October 5 2016
New book feels like a milestone in British publishing as its creator talks about the good fight…
CAN BOOKS really change people?
Yes, affirmed Nikesh Shukla, novelist, journalist, activist and youth worker who believes they can – and do and must.
Shukla is the editor of the much anticipated and now hugely lauded book of essays contained in a book called “The Good Immigrant” which seeks to challenge the negative narrative that has built up around a lot of non-white Britons.
The book went officially on sale a little over a week ago and has been selling very briskly.
If you’re an avid social media user and have authors and publishers on your timelines, especially from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background, chances are you will already know about “The Good Immigrant”.
Crowd-funded, it began its life last year and it was Shukla who made it all happen, prompted by among many things, a reaction to an online Guardian article.
About writing tips, it had focused on him and several other writers who just happened to be from an ethnic background, as was the contributor.
“One of the comments below said we were there just because we were all friends of the journalist and Asian – it was pretty ridiculous,” Shukla explained to www.asianculturevulture.com. “It was like we had to justify our place at the table and we were never there on merit.”
He didn’t respond to the comment, but a later Twitter conversation with friend and fellow writer Musa Okwonga pushed him towards action and taking up literary arms against the establishment and its pronouncements on non-white Britons.
“It was like there was only a ‘bad immigrant’, and you had come to the UK to steal people’s jobs and their girlfriends and the only way to be deemed worthy of acceptance was if you won an Olympic Gold medal or ‘Great British Bake Off’”.
The seeds had been sown and two books inspired him to create the project that became the book that is “The Good Immigrant”.
Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric” is a deep exploration of the black woman’s experience of America and far more; expressive and poetic, as well as visual, it covers a vast area of ground, including the 2011 riots in England, the controversial death of Mark Duggan (whose inquest verdict triggered those events) and Serena Williams, the tennis great.
Also igniting that engine for change was “Between the World and Me”, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ address to his 15-year-old son – itself inspired by the late and great James Baldwin and powerful in both its bleakness and brutally forthright sentiments about the racial divide in the US. It won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in the US last year.
Inspiring, moving and monumental in their scope and reach, it’s no surprise Shukla felt charged to do something.
“There weren’t many books out here, that talked about UK experience of race and immigration and there were all these amazing essayists writing online content about Ta-Nehisi’s book.
“I thought I would read a collection of essays about immigration called The Good Immigrant – and Musa said it was like, shame it would never get published (knowing how blinkered and generally conservative the publishing industry can be) and he reminded me of the writer Chinua Achebe’s saying, ‘if you don’t like the story, write your own’.”
He had met people behind Unbound, the crowd funding site for writers and liked the model and the people behind it.
In just three days they reached their target – reportedly Harry Potter author JK Rowling gave £5,000.
The publisher covers the cost of producing the book through the funds donated and is in a position to provide signed and special books at a premium.
“What that ensures is that the book is making money from the point it comes out and authors do the word of mouth and by the time it emerges you have 600 odd people who have crowd funded this book and want it to exist and they talk about it.”
The attendant publicity has also been helpful – not least actor Riz Ahmed’s piece published in the Guardian and heavily shared in social media.
Shukla revealed: “I went to school with him, I’ve known him for years; when I was commissioning I wanted a mixture of writers who I wanted to read more from, and artists I knew who had an interesting story to tell.
“He’s a very gifted storyteller. I thought people never see the funny side of him. He’s played quite intense roles in the past but he is very funny and warm.”
As an editor, Shukla employed a very light touch – he was looking for contributions from Black, Asian and writers of colour (some are mixed) that shone a light on dark and more often than not invisible, forgotten corners.
“It’s like that line in Zadie Smith’s ‘White Teeth’: ‘There was England, a gigantic mirror and then there was (mixed race) Irie without reflection…’
“Our obsession with period dramas and soaps that are set in areas which don’t adequately represent the populations there – we have so many people who do not have a reflection and I wanted that reflection,” said Shukla, who has written two novels, “Coconut Unlimited” and “Meatspace” and writes for TV and film and was a prominent podcaster too.
“The Good Immigrant” was produced before Brexit, but its case seems more urgent in the wake of that and the worrying rise in reported hate crimes.
“It feels like much more of an important book now than when I first started to work on it.
“I wanted it to be that gigantic mirror, now in the wake of the Referendum result I really want people who voted Leave or deny there has been a rise in hate crime to read it and I want them to spend some time ‘re-humanising’ people of colour because that’s what happened we become dehumanised, demonised – we became cockroaches, we became a swarm and it’s a problem and I do think it’s important to address.”
He hopes to take the book on a schools tour and said it’s important for young ethnic kids to see authors and artists doing what comes naturally to them.
“We don’t just want to do middle class literary festivals and we want to go to schools and chat to kids.
“I do youth work and I want there to be a legacy and inspire children. Their aspiration levels are set early and because of the media they engage with, they don’t see themselves in certain sectors.
“But I want to say, hey, I am a writer, you can be a writer, or I get where you are coming from and inspire them,” he explained.
It feels like we could be hearing about ‘The Good Immigrant 2’ soon.
“We’re talking about it,” admitted Shukla. “It feels like post Brexit there is another book. I am constantly reading writers I want to hear more from – or people who said they didn’t have time for the first one but can contribute to a second book.”
You heard it here first, roll on ‘The Good Immigrant 2’.