Photo: Aphra Evans
Nikesh Shukla is finishing an English breakfast as I meet him in a Montpelier cafe. Having done the school run and shot some hoops on a nearby basketball court, he’s squeezing this interview in before heading home to work on his upcoming novel.
Last year Shukla marked a decade as a published author with 11 novels under his belt, and as a resident of Bristol, where he lives with his wife and two young daughters. But in June he made headlines for turning down an MBE for those ‘services to literature’, because of its valorisation of empire.
In previous conversations, Shukla has told me he is no fan of press attention. “You must be hating this!” I joke as I sit down, prompting a generous response that he will make an exception for the Cable. But the incident speaks to the tensions at work in a man who just wants to “hang out with my kids, play Lego, read Spiderman comics, watch Loki, read books and eat barbecued food” – but can’t fight the urge to speak up.
‘The quickest decision I ever made’
Declining the MBE put Shukla in good company. The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire has been refused by Benjamin Zephaniah, George the Poet and others for glorifying Britain’s colonial rule.
“I wasn’t going to make a fuss, but it’s been a combative past year talking about race,” Shukla reflects, citing Black Lives Matter, the culture wars ramping up and the Sewell report concluding there is no institutional racism in the UK. He also feared the government would spin the racially diverse 2021 honours list to mask Britain’s past and present institutional racism.
Shukla took to the Guardian to write an explanatory piece, ‘I don’t want an honour glorifying the British Empire’. In it he discussed the unacknowledged legacy of Empire, Colston’s statue being pulled down and the criminalising of those involved, and Operation Legacy – a Foreign Office programme to destroy evidence of the brutalities of the Empire.
“What was the need for Operation Legacy if the Empire is something we should be supposedly proud of?” he asks. “I don’t think [sticking my head above the parapet] was a particularly radical thing to do – it was one of the quickest decisions of my life.”
The choice resulted in a depressingly predictable backlash. “I’ve had people calling for me to be fucking sterilised or leave the country,” he says. “Some commentators love the heat – I don’t, [but] I feel compelled to speak out because I have a platform and it would be shitty of me not to use it to try and talk about these things.”
I ask Shukla what he wants to use his voice to do, turning back on to him a question he previously posed to me during a period when he was mentoring me as a writer. Feigning outrage at this manoeuvre, he eventually answers: “I want to tell stories that haven’t been told, and to give humanity to people. Writing is the way I process the world and the way I ask questions of it.”
Shukla says he wants to move from writing “about people trying to find their way in the world, trying to navigate structurally racist environments” to focusing on “joyful things”.
Still, he adds: “I can’t change the world – I don’t even think I can change my industry – but I can offer a voice of dissent, and maybe that will inspire another voice of dissent. It’s all you can do, right?”
This attitude has always been part of Shukla, who as a young man wanted to “write Spiderman comics and be the most eloquent, verbally dexterous, angry political rapper of all time”.
His parents, Africans who settled in North West London, were “hardworking, don’t-make-any-noise immigrants” who grafted to send him to private school. The pressure of feeling like a “return and investment kid” meant he studied law at university rather than his preferred creative writing. These are tropes, we joke, typical among British Gujarati diasporas in the UK to which we both belong.
While a student, Shukla was involved in many activism projects such as the Southall Monitoring Group and the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation, working with victims of wrongful imprisonment. He also, in the late 90s, went to an Asian Dub Foundation gig – a night he calls “one of the most incredible things ever” and which would prove pivotal to his career.
Backstage, Shukla cornered frontman Deeder Zaman, who invited him to email over a copy of his book and took him under his wing, providing the springboard for a foray into spoken word and rap. His debut 2010 novel, Coconut Unlimited, chronicles this period.
Half a decade and two more novels later, Shukla edited and published The Good Immigrant, a selection of essays from 21 UK BAME voices about race, racism and identity. “I said to all the writers: write the essay no one else will commission, like it’s the last thing on the subject you’ll write, don’t make me angry, make me laugh,” he recalls of the project, which gained him acclaim and recognition.
Shukla, who defined himself as a comedy writer, found himself uneasy with being hurled into the limelight, being asked to speak on racism, and cast in the role of public intellectual. “It messed with my head – evenings away from home, talking about race, sitting on a train by myself, feeling depressed,” he says.
The Good Immigrant has remained a double-edged sword. “I’ve done so much since, but people just want to talk about [it] – an amazing book, but it’s not the only thing I want to be known for [and] was a collective effort.”
Back to the grassroots
Happier times, Shukla muses, have come via his involvement with Bristol’s Rife magazine, mentoring young writers in 2014. “It’s become of paramount importance to me to do some grassroots youth work,” he says. “For all Bristol’s problems, it’s a wonderful city and there’s some cutting edge stuff here – youth work, arts spaces, journalism – I’m trying to see how I can be more connected with.”
Looking to the future, Shukla is determined to follow the thread of community activism that has run through his life – despite his inclinations towards a quieter existence.
“Inspiring young people is one of the most important things I’ve ever done,” he concludes. “I want to do more of it in the city.”