Manchester Happened by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Facebook group reading challenge)

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This is a collection of short stories by a Ugandan author living in Manchester, about the experiences of Ugandan immigrants in and around our city.  If you know the area, you’ll recognise all the street names 🙂  :when the author first moved here, she lived near Platt Fields Park.  I’m not normally keen on short story collections, but this one works really well because it makes the point that everyone’s experience is different.  The author herself is from a middle-class family who suffered at the hands of Idi Amin, and some of the stories are about upper-middle-class Ugandans who grew up in big houses with servants, and were sent to Britain by parents who felt that there were few opportunities in Uganda and that a degree from a British university would set them up for life, but fully expected them to come back after a while … which most of them didn’t.  That’s probably not most people’s typical image of immigration from East Africa to Britain, but the book is making the point that there can’t really *be* a typical image.

The stories in the second half of the book are mostly about Ugandan people who’ve settled in the Manchester area going back to Uganda, either permanently or to visit – and finding it difficult, especially if accompanied by a partner and children who’d never been there before.  Once you move away, to a different society, can you go back?   This isn’t something which is often discussed.  There used to be the idea of, say, moving from southern Italy to America to make your fortune and then moving back, but migration to Britain has historically been permanent, unless it was for a particular job or course of study.  It’s interesting reading.

It’s a lovely book.  The style of writing’s very informal, which isn’t really for me, but that’s an observation, not a criticism.  There’s no agenda, very little politics, and plenty of humour.  It’s just telling the story of the different experiences of different people.  It’s very positive: the characters’ main quibble about Manchester, and Britain in general, is the weather!   And, whilst it’s specifically about Ugandans in Manchester, so much of it applies to any group of immigrants moving from any one place to any other place – getting used to a new home and a new way of life, and trying to find your place in amongst two different cultures.  And that place is going to be different for each individual person.

Within most waves (for lack of a better word) of immigration, there are people from different countries.  That does seem to be being forgotten.  How often do you hear anyone talk about “the Ugandan community in Manchester” or “the Ugandan community in Britain” (unless they’re talking about Ugandan Asians, which this book isn’t doing), rather than “the black community” or “the Afro-Caribbean community”?  There are people from different regions and cultures within those countries, and, within those sub-divisions, from different socio-economic classes.

If we’re looking at immigration into Manchester in the 19th century, are we going to take the story of a person leaving rural Ireland because of the potato famine, a middle-class German professional coming here for work reasons, a working-class Bessarabian Jewish person fleeing a shtetl because of the pogroms, a middle-class Austrian Jewish person leaving a Viennese suburb because of concerns about prejudice and an Italian person moving away from the Mezziogiorno because of poverty, and talk about  “the white immigrant experience” or even just “the immigrant experience”?  No.  And we shouldn’t be doing it with immigration in the second half of the 20th century or in the 21st century either, and that’s what she’s saying.  In one of the stories in this book, a white British woman is concerned about how her Ugandan husband’s family will receive her when she goes to Uganda for the first time, and is told that, yes, she’ll be seen as an outsider, but no more so than if she were black British or Nigerian.  The cultures are completely different.

There are people who want to move permanently and people who intend to return.  There are people who move to a new country as children, people who move as young adults, and people who move as older adults: I’ve known families where siblings have had completely different experiences because the younger ones have gone to school in the new country but the older ones haven’t.   And there are people who want to assimilate into the culture of the new country, and people who want to continue to live by the culture of the old country – there’s a story about the Manchester born and bred son of a Ugandan man and a British woman choosing to go to Uganda for an adult circumcision ceremony – and prefer to socialise only with people with the same heritage, and want their children to do the same.  People even within one nuclear family can feel completely differently.

There may also be many different waves of immigration within a community.  In this book, we’ve got, amongst others, a war veteran who moved here in the early 1950s, an upper-middle-class girl who moved here in the 1980s, and a family who came here as illegal immigrants in the 2010s.  There’s also one story told from the viewpoint of a dog, which I could have done without, but never mind!

There’s a lot of general human interest, as well – like the story about the woman who found out that her husband had another wife back in Uganda.  And, whilst it’s specifically about Ugandan people, a lot of it’s about the general issues of settling into life somewhere completely different.  It took the man who came here in the early 1950s a while to realise that you could tell a lot about someone’s background from their clothes and from their accent.  So much of it would apply to any minority group, such as being in a crowd of people and looking around for someone whom you can tell or sense is from the same cultural group as you are.

And the positivity’s great.  One of the big problems we’ve got at the moment is people who seem to think that the way to prove how “woke” they are is to abuse Britain or America or France or any other Western country.  Those sort of keyboard warriors really won’t like this book, because it doesn’t do that!   That then puts other people’s backs up, and just creates more problems.  Another problem is people who expect everyone from a particular ethnicity or culture to act in a particular way, and abuse them when they don’t, as we’ve seen with the Guardian‘s racist attacks on Priti Patel.  As this book shows, everyone’s different, and everyone has their own way.

But most people want to belong, and that can be very challenging when you’ve moved to a new country.  Which way do you go?  Integrate and assimilate?  “Stick to your own kind,” to quote West Side Story.  And, if you’ve only moved temporarily, how easy will it be to fit in when you go back?  The answers are going to be different for everyone: you can’t generalise.  Books like this, where the focus is narrow, where it’s about people from one country moving to one city, are a very effective way of reminding us of that.

There used to be a lot of immigration novels.  OK, most of them were about people moving to New York, but there were also plenty about people moving to British cities. They seem to be increasingly rare these days, though.  That’s a shame.  This is a great book.  It’d be good to see more like it.

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