An Interview With Nikesh Shukla: Author Of 'The Good Immigrant'

Nikesh Shukla
Nikesh Shukla | Courtesy of ShamPhat Photography
Gina Chahal

This September, writer Nikesh Shukla releases The Good Immigrant, a collection of essays by 21 British black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) writers, poets, journalists and artists. This phenomenal group of creatives discuss race and immigration in the UK, through their own stories and experiences. The collection features work from actor Himesh Patel, playwright Daniel York Loh, journalist Coco Khan, actor and rapper Riz Ahmed, as well as many other talented figures. Ahead of its release, The Culture Trip talks to writer and editor Nikesh Shukla.
What was the inspiration behind The Good Immigrant?

Last year I read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me, both incredible books about what it is to be black, have a black body and be in America, and I was blown away by both books. I yearned to read a UK equivalent and felt that publishing would perhaps not be brave enough to put that book together. I was telling all this to my great friend Musa Okwonga, who reminded me of the Chinua Achebe quote:’ If you don’t like the story, write your own.’ So I did.

The collection features work from an incredible set of BAME creatives, what was the selection process?

I have a lot of sick writer friends. So that bit was easy. I basically tapped up a bunch of people I know and rate and want to read more from and want to hear more stories from, people who should have book deals and agents and more material out there, and I asked them to contribute. I asked one of the people I mentored at my day-job (running a youth magazine called Rife), and once I’d put together what I thought was a well-rounded collection, I realised that I only had one contributor from an East/Southeast Asian community, so went out of my way to fix that. I’d read a couple of articles online, on places like Media Diversified, and that’s how a few writers came to my attention. And then when the line-up was set, I threw myself into the mix because I couldn’t not stand next to all this ridiculous talent.

Apart from my own? God there are so many. I think Chimene Suleyman’s search for meaning, home and belonging, by exploring her name and the names of her family really killed me. Salena Godden’s Shade is such a rallying call for unity as well as obliterating the idea of shadeism, and it’s just astonishing. Bim Adewunmi’s piece about tokenism and diversity in the media (also touched upon in Riz Ahmed’s essay and Miss L’s essay, both a bit more on the front line) is basically every online argument I’ve had with people who think I’m the diversity police for wanting more inclusion in books. Every essay taught me something, about me, about the country, about the world, and that was really powerful to, at times feel uncomfortable and at home.

The essays address social issues for immigrants, children and grandchildren of immigrants. What themes are you hoping to bring to the forefront of the collection?

I think it’s more about having the writers get an opportunity to tell their own stories in their own voices that I’m most excited about. This means that the content, the issues, the themes, are secondary to the powerful feeling of reading 20 exciting voices tell me new and old things about other in this country.

In what ways do you think that The Good Immigrant addresses and combats the negativity surrounding immigrants – particularly within the media?

By giving the narrative back to immigrants and the children of immigrants. By giving a platform to writers of colour to tell their stories. By being anything other than stereotypes and romanticised tropes. By being real and textured and nuanced and honest and sad and funny and heartbreaking and angry and knowledgeable. We don’t often get to be all these things.

How does The Good Immigrant compare to your other published works, such as Coconut Unlimited and Meatspace?

It’s the most serious thing I’ve worked on, for sure. My two novels are pieces of comedic fiction, and while they all feel like labours of love, I feel, probably a bit retroactively, that this book has come to be of national importance. God, I sound so pompous, don’t I? Me me me — my book is so important.

Along with the book release, you also plan to go on tour. Which bookshops, libraries and literature festivals will yourself and the contributors be attending following the release?

Wow, we’re everywhere in October/November: me and different writers will be heading to Cheltenham, London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Reading, Manchester, Rochdale, Bristol, Nottingham. There’s a heap of places. They’re all literary festivals, which are great but it’s a certain crowd that goes to them, so we decided to use some of the crowdfunding money to pay for a smaller tour in the New Year, where we go to smaller places and go to libraries and schools and independent book shops, basically places that can’t pay for the writers’ time and/or trains.
How do you hope the collection will influence members of the BAME community/ immigrants, as well as children and grandchildren of immigrants?

There’s a quote in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, where it says: there was England, a gigantic mirror. And there was Irie, without reflection. I hope this book is that reflection.

What do you hope people take away from The Good Immigrant?

That these 20 writers are sick and they all deserve very lucrative book deals, because this book is only the start of a long conversation.
Lastly, how would you describe the collection in three words?

My new baby.
The Good Immigrant is out September 22nd, and is available to pre-order now on Unbound and Amazon.

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