"You can change a teenager’s life," an interview with Nikesh Shukla
by Amy Baxter, Editor
Nikesh Shukla is a writer with no time to write. 'I write for about 45 minutes every day,' he admits. It sounds odd, coming from a writer, but really, it shouldn’t come as a shock. Shukla writes, and he also (rather famously) edits. And he mentors young writers. And he has a literary agency. And he co-founded the Jhalak Prize. But he’s known first and foremost for his writing, and, as he reaches a decade since the publication of his first novel, he seems understandably frustrated with his lack of time to do just that.
'Every week,' he mentions, very casually, 'I have a drink on Zoom with another brown writer. And last week, it came up that I only have 45 minutes to write every day. And my friend was like, “What?!”' He smiles as he considers all the plates he’s spinning. 'I’ve got things to do. I’ve got to save the industry.'
He’s not joking. Although adamant that he’s 'not the only one doing it', Shukla’s work beyond his work is always visible. As we talk, he’s clear that he wants the focus of the discussion to be his written work, yet when reading what others write about him, his 'activism’, whatever that means, is always in focus. Perhaps its part of being a renowned brown author, and being one of the few writing for teenagers. Despite his desire to focus only on his written work, rather than his work to make change in the male, pale, and stale publishing industry, it’s somewhat difficult to distinguish the two.
Shukla should be prepping for the launch of his memoir Brown Baby in September. Its release was delayed to February 2021 due to COVID-19, a decision that Shukla was part of, though a little perturbed by. 'It’s hard, because on a pragmatic level, I understand it.’ Early review copies have already gone out, and my timeline is a steady list of renowned writers enthusing about the work. 'Emotionally,' he admits, 'I was ready to say goodbye to it, and move onto the next thing I’m really excited about. By the time a book comes out, it’s such a release, it’s such closure.' This memoir, like any book, has gone through many rounds of edits; personal edits, edits with his agents, edits with his publisher, and he feels ready to release it into the world. He paraphrases Leonardo di Vinci; 'A book is never finished, only abandoned.’ The more you talk about something, the more distant you feel from it.'
Writing a memoir wasn’t something Shukla wanted to do. 'I’m not even 40,' he exclaims, remembering how the idea had been floated to his agent by Carole Tonkinson, recently named 'Editor of the Year', and, according to Shukla, 'badass of badasses'. 'At the time, I didn’t want to write a memoir, I wasn’t even 40.' In 2018, when first approached about the book, he had just become a columnist for the Observer on parenting. The more he thought about the idea of writing a memoir on parenting, the more he thought about what he’d write about, the more promising the idea of a memoir became. 'In a world that is sexist, and homophobic, and transphobic, and with climate catastrophe looming over us, and Britain still failing to address issues about class, I guess I was thinking a lot about how I could raise both my children to have the language to talk about these things.' And then he realised that parents from marginalised backgrounds were never offered the language to talk about these things. 'So I decided to write a memoir about how to find the joy in dark times, as a parent.' And he smiles.
Even though he speculates that his 'parenting experience is pretty ordinary, actually,' the book is centred around his experience both as a parent and as a child. Our conversation never strays far from thoughts of his family; his mother, his children. He lights up as he talks about his daughter: 'she became obsessed with race and death,' he chuckles, 'and those became the main themes of the book.' The book is also a vehicle for Shukla to speak about his mother, and her passing. 'It’s funny, because in 2010, my first novel came out and my Mum died. In 2020, a book was meant to come out about my Mum dying.' It sounds cathartic, and to Shukla, it is. 'It feels like I’ve rounded out that body of work, I’ve freed myself emotionally to write about other things.' He reminisces about his fortnightly trip to the library with his Mum and sister. His Mum would go and pick out Mills & Boon novels, and he would have 'the run of Harrow library'. He’d have access to comic books, Star Trek novelisations, and even 'the books for adults where I knew there might be some sauciness'. He says clearly that 'libraries changed my life', because his Mum wanted to make sure that he and his sister read for pleasure, not just for school. Though Shukla may not have wanted to write a memoir originally, to have all of this discussed in his first memoir at 40 makes you wonder what he’d write about in 10 years time, in 20.
He reflects on his career critically. A poster for his debut novel, Coconut Unlimited, flickers in and out of view from behind his head during our conversation on Zoom. He’s harsh on himself, as he recalls the book. 'The thing about being a writer is that you’re constantly getting better. You’re constantly reading and writing and trying new things and voices and forms and seeing how other people do it and wondering if you can do that as well and I look back at my first novel and think, 'If I rewrote that now, I’d write it so much better'.' I don’t doubt that he could, but Coconut Unlimited remains one of the most accurate, hilarious, human novels on brown British teenagers ever written. It’s actually one of the best books about teenagers, ever written, but somehow, the 'brownness' of Shukla’s writing is always brought front and centre by external. Not just by the press, but by readers too. Shukla isn’t just a great British writer, he’s constantly labelled a great British Asian writer.
In his 2010 round up for The Guardian of the top 10 best 'Anglo-Asian' books, Shukla described Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions as 'refreshingly un-brown, which is a rare allowance by a publisher for an 'ethnic' author.' I bring the quote up to him, and he doesn’t bat an eyelid. 'I’m not even trying to stand by that any more, you know,' he says. 'For the longest time, what I wanted to be was just a writer, in the same way Nick Hornby is a writer. Instead, I was always given the tag 'British Asian Writer'.' What he didn’t realise at the time, was that by commenting on Kunzru’s work as being 'un-brown', he was 'still positing whiteness as the default. And actually, what I want to happen is for my brownness to be in the work, and have the work stand alongside the Nick Hornby’s. Because I will never not have my specifically brown take on things. So actually, I don’t want to be 'un-brown', I want to be a brown person, but I want that brown person to be seen as the default, in the same way that Rob from High Fidelity is being the default.'
