Author interview: Nikesh Shukla
Ahead of guest directing at Cheltenham Literature Festival, The Good Immigrant editor talks to WM about writing, race and championing diversity in publishing
The 2016 publication of The Good Immigrant – a collection of writing on race and immigration by emerging British BAME writers edited by award-winning novelist Nikesh Shukla – highlighted the need for diverse voices in contemporary publishing.
What does ‘guest director’ mean in your case?
Guest directors are the opportunity to bring voices and events to the festival that might be under-represented or niche or just something fresh. So it’s an opportunity to get outside voices in and be more inclusive.
I’ve guest curated three events – I’m bringing lots of BAME writers to the festival. Not just to talk about being people of colour; if that’s all we can talk about then it’s pretty boring. I’m curating a panel on grime, (How Grime Shutdown UK Culture, 8 October), and one about Britishness and otherness with Reni Eddo-Lodge and June Sarpong (To Be ‘Other’ in Britain Today, 7 October) and them I’m doing a panel about ideas of change and what the world looks like for young people (A Change is Gonna Come, 8 October).
How did you come to take on championing diversity in publishing?
I don’t know if I took it on – I just have a loud voice! In my career as a writer I’ve been in situations where my work was judged on my skin colour and not my talent as a writer. And I didn’t want anyone to ever have that situation occur for them, because it is disgusting. And I believe that the most important thing to do when you get a foot in the door is to speak for those outside. My fight didn’t end when I got published, it ends when we’re just talking about what the work is. I’m hoping that being published and not closing the door on other writers has been a good thing.
It’s quite traumatic to constantly talk about race. You want to talk about the writing. One of my big things was, whenever I was invited to be on a panel it was always to talk about race and I’d like to get to the point where I can talk about writing. I love talking about writing. I love talking about character and dialogue and who writes really amazing prose.
What has The Good Immigrant effect been for you?
That book is hard to ignore. I wanted voices to have a platform, in a way that wasn’t apologetic. My instructions to the contributors were: tell me a story. If it’s about race and immigration, OK. They came back with amazing things. And things have changed since that book. Before, when you talked about lack of diversity in publishing, people would say: we don’t know where to find these people. It’s started to create a movement – more people looking for more writers of colour – which is amazing. I worry that it’s a fad or a market trend, but at least things have got a little bit better.
Do you see writing as a political act?
I think writing can be a political act. There’s writing for entertainment and there’s writing to tell great stories – but a lot of these are based in who we are now. And the circular nature of humans means that these stories resonate years after they’re written – we move on in terms of technology but we’re the same as human beings. Telling your own story in your own voice can be a political act.
What’s crucial about writing the BAME experience?
I think representation is an important act. If I feel represtented, if I’m seen, then I feel I’m part of society. If you see representations of me, you might not see me as other. You might see me as a fellow human being.
Are there particular pitfalls for BAME writers?
There are types of books that get published again and again and again, written by BAME writers, that become what we expect them to write. And we need to be able to write bad fantasy, ridiculous novels about creative writing – all kinds of books.
Your own novels are full of humour. Is this key for you?
Comedy and tragedy are often quite entertwined, and I find, because a lot of my work is dialogue-heavy and about situations between people, it tends to be where they have funny conversations that are often based in real tragedy. That’s just like my own background, I guess. I write situation comedy and my first two novels are comedic. I feel my next adult novel, and my YA novel, which are both published next year, are widening my path in terms of writing – but they’re both rooted in the humour of things.
Your last novel, Meatspace, dealt with the role social media plays in shaping our identities.
I’m inclined to include things like social media in work because it’s so much part of how we interact. In Meatspace, the platform itself was part of the text, writing about bits of web functionality and using it to talk about grief and how we grieve online. Pride and Prejudice would have been very modern when it was first published. There are so many letters in it, and it hasn’t aged. I don’t worry about things dating if a story has a universal theme.
What’s the proudest moment of your very diverse writing, editing and curating career?
Having my first novel come out was a pretty big deal for me. Putting out The Good Immigrant and seeing the impact it had. At Manchester Literature festival last year, there was a huge signing event, all these young people talking about how represented they were, and I thought – we did a good thing.
Writer Nikesh Shukla is one of the guest directors at this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival, running 6th-15th October 2017. Find the full line up of events at www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/literature and follow @CheltLitFest