Issue 13, Pseudoversary special: Interview with Nikesh Shukla

Issue 13 marks two years of Pseudo Mag! To celebrate the Pseudoversary we interviewed three of our favourite writers and artists.


An Instagram photo shared betweens us was how we first heard of The Good Immigrant. Immediately interested, we both marked it as a book we wanted to read. Our excitement led to one of us owning two copies (one bought for herself, one gifted)!

The Good Immigrant is a collection of essays where 21 British writers of colour discuss race and immigration in the UK. The collection is edited by Nikesh Shukla who is a writer of fiction, television and film, and host of the Subaltern podcast. He has written two novels previously, Coconut Unlimited and Meatspace. His short stories have been published in numerous anthologies and magazines. In 2014 he co-wrote Two Dosas, an award-winning short film. Nikesh was kind enough to let us interview him to celebrate Pseudo Mag’s second anniversary.


 

On literary influences and becoming a writer…

The book that changed my life was The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi. Because one of the things that my mum always did was take me and my sister to the library every single week, and that was always really, really amazing. But the thing is I would just read loads and loads of books by loads and loads of white guys and I never really felt like I belonged in any stories. And then I saw it advertised on TV that a show was going to be coming on called The Buddha of Suburbia starring a very young Navin Andrews and it looked like it had sex in it and I was like (I was a teenager)  “Oh I need to watch this”. Neither of my parents would let me watch it but I knew that it was based on a book. So I found the book in the library and I read the first few lines of that book: “My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost.” And that one word, that ‘almost’ really changed my life because that was the first time that I’d read about a diaspora kid who is struggling with on the one side your parents telling you that you are culturally Hindu and Gujarati and on the other side you’ve got Britain saying “Integrate! Be British! Be English! Support the English cricket team! Drink tea!” Have food with no spice!” “Pretend you are white”, basically.

I used to read a lot of comic books as well. I used to always try and write my own comic book storylines. I used to have a guy called Cat Man, who is a bit like a fat Batman. Interestingly, Cat Man was a white guy. Then I moved on from Cat Man to writing raps, because I  listened to a lot of rap. The raps were always story based raps with characters. I started off my twenties as a rapper who wrote short stories because I read a lot and I was interested in storytelling but I realised in my mid to late twenties that I am a very average rapper and a very good storyteller. And the thing about being a rapper is that you either have to be amazing or you have to be really shit. But you can’t be average. Like the worst thing you can be as a rapper is average. So I thought maybe I’ll stop rapping and maybe I’ll start writing more seriously. So I guess that’s my sort of writing journey. And I guess my mission in writing a book was to write a book that would hopefully one day have the impact on a young brown kid that The Buddha of Suburbia had on me.

 

On language…

What I think is quite interesting is that I’ve got two young children at the moment and I’m trying to teach them both Gujarati because I’m married to an Englishwoman and she doesn’t speak any Gujarati. My mum is not around any more. So if I want my kids to learn Gujarati, I have to talk Gujarati to them. And the focus in my house always was: speak good English; make sure you speak good English, you have to get ahead, you have to get a good job, you have to integrate into society and the way to do that is to speak good English. And so my parents and I went from speaking Gujarati at home to them talking to me in Gujarati and me answering in English to them just talking to me in English—to ensure that I spoke good English. It now means that I can barely speak Gujarati and that makes me feel really sad that at that time when I felt this compulsion to speak good English that I had retained that sense of Gujarati. Because when you are from an immigrant community you do this thing called code switching where you have different voices with different groups. I mean we all do it, yeah. We have our code for when we are hanging out with our mates and our code for the family functions. And I guess when you are an immigrant kid you have your code for when you are with your desi friends, you have your code for when you are with your white friends, you have your code for when you are in a large white institutional environment, you have your code for when you are in largely desi environments. As a teenager I felt quite fractured because of it. And it took me a while to realise that actually they were all the same person but that same person just had the nuance to be able to talk in different voices, relate to different people with different changes in register. And the thing with my parents was that they had that same thing as well. When they talked to us, they talked to us in their normal voice. But whenever my mum answered the phone and said, “Hello Shukla residence. How may I help you?” I was like “Who’s this? Where did that voice come from?” It’s almost this sort of anxiety about trying to downplay anything that makes you foreign in the UK. That’s the thing that’s really difficult.

