"I fight for the people who aren’t being published." – An Interview with Nikesh Shukla
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Author and diversity activist Nikesh Shukla is at the Edinburgh Book Festival to discuss The Good Immigrant, a collection of essays he edited into what he calls “a document of what it means to be a person of colour” in the UK today. He was, characteristically, generous enough to sit down with Bookwitty to discuss his work and his motivation.
At this point you're at now in life and as a writer, which subjects are becoming more or less important to you?
I feel like I haven't really changed what I write about and what I write, and I definitely feel like I'm a writer who's belligerent enough to persist with the thing they want to write about, the thing that’s interesting them. I do find though that as a writer of colour, you write about race once, and then that's all people want you to write about. Like, interestingly, I had some down time between novels a couple months ago and so I pitched loads and loads of ideas, and two of the three that got commissioned were the two about race. I do feel like there is this feeling that writers of colour should mostly write about race and I think we want the space to be able to write about it if we choose, to embed it in the work we do if we choose, and to write about whatever we want. My favourite Tweet of all time was by the editor of Reader Diversified—she once linked to an article with a headline like "I Don't Care What Anyone Thinks, My Dog Will Be at My Wedding", and she said that true diversity will be when writers of colour get commissioned to write frivolous shit like this. I really think that’s a really good point. Writing about how boring my school summer holidays were for the Guardian recently, it was really nice to inhabit a space that wasn't about the trauma of racism. My two novels that are coming out—one's about gentrification and one's about family. And I'm really interested to see how they get pitched or picked up, because you know, there is this sort of thing – (Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series) “Master of None” talks about it – where you have a story featuring white characters overcoming some triumph, where they climb a mountain against all the odds or something, and it's this triumph over adversity, climbing the mountain, but if it was two people of colour, it would be a story of race and culture clash. So, it gets put onto the work quite a lot, which I think is interesting. The thing that I want to strive for is for stories by people of colour to be seen by the mainstream as universal, without it being noted that they are universal. They just are universal. It’s inherent.
I do feel like there is this feeling that writers of colour should mostly write about race and I think we want the space to be able to write about it if we choose, to embed it in the work we do if we choose, and to write about whatever we want.
Do you feel the style of your writing changing in response to your different priorities?
I definitely feel like I've gotten better as a writer. I definitely can see improvement in myself from my first novel to now, and I think because I write comedy and work on sitcoms, I think my first few novels were really joke-heavy and I now feel a bit more multi-faceted. My novel for teens at the moment is a thriller, which is really exciting because I get to write kick-ass fight scenes and have tense moments. So I definitely feel like I'm widening my palate of things I write about, and how I'm writing about them.
In a beautiful blog post, you said you wanted your daughter’s mantra to be ‘imagination’. What is the role that imagination plays in everything that your work stands for?
I think it's really important to feel like you have the freedom and the space to see yourself in any story, to imagine yourself in every single possibility. I do really think that popular culture and stories and songs and art play a significant role in our aspiration, in how we view ourselves in the world. And so a lot of the work I do around ensuring that kids of all different parts of the diversity spectrum feel represented is because I want them to all feel like they can be the lead character in a story, or they have a name, or they are visible, that they do really mundane things: like in children's books, they go to the shops and buy some stuff and get on a bus home. Or in other children's books, parents go to sleep, and they save the world! It's important to see yourself in both those things, to sort of see yourself with limitless possibilities, but also to see yourself represented doing really normal, day-to-day things.
There's a book that my daughter's obsessed with at the moment called Ada Twist, Scientist, it's all about curiosity, and how you should never be afraid of questioning things, and you should never be afraid of exploring the world around you. And as much as it's really annoying that my daughter asks "why" to everything, actually, it's a really important thing that she asks “why” and that she questions things and pushes back when she doesn’t understand things. And I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that she sees herself represented in this book, and it gives her the necessary imagination to be able to view herself in a curious world.
If you're writing something with the hopes of normalising people of colour in these situations, would your audience be people like your daughter, or "white people" who might not imagine people of colour in normal situations?
I think representation isn't just important for people like you and me. Because we're already diverse, we already have to force our imagination to work hard to see ourselves in stories, because we're not represented. So we have to do the necessary mental jumps to see ourselves as Ghostbusters, or to see ourselves as saving galaxies, or to see ourselves as little Timmy who has a cute dog who runs away one night. Because that's just how it's been; whiteness is the default. But when we do see ourselves represented, I think it does something for us. It does something for young people, to be able to see themselves, and hopefully they don't have to work as hard as me to imagine that.
