Writer Nikesh Shukla is the host of the Subaltern podcast, author of the short film Two Dosas and a number of novels including Coconut Unlimited and Meatspace; most recently he edited The Good Immigrant, a collection of short stories and essays exploring people of colour and their experience in the UK. It was voted Britain’s favourite book of 2016.
In his interview with Jericho he discusses race, identity and what it means to be a person of colour in a country that appears to be turning its back on globalisation.
As a person born in London and who lives in the Bristol, why do you consider yourself an immigrant?
Well, I don’t. I’m the proud child of immigrant parents. The title of the book is purposefully subversive; it pokes fun at the binary scale that gets applied to people who are “other” and not from round here. Racists don’t have the nuance to ask if you were born here or not, and anyway, it’s not a question that they necessarily should be asking.
The project is very much about trying to highlight exciting writers of colour, all of whom are from an immigrant background, but some of whom are here as an actual immigrant. Around the time of the referendum, you saw the Breaking Point poster that Nigel Farage stood in front of, legs akimbo. It made me really sick about the narrative around immigration, just dehumanising these families.
You’ve stated that the intention behind launching The Good Journal is to give more exposure to writers from an ethnic minority background. Do you feel solidarity with people from different ethnic groups? Or are you simply proud of being from your own, specific immigrant background?
I guess what you’re asking about is the ‘homogeneousness of diversity’. It seems to be that you’re either ‘diverse’ or ‘the default’. And by diverse you have people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities (BAME) who are all supposed, according to the laws of diversity, to have the same issues, fears and backgrounds, and I just don’t think that’s the case.
I think there is solidarity amongst people of colour, and I know that term is an Americanism that has filtered into the UK, but BAME is a crappy council equality monitoring form term. First we were ethnic minorities, then we were minority ethnic, then we were black and minority ethnic, now we’re BAME. Who is deciding these terms? I’d much rather self-identify as a person of colour.
There is solidarity but there needs to be recognition that even as a person of colour there are internal struggles and there is still a perceived hierarchy – