Nikesh Shukla: 'If Iâm writing for my daughters, I want them to know who I am'
I n July last year, Nikesh Shukla tweeted a photograph of 11 books, captioned: âThis is a decadeâs worth of work.â At the top was his debut novel Coconut Unlimited, and at the bottom his latest book, Brown Baby: A Memoir of Race, Family and Home. It was supposed to come out in June, but the pandemic pushed it back, by which time â everyone supposed â bookshops would reopen and live events would return. Instead, we are back in lockdown and Shukla and I are peering at one another down the barrels of our laptop cameras to discuss Brown Baby.
The bookâs title comes from the beautifully sober 1960s ballad by Oscar Brown Jr, expressing hopes to his son (âWhen out of menâs hearts all hate is hurled / Youâre gonna live in a better worldâ) and Shuklaâs Brown Baby is addressed to his own two daughters, who are now six and three years old. âI love the tradition of writers writing letters to their children,â he says. âJames Baldwin writing to his nephew [âMy Dungeon Shookâ in The Fire Next Time], Ta-Nehisi Coates [in Between the World and Me]. I didnât want it to be an overly intellectualised book about race and all the other things. I wanted it to be someone not quite having the answers, manoeuvring in that way that when youâre a parent, your opinions on things change all the time.â
What Shukla shares with his daughters, and the reader, in Brown Baby is sometimes funny, often moving and regularly upsetting. His accounts of racism and abuse, from being called âshit-skinâ to an abusive email naming his daughters (âhow did they know your names?â), are hard to read. âThis book had to be about the stuff that keeps me up at night,â he says.
As well as race and reflections on parenting (âNobody,â he points out, âever says itâs going to be really boring!â), one of the most striking elements of Brown Baby is the open discussion of Shuklaâs relationship with food â compulsive snacking, comfort eating â which is unusual and refreshing to read from a man. âPart of me really just wants to bleed on the page. If Iâm writing for my daughters, I want them to know who I am.â The book shows Shukla lying to his wife (and his calorie counter app) about snacks at home, snacks at work, snacks on the way to the shop to buy more snacks. âI eat my feelings,â he says, âand immediately feel completely ashamed. And I knew if I put that out there I wouldnât be alone.âNikesh Shukla with his mother in 1988. Photograph: Courtesy of Nikesh Shukla
But this chapter also grows into an affecting exploration of food and memory, communing with the person who features most prominently in the book, as both a presence and an absence: Shuklaâs mother, who died in October 2010 at the age of 59 (âShe turned 59 in the hospital, I remember taking her a cakeâ). In Brown Baby he tries to recreate her recipes, is transported by nostalgic smells when cooking the last meals she left in the freezer: âSome bhajias. And another container, this one has sweetcorn kadhi in it â¦ The smell is so soothing. I can practically feel the coarseness of a cumin seed between my front two teeth. I donât know what to do. There I am, in her kitchen, holding her food, clutching it like a second chance.â And reflects on how eating to assuage his grief means âmy stomach may feel full but something else in me is emptyâ.
His motherâs death coincided with the launch of Shuklaâs career as a writer: she died 10 days before his debut novel came out. âI had this really strange time where I had this thing that Iâd wanted to happen my entire life, but at the same time, one of the worst things that could possibly have happened was unfolding.â And some of the publicity ahead of the novel led to an argument with his mother, which turned out to be the last time they would speak. âEverything I do is almost to seek forgiveness for upsetting her.âMy mum really wanted me to be aÂ lawyer â the thing that cut meÂ up for a while was that she never got to see I was OK
Did writing about it help him grieve? âI wrote the first draft really quickly and then realised my grief wasnât complete, Iâd put it on hold to be there for my dad. Editing the book I suddenly felt I was confronted by the ghost of my mum again. When I handed over the book it felt Iâd finally had that moment to say goodbye.â
Brown Baby enabled closure in more ways than one. âIt was my 10th year of being a published author. I had this body of work that felt very circular, starting with a fictionalised account of my teenage years [Coconut Unlimited], and ending with where I am now. It was really exciting for me to feel Iâd completed something and could free myself for what I wanted to do next.â
Thinking about what to do next seems characteristic of Shuklaâs busy and multifaceted approach to his work: he is a central figure in the wider British literary culture, having done a great deal to highlight diversity in publishing. (This is an apt accolade for a writer whose first book was rejected by an agent who âdidnât feel my characters were authentically Asianâ.)