 

On growing up a brown diaspora kid…

Now we are where we are and our ethnicity and our cultural heritage and our race isn’t on a binary as it was in the 90s when I was growing up and there is a lot more texture and a lot more nuance to it. I feel like I wish I was a brown kid growing up now because I feel like I’d be a lot more comfortable. But at the same time I’m glad that we struggled so that brown diaspora kids growing up now don’t have to exist on that binary and they don’t have to hide those bits in them that make them foreign. Or at least that’s what I thought. But then in the UK, Brexit happened and then we have all the Islamophobia that is going on that has knock-on effects in communities. And you realise that it never went away. Now we’re just in a different stage of having to downplay those bits of us that make us foreign.

It is really hot in UK at the moment and yesterday I was going to wear a kurta to work. Because kurtas are pleasing. And because of what happened in Manchester on Monday I decided not to wear a kurta in public this week. People will see it as inflammatory. It’s an item of clothing, a comfortable item of clothing. I shouldn’t be having to make that decision.

 

On the pressure BAME writers experience to write about their culture and community in an explanatory way…

I feel like I’m much more confident as a writer, novelist, publisher now. In my first novel I definitely felt like I was catering to a white audience in sort of trying to explain my community to a white audience. In my second novel I wanted to basically have a brown character whose ethnicity has nothing to do with the plot and that’s really important. And my third novel, because I wanted to write a big novel about immigration and what it means for this country, I am currently going through the process of it with a white editor and I feel a little more confident to push back where I don’t agree with certain explanatory things that you need to do. Like he wanted me to put in a sentence that explained what “Ba” is coz I’d just referred to Ba. And he was like white audiences might not know what Ba is and I was like it’s a normal word for a very very significant part of the population. I’m not going to explain it. Sometimes you have to work hard. If I come across an English word that I don’t understand in a Jonathan Franzen novel, I’ll go look it up.

And the writer who has really empowered me is Junot Diaz. He’s amazing! The stuff I really love that he does is that he will just have the odd sentence in Spanish. His dialogue rhythms are Western dialogue rhythms and he doesn’t feel any need to put a glossary in or explain what abuela is or what have you. And contextually, if the writer is good, you should be able to get it but if you don’t get it, look it up. And I’m gonna swear a bit but it’s a really good quote. He said once “Motherfuckers will read a book that is one thirds Elvish but read a book that has three sentences in Spanish and they think we’re taking over.” I was like “Yes! I get you Junot Diaz. Thank you for saying that. That was so true.” And since I read that quote I felt so much more empowered to go “You know what. I’m just going to have this random Bollywood lyric in the middle of this text because it is relevant to the plot.” If the reader needs to know what the Hindi means in order to understand the symbolical significance of it then make him go look it up. If I want to have someone suddenly exclaim something in Gujarati, I’m not going to explain it like I did in Coconut Unlimited. And the other thing that happens to writers from the diaspora when they write in English is that copy editors will then italicise words like ‘Maasa’ etc.  Some of those are just like ordinary words, one of the most common words in Gujarat. Why would I italicise it? I’m really really adamant about this. One way that language can be othered is little things like italicising words that are normal and may seem foreign. We don’t italicise cul-de-sac which is a French term for a type of road. It’s in French words but it is considered normal.

 

On the reception of writers of colour who venture out of  themes of diaspora and postcolonialism…

The problem is about relatability (and I can talk about the U.K.). A really good example of this is the female Ghostbusters (movie). You have straight middle class white men aging 18 to 40 who are the most over-catered for demographic in popular culture. Now they can’t empathize or relate to a bunch of people who are fighting ghosts because they’re female.

It’s the same with people of colour in the U.K. I think. We write about postcolonial issues or we write about race because to have that representation for our community is important so we are telling stories that relate to our community. But the problem is, those are the only stories that get published. So it feels like sometimes writers of colour only have permission to write about race, because white readers and publishers understand us when we’re talking about race, they don’t understand us when we’re fighting aliens in battleships.

True diversity isn’t having a third of your published authors being writers of colour writing about race, true diversity is writers of colour getting to write about race, about sport, a comic novel, a romance novel, historical fiction. True diversity is writers of colour getting to be excellent, to be good, to be average, to be mediocre, to be shit. We’re not allowed to be shit. We have to write excellent postcolonial novels and that is the only way we’re understood.

An agent rejected my first novel because they felt that the characters weren’t authentically Asian enough. A white person told me, an Asian, that my characters aren’t authentically Asian enough. And i thought how the fuck can you tell me that? That is ridiculous.

It’s not that we all want to write about race, it’s that there is a certain level of permission given to those of us who do write about race.

The truly revolutionary thing  to happen would be when brown people write about gender, sexuality, class, disability, as well as race, and the intersections between all of them, if we are to be issue-based writers and not writers who just want to write about fighting aliens in battleships.

 

On editing and putting together ‘The Good Immigrant…

The twenty people (who featured in the book) were the people who said yes and delivered their essays on time, they weren’t the only people I asked. The difficult thing about representation is that when you try to do something representative there will invariably be people who feel like you missed them out. So I didn’t put together ‘The Good Immigrant’ to be a political manifesto or to make a political point about race and immigration in the U.K. What I wanted to do was put together a book of shit hot writing by shit hot writers. So when U.K. publishers say ‘Oh we don’t know where to find any of the talent’ I can point them to this book and go ‘Here is the talent.’

And I also made sure that I didn’t tokenistically have one writer from a particular community and one from the other. I simply chose a bunch of writers and I said ‘please can you tell me a story?’ And sometimes they write about the same issue but they come at it from different angles, sometimes they have competing opinions.

Too often we’re asked to represent all of our race. That’s a lot of responsibility to place on us. I’m hoping the book gives us the nuance to be able to disagree with each other without ever having to feel like we’re a spokesperson for our race.

 

To young writers who are looking to get published…

Keep writing. We need you. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that your book doesn’t have a market, because that is bullshit. They don’t know. If people knew what had a market then it would be much easier to get published because you’d know what you needed to do.

Write the book that you want to write. Make it the best possible book that you could make it. And get people whose opinions you trust to give you feedback on it before you send it out to agents or publishers, because you only ever have one chance with them, so it has to be the best possible thing it can be. And in order for it to be that, you have to not rush, don’t rush. Take your time. The best writers are the writers who take their time.

 

On non-marginalized writers writing about characters who are marginalized…

If you’re writing about a marginalized community and you’re not from that community, It’s important to check yourself. It’s important for you to ask yourself the question ‘Why am I getting published? Why are the people from this community not getting published?’ And if the reason is that you’re white or male and therefore more palatable to the white gaze or male gaze, then it’s important to realize your own responsibility and complicity. And think about if you need to tell this story or should you leave it to a writer from that community. If you then make the decision that you are going to still tell that story, that’s fine, but do it properly. Don’t do it stereotypically, do your research, get people from that community to give you feedback, and if anyone ever criticizes you, don’t get defensive. Find out what their issue is, find out if contextually in the piece you agree with them or not. If you agree with them, fine. Admit that you agree with them publicly, own up to it. If you disagree with them, listen to them, because they’re from that community and you’re not.

 

On books that are most relevant to our times…

There’s a great collection a collection of essays called “Nasty Women” which is all about being a woman now in this world where a president  has on record been a sexist, misogynist sexual assaulter.

There’s a book of letters called “Radical Hope” which has writers like Alicia Garza who was one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement and Junot Diaz and loads of amazing writers that have all written letters basically trying to find hope in these times. Rebecca Solnit’s “Hope in the Dark” is an amazing book. Mohsin Ahmed’s “Exit West” is really amazing adn is about the refugee crisis. “The Refugees” by Viet Thanh Nguyen is really amazing. Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” is amazing.

And there’s a book coming out in the U.K. in a couple of weeks that’s going to be one of the most important books about race ever written in this country. “Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race” by Renni Eddo Lodge is just so important.

 


Interview by Kimaya Kulkarni and Tanvi Joshi

Article written by Tanvi Joshi

Illustration by Sawani Chaudhary

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