Nikesh Shukla is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Meatspace, the Costa shortlisted novel Coconut Unlimited and the award-winning novella The Time Machine. He wrote the short film Two Dosas and the Channel 4 sitcom Kabadasses.
Nikesh currently hosts The Subaltern podcast, which features conversations with writers about writing.
Coconut Unlimited (2010)
Further recommended reading:
The Good Immigrant (2016)
Literature Works caught up with Nikesh to discuss diversity in publishing, the new collection of essays he has edited and why reading is so important.
At Reading Passport, we are firm believers that books and reading can transport our readers to new worlds and lead to new discoveries. We’re seeing a movement calling for more diversity in publishing both in regards to writers and reading material. Can you say, what do you feel that more diverse attitudes towards publishing and the voices and stories that are being shared offer to readers?
Diversity isn’t a movement. It’s a recognition of existence, it’s an unerasure of cultures, people, languages and skin tones that are ‘other’ to the norm. In fact, diversity doesn’t offer us anything new in terms of equality and inclusion. Instead, it continues to ‘other’ those different cultures, people, languages and skin tones. It’s more important to be inclusive. Inclusive books — they hold up a mirror to our lives, to lives other than that which you’re used to. They give us perspective, stories that aren’t monocultural and, most importantly, humanise people who don’t look like you. Because, we’re people too.
To what extent do social and cultural issues impact upon your work? Do you feel that writing offers a platform for influencing change?
They impact upon my life and therefore, writing what I know as the old adage goes, they end up in my work. I used to think that I wrote to entertain. After hearing an interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates where he talked about how good literature wasn’t there to entertain you or make you comfortable, it made me think about how books, films, music, stories, they can and they should challenge us, they should take us out of our comfort zone by taking what we assume is our universal experience, and playing with it, poking at it, prodding it, testing its limits. Writers can change the world. Sam Asumadu, the incredible founder and editor-in-chief of Media Diversified, has this Toni Morrison quote as her email signature, and I think about it a lot: “We don’t need any more writers as solitary heroes. We need a heroic writer’s movement: assertive, militant, pugnacious.”
We’re eagerly awaiting your forthcoming collection of essays The Good Immigrant (Unbound) Can you tell us a little bit about the collection and some of the issues explored?
Last summer, I read Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Citizen by Claudia Rankine, and they were both incredible statements about what it means to have a black body in America today. I wondered, on Twitter, during a particularly depressive period, whether the UK would ever be brave enough to have essays by writers of colour about race and immigration now. My friend, Musa Okwonga, reminded me of the Chinua Achebe quote: if you don’t like the story, write your own. So I decided to do it. I spoke to Unbound because I was interested in the crowdfunding model and thought it’d be an interesting experiment in showing that there was an appetite for work by writers of colour. I gathered some of my favourite writers and got them to basically do my homework for me. The book covers everything from colourism to casteism to colonialism. It’s incredible. I’m so excited about it.
The Reading Passport is a project based in libraries. Do you have a memory of a book you discovered at the library?
The library was the one place my mum didn’t police my choices. Little did she know that I was tearing through Star Wars and Star Trek novelisations and reading comic books. One day, I came across The Buddha Of Suburbia. I was aware of the TV show but knew mum wouldn’t let me watch it because it looked like it had loads of sex in it. The book, though, it wasn’t policed. So I read it. That first line: ‘My name is Karim Amir. I am an Englishman through and through’. I’ll never forget that moment. That line, loaded with every ounce of confusion I was going through. It changed my life. I love libraries. One changed my life.
If you could offer one piece of advice for aspiring writers looking to get published in today’s market, what would it be?
‘No’ is the easiest word in publishing. You will get a lot of no’s in your career. You’re looking for a yes. You won’t often get a yes. So make it really really hard for the person to say no. Make them agonise. They might give you some feedback that no one else will give you. And they might remember you next time. A no is easy. A yes is rare. A hard no, that can sometimes enhance your career. Ways to get an easy ‘no’: don’t do your research, send it to the wrong person, riddle your manuscript with spelling and grammar mistakes (agents get 100s of manuscripts a week, you think they’ll keep reading your badly-spelled one just to get to the good stuff? No.), have an unfinished manuscript, sending your manuscript to the big big agents (send it to the up-and-coming ones building their lists). Etc. Good luck.
Thank you Nikesh!