Nikesh Shukla on The Good Immigrant | 21 writers on what it means to be BAME in the UK today

Hi, I’m Nikesh Shukla. I’m an author, I wrote
Meatspace and Coconut Unlimited, and I am the editor of Rife magazine and also the editor
of a forthcoming collection of essays about race and immigration in the UK called The
Good Immigrant. The idea of the ‘good immigrant’ predates the existence of the book but it
specifically came to me because of a conversation I was having with one of the contributors,
Musa Okwonga, where he was talking about this—this immigrant axis that you tend to be on, where
you’re assumed to be a ‘bad’ immigrant— even if you’re the child of an immigrant,
or you’re part of the diaspora— you’re assumed to be a bad immigrant because you’re here
to steal jobs and women and benefits. You might win a televised baking competition or
you might win an Olympic gold or you might— you might be a doctor or something, and then
you become a ‘good’ immigrant. So it’s very much about the idea that when we talk
about immigration we’re, we’re assuming that every— all the, you know, there’s three
hundred and thirty thousand proposed immigrants coming into the UK— that they’re all ‘bad’
immigrants until they prove their worth to society, and actually that’s a really dangerous
way of demonising hundreds of thousands of people. A very specific story that I have—
that is actually in the Editor’s Note— which made me realise how fetishized writers of
colour are in the UK came from a short story that I’d written for the Book Slam anthology
a couple of years ago, where it was a short story about the disintegration of a friendship
group, and the friendship group just so happened to be people from the South Asian diaspora.
And I’d made the cardinal sin of reading a review of it— and I then made the second
cardinal sin of challenging the reviewer, because I found the review really really sort
of benevolently casually racist, and I wanted that reviewer to know that, because I found
it really hurtful. The reviewer said that they had found the story hard to follow because
of all the Indian names— because of all the ‘Indian’ names— and actually these were
names from across the South Asian diaspora. You know, there’s a Bengali guy, a guy from
Pakistan, a Sri Lankan guy— but yet they were ‘Indian’ names, and I thought, “Well
if these characters were called Adam, Steve, Pamela, Anna, Sarah, Paul, Dave, John, would
that have been easier for you to follow?” But because they were called things like Rana
and Dilip and the rest of it suddenly “Oh, I can’t, I can’t work out what these characters
are doing.” But then this person ended their review by saying “It’s nice to see that Indians
go through the universal experience as well” and I thought “But that’s… cra… it’s
terrifying actually, that you think that the universal expe— you go “Oh, the universal
experience does happen to Indians as well.” It makes you realize what the universal experience
is; it’s not universal. We— we all have our ‘universal experiences’ and they are all
in silos, that’s the reality of this. And you have— I think as a writer of colour
you have to— it means you have to work twice as hard to make your book resonate or to make
your work resonate with mainstream audiences, because mainstream audiences don’t think you
go through the same shit as them. There’s this thing that most children of immigrants
go through, which I thought was just me and my cousins, but as I got older it turned out
that a lot of us had had this same speech from our parents— which was that we were
all told that you have to work twice as hard to get half the opportunities of the average
mediocre white man, and that is the reality of the world that we occupy. I really remember
being told that by my dad and thinking, “God that can’t be the way the world works. It
just can’t be.” But that was my dad telling me that through lived experience, and sadly—
I have a kid now, and sadly I will tell my kid the same thing. We’re not post-racial.
We’re not postcolonial. But we are in a multicultural— we are in a multicultural melting pot, whether
people want to accept that or not. I think it’s been quite a stressful year in UK politics
and I think it’s been a particularly awful year if you are an immigrant, the child of
an immigrant, descended from immigrants, a friend of an immigrant, an employer or an
employee of an immigrant; I think it’s been really really difficult because we just—
we don’t know what the future holds for us, but what we do know is the referendum result
has given permission to people who hid behind political correctness gone mad and they suddenly
have this permission to actively tell us to go home. Alongside all this I’m having lots
of conversations about diversity in publishing and the need for more inclusive books and
equal representation, and the thing that I keep coming up against is “Well we don’t know
where to find these writers” and I thought “Well that’s ridiculous, you obviously don’t
follow the right people on Twitter or you just— you probably just don’t read them.”
Like, they are out there, they’re very very freely available. The other thing that I often
hear is “Well there isn’t a readership for these books by writers of colour” which is
kind of a weird thing to be told, that your skin tone is a marketing trend and not a very
lucrative one, which I find bizarre. And I thought “Well there is a readership out there;
I know they’re out there, they read my stuff, they— you know, I’m constantly— hear people
say that they really really long to read more writers of colour. So you know Chinua Achebe
has that quote ‘If you don’t like the story, write your own’ so I thought, “Well, why
don’t I just do it? Why don’t I just make the point and crowdfund a book written by
twenty writers of colour, and show that the readership is out there”, because the crowdfunding
will show that there’s a hunger for this book. When I was thinking about who should write
this book I had such a long list, and they were either people I knew, or people who I
followed online, or people I just really really rated and wanted to see more of. And so I
just asked loads of people if they’d contribute to it, and some said yes, some said no, some
took some cajoling. So two people in the book have never been published before, Wei Ming
Kam and Varaidzo; Varaidzo is actually an old mentee of mine. People like Bim Adewunmi,
like, I really want to see more stuff from her, and Darren Chetty had written an amazing
article for Media Diversified about his time as a primary school teacher and how primary
school age kids just don’t— especially BAME ones— just don’t see themselves in children’s
books. Everything in the book was surprising; some of it was uncomfortable for me, which
I think is a good thing, because if I’d just agreed with everything that was in the book
or if I’d known everything that was in the book, what was the point of doing it? But
actually it was a really really steep teaching curve for me as well and I kind of— I’m
glad that I felt uncomfortable, and I hope that people do feel uncomfortable reading
the book; it is very challenging, there’s some really really challenging things in there,
and I think given what the book’s about and given where we are with sort of polarised
right and left I’m hoping that it will really challenge the right and really challenge the
left as well.

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