‘People often don’t think the English have ideology,’ yet, she realises, ‘the most powerful kinds of ideology work by concealment.’
‘People say it takes three generations of immigrants to become native, or feel native,’ Guo continues. ‘In this case, I had to hope that my grandchildren would feel less alien here, assuming they would be willing to stay in this country when they grew up.’ While my grandparents were Italian enough to be referred to as nonna and nonno, and my dad grew up in a North London house whose multiple rooms were home to a shifting cast of uncles, great-aunts and second cousins coming and going between the two countries, working in the West End restaurant trade, slipping between languages, my own trips to Italy are those of an English tourist, confused by the tongue, an alien in culture and law. So as a reader, I feel, usefully, under the microscope.
If any common theme comes out of the observations contained within this collection it’s that in London, perhaps more than any other part of Britain, a lot remains unsaid and unseen. It is a sense of reservation that chimes personally. In a list of things that Portuguese writer Susana Moreira Marques strives for, presumably with the aim of assimilation, she includes, ‘to learn invisibility’. The Russian-born writer Zinovy Zinik observes, ‘There are cities, such as Paris or New York, that look like their postcards, whose visage corresponds in reality to the image of them you had in advance constructed in your mind. London is not like anything you’d imagined it to be.’
There are moments when this collection, which has been published without introduction or other contextualisation, comes across as a slightly more literary version of Bill Bryson’s twee American-in-Britain travelogue Notes from a Small Island (1995). Bar Guo’s standout text, there is little that touches on the country’s resurgent nationalism, mainstream antimigrant rhetoric or even Brexit. While their nationalities are disparate, the writers mostly come from a certain privilege and stable economies, arriving in the UK by choice: to study or work, often in journalism or academia.
These are mostly personal stories, and lack the bite of, say, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000) (or going much further back, Samuel Johnson’s descriptions of crime, corruption and squalor in his 1738 poem ‘London’), yet when Mexican writer Chloe Aridjis fondly describes passing London’s Animals in War Memorial as ‘a rupture in my journey, pulling me out of whatever mood’, or when Zinik recalls the secret drinking dens of Soho, there emerges an affectionate portrait of an adopted home that slowly, begrudgingly, gives back, or at least gives way, to those who live here. ‘By increments, each time revealing a bit more,’ as Moreira Marques puts it, until London belongs to you. Or at least to your grandkids.
Lucifer Over London, by S. Addonia, C. Aridjis, V. Bianconi, V. Di Grado, X. Guo, S. Moreira Marques, J. Walsh, Z. Zinik and W. Lehrner, is published by Influx Press