But the thing is, that representation is just as important for white audiences as well; they need diversity. We're already diverse, you know? I think that nothing is more indicative of this than the Ghostbusters film with the all-female cast, and the fact that this demographic of 18- to 40-year-old straight white men, who are the most overrepresented demographic in popular culture, couldn't do a mental leap to imagine a woman could fight a ghost, or could bust a ghost—I just thought that was preposterous. They don't have to work hard because they are everywhere, they are the default, and so much of the narrative and the language around the alt-right is so similar to the anti-diversity groups, because it's about preserving this power structure that already exists. I can’t remember who this is attributed to—you might have to look this up—but there’s this quote, "To the privileged, equality seems like oppression." And that ends up being the fight that we're having: that we're fighting for people like us to see ourselves, but we're also fighting for people who aren’t like us to see us, and to see us as equals.
(We looked into the great quote about privilege and oppression, but found no clear attribution. —Ed.)
Part of what you do is to give a platform to other writers of colour in the UK. What motivates that generosity?
I am sitting here talking to you now because two writers basically mentored me at a really crucial time in my career when I could have just gone, "oh fuck it" and given it all up because I was frustrated. But they both mentored me, they both showed me what was possible, they gave me advice, time, networking, encouragement, they read my stuff. Niven Govinden who’s an author and Salena Godden who’s another writer. And I am nothing without them and I owe them the world. But I can’t ever pay them back. Like, how do you pay two people back? I can take them out for dinner, but I understand that, in that situation, the only way I can pay them back is to pay that time forward, and now that I’m published I do realise that the easiest thing in the world for me to do would be to go, “well, I’m sorted, guys, this is now your problem.” But actually it’s more important than ever that, because I have the privilege of being published, I fight for the people who aren’t being published, and I continue to hold doors open for them. Because all of these scenarios are the result of someone opening a door to let you in. So, in one scenario, someone opens a door, and you go in the door, and you close it behind you. In another scenario, someone opens a door, and you walk in the door, and you leave it open, but you walk away from it. And in a third scenario, someone lets you in a door, you go in a door, and you jam your foot in the door and you let as many people through as you can. And I want to be number three, for as much as I have the time to be number three, because I think it’s really important. I can’t pay Niven and Salena back for all the time and encouragement they invested in me, but I can pay it forward to the writers who I was when they took the time to help me.
As a writer, and an advocate for other writers, what do you hope to achieve by taking part in events like this?
Sell books. No, I mean, I think there are some certain spaces that it’s quite prestigious as a writer to do: I mean Hay, Jaipur, Edinburgh Book Festival — amazing spaces where you’re on the same bill as some of the best writers in the world, and also some problematic politicians, and I think it’s interesting with The Good Immigrant specifically, bringing it to Edinburgh Book Festival, what I’ve noticed is that every time we’ve done an event, ours has been the most diverse event on the bill, and I think that visibility encourages people of colour to come to these places and feel it is their space as well, because it is their space as well but they don’t feel welcome, necessarily, so by being on the bill we can show them, “Yes, you are welcome. Come with us, please come with us.” I try and be as approachable as I can at events and on Twitter and whatnot to say to people, “Look, this is your space as well.”
So there’s that, and The Good Immigrant specifically, there’s probably guilt of a lot of liberal white people today, like, “Oh shit, I say ‘namaste’ too”, or whatever, and you kind of want to—in this world where people are dying in the streets because of racism and because of white supremacy and because of all these horrific things that are happening in the world—we all want to be better allies, right? And so I think sometimes going into these spaces and going, “Here’s how you can be a good ally”, it’s beyond reading our book, it’s beyond reading Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book, it’s beyond reading Anthony Anaxagorou’s poetry, it’s about calling shit out, you know, and talking to your friends and family, all that kind of stuff. And I feel like being in these places and being able to have those kinds of conversations is really important.
What books do you love that people who know you might be surprised to hear about?
Everyone who knows me well knows how much I love Spider-Man and the Daredevil comics, and I still read them every month—every month I go to my comic shop and I get them. And now Ms. Marvel as well. I probably read a lot more sci-fi than I talk about publicly, because whenever I talk about books on social media I try and signal these books by writers of colour who need the signal boosting, because I think it’s important.
I probably read a lot less non-fiction than I should. I feel like I’ve read a lot more non-fiction in the last few years than I ever had.
This has basically been a Q&A, but I know that your podcast is anti-Q&A. How do you turn a Q&A into a freewheeling conversation?
Talk about everything but the book? I don’t know. I think I’m a cheerleader, so I recognise that, as most interviewers do, that part of the interview is to showcase the person you’re interviewing in the best, or worst if you’re a dickhead, possible light. So much of that is just trying to be as much of a cheerleader as you can. I’ve never really thought about it.
I guess when you do standard Q&As—“Where do you get your ideas from?” “What inspired the book?” “Who are your most influential authors?”—if you ask anything but those questions, if you go, “You Tweeted a link to a grime tune, who’s your top five Grime MCs?”, then you’re talking about something else.