So actually, I don’t want to be 'un-brown', I want to be a brown person, but I want that brown person to be seen as the default, in the same way that Rob from High Fidelity is being the default.
Although his debut novel was about teenagers, Shukla didn’t begin to write for teenagers for another eight years. Run, Riot, released June 2018, is a thrilling novel about 17 year old twins Taran and Hari, written in real-time as they discover a horrifying plot to overtake the tower block in which they live, ultimately leading to tragedy on multiple fronts. It addresses pressing issues in Britain today; gentrification, classism, the existence of a police force. And that is exactly what Shukla set out to do. 'I don’t like the term YA,' he says firmly. 'I specifically write for teenagers. I’m not writing for white people in their twenties who want to read books about teenagers they feel they missed in their youth. If they come to my books and they like them, that’s great, but they’re not who I’m aiming my work at. I’m aiming my work at teenagers, who school librarians see every single day, and go 'I wish there was a book I could give this person.'' Shukla’s primary concern is not only the quality of his work, but what features in his work, and what impact that can have on his younger readers. 'You can change a teenager’s life, especially the life of a teenager who has never really seen themselves before. There is a crucial point in our reading journey where we have to see ourselves, we have to see ourselves as the main character. Then we can make decisions about who we want to be and decisions about what we can achieve, who we can aspire to be, what space we can occupy.'
Occupying space, and being seen to do so, permeates every level of Shukla’s work. His literary agency, The Good Literary Agency, founded by Shukla and Julia Kingsford, was 'inspired by a desire to increase opportunities for representation for all writers under-represented in mainstream publishing.' He was a youth worker for five years, up until 2019, mentoring 'loads and loads' of young writers. He visits as many schools as he can, which, somewhat surprisingly, is not something that writers for teenagers often do. 'I know a lot of YA authors do school visits,' he acknowledges, 'but they do school visits where they get paid and that significantly reduces where they can go.' Instead, he does his school visits on an equity basis, encouraging schools who can afford to pay him to do so, enabling him to take time out of his schedule to visit schools who cannot.
Though on the face of it, clearly an admirable and important thing for him to do, it’s not a move that’s met universal acclaim. 'Some YA authors have said that I’ve taken money off of them by not charging for school visits - but I’m trying to do the work of inspiring young people. That’s why I’m writing for teenagers. I am adamant that I want to be compensated for my time, but I get to make the choice about how much money I charge, and to whom.'
And then we reach the paradox of Shukla. He has become a mightily successful author, and mightily successful across many fields, and yet the more successful he gets, the louder the mutterings get of how he must have a 'chip on his shoulder' to keep on pointing out systemic racism in the publishing industry. He is clear that it is the success of The Good Immigrant that has enabled him to write in new genres, and start initiatives like The Good Literary Agency. 'Because of The Good Immigrant, I get to do whatever I want, for a short window.' And it’s true, The Good Immigrant has been a phenomenon that seems to go on and on. As well as lending its name to the agency, there’s an American edition, co-edited by Shukla, The Good Immigrant USA. There was the literary journal (of which Bad Form is a fan, can’t you tell). And there is Shukla’s personal celebrity, especially visible on social media, where he is constantly vocal about supporting underrepresented authors and working to open up the publishing industry. 'I find social media interesting and difficult,' which is not entirely expected from someone so regularly eloquent on these platforms. 'I’m naturally very shy. I find interacting with people I don’t know overwhelming because I don’t want that to come across. I want them to think that the industry is open and that I’m open.' Yet again, Shukla comes back to other people. It doesn’t seem to cross his mind that he could stop for himself if that would deny others an opportunity for others to access him, his knowledge, and his platform. 'We can all use our platforms for good. It’s not hard to share them. Nobody can take it away from you, but you can stretch it and make it bigger.'
Throughout our conversation, Shukla reiterates to me that he doesn’t want to come across as 'arrogant'. 'I’m not trying to,' he grimaces. 'I’m sounding arrogant, mostly because I’m coming to a point where I’ve got a decade’s worth of work behind me. Because I spend so much time doing activism work, I sometimes just want people to recognise the body of work.' He laughs, and I’m somewhat bemused. You could call Shukla many things, a writer, an activist, a 'mediocre rapper' (his words, and that of a famous musician friend) but he’s clearly not arrogant. He’s just speaking on his record. 'I’m not the only one doing this,' he emphasises, when he speaks about his activism work. 'There are loads of authors of colour doing this, and I find it really egregious that white writers are just sitting here pontificating on Twitter while I have to do the work. And that’s why I only get to spend 45 minutes on writing.' It occurs to me, while he’s speaking, that if Shukla didn’t feel the need to support others as much as he did, he might have more than 45 minutes a day to write. 'I’d kind of be unbeatable,' he chuckles. One can only imagine what literature he’d be able to write, what stories he might be able to tell. But he doesn’t, because he’s too busy opening doors for everyone else.
Nikesh Shukla’s memoir Brown Baby (Bluebird) is available to pre-order now, and will be released 11 Feb 2021.