Shukla has written novels, screenplays and political commentary on social issues; he has worked as an educator, talking to schools about masculinity in connection with his young adult novel The Boxer; he has co-established the Jhalak prize for writers of colour and a literary agency. Heâs a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and has been awarded honorary doctorates from Roehampton University and Bath University (âthe stuff my dad can tangibly see!â).The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla review â racial identity in the UK Read more
In 2015 he edited the groundbreaking anthology The Good Immigrant (published the following year) on race in Britain, featuring names who have since become famous, including Reni Eddo-Lodge, Nish Kumar, Riz Ahmed and Musa Okwonga. Is he remarkably prescient at talent-spotting, I wonder? âDefinitely not,â he says firmly. âMost of the people in that book are my peers. I was doing gigs with Salena Godden and Inua Ellams and Musa. Riz Iâve known since school. Salena was one of my first ever mentors.â
In fact mentoring new writers, as he had been mentored by Godden, is another way Shukla has paid his success forward. âI take on 10 writers every six months; four weeks of intensive, weekly sessions about the book theyâre working on, then four monthly sessions where we check in, I read the work and give feedback on it.â But he realised recently that âI canât do this by myself, so I did sessions to train different writers to become mentorsâ.
What energy, I wonder, drives the impressive scope and scale of his interests? Would Shukla be happy being âjustâ a novelist? âI do it because I feel a responsibility. I know Iâd be nowhere without the people who took time out to help me. I donât believe in the writer as the strong, silent type. I believe in community and Iâm here because of the community.â
He feels a sense of responsibility too, from his private education: he attended Merchant Taylorsâ school in Liverpool, the only child of his family to do so. âI understand that I had that privilege,â he says, âbut itâs what you do with it that really counts. My mum and dad really struggled in order to send me there, thinking Iâd end up with a job and the networks to make everyone comfortable.â But looking out for others, making a difference, is in his blood. He comes from âan activist familyâ; his uncle, who in 1968 sued a company that refused to sell a house to âcolouredsâ, said âthey keep telling us the laws are here to protect us. But no one is doing anything to change peopleâs hearts and minds.â And, Shukla adds: âI thought as a writer I can do something to help shape peopleâs hearts and minds.â
In Brown Baby he writes about how his mother wanted him to write only as a hobby: âBe comfortable first, donât struggle like we do.â âYeah,â he says, âmy mum really wanted me to be a lawyer, and I think the thing that cut me up for a while was that she never got to see that I was OK. But I look back at all the stuff that Iâve achieved over the years â¦â â he pauses, then nods â âI think she would have been proud.â
âI donât want you to ever consider yourself white. Is that bad?â
An edited extract from Brown Baby by Nikesh Shukla
I donât know how to make you proud of your skin colour. I figured it would be something we would talk about later, when you were older and starting to become more shaped by external factors. I didnât want it to become an issue so early.
Sadly, this is the reality of raising a child of colour in an institutionally racist country, where being white is seen as default. You see it in boardrooms and you see it on screens and you see it in the plasters we use to cover our skin when it tears. When I look at you, I think perhaps you might end up passing for white. I donât want you to. I donât want you to ever consider yourself white. Is that bad?
Itâll probably never happen, though. You will be mixed race and you will be brown and no matter how you shape yourself, the moulds society present for you to fit into are fixed and immovable.
I donât want to have this conversation so early, Ganga. I donât want for me to make decisions about your identity before youâve even considered it. I have to manage my feelings and expectations and let you find your own way. But I know, that however you choose to self-identify when youâre older, the world will see you as a person of colour and treat you accordingly.
Once, you told me that you were a mix. You were a bit brown and a bit white. You wanted to be our Venn diagram. You wanted to be the bridge between us. You didnât want to be more one than the other.
A consistent thing you said throughout your entire childhood was that you didnât like the colour brown. It was too dark. Another time you told me it was dirty. Recently, you told me you wished I was white.
âThen I will be white,â you said.
âWhy?â I replied.
âI want to be like Mummy,â you said before disappearing into another room, as if that was that and there was nothing more to say.
You prefer bright colours, you say. You like pink and red and orange and yellow. The darker colours are not your favourite. You hate brown. Context weighs heavily on situations but so does history. Societal norms pervade in ways we cannot always see. You may be talking about felt tip pens. But you are also talking about the last two hundred years of history. You may be four but you are perpetuating tropes you are yet to even comprehend.
One evening, weâre reading a book together. Mumbi, the doll a friend brought back from Sri Lanka, sits in my lap next to you. You pick Mumbi up and throw her to the floor.
âWhy donât you want her?â I ask. âDo you not like her?â
âI do like her,â you say. âI do. She has a nice smile and she has pretty black hair.â
âAnd gorgeous brown skin,â I say.
âI donât want to be brown,â you say, and look at me. Youâre trying to work something out, and I donât know how to help you through it. âI want to be like Mummy.â
âYou are brown. And thatâs a good thing,â I tell you, before returning to the book.
âOkay,â you sigh, with the air of a teenager whose embarrassing dad has just told them he will drive them to the school dance.
We carry on reading. Your resignation is heavy in my chest.
â¢ Brown Baby: A Memoir of Race, Family and Home is published by Bluebird (Â£16.99) on 4 February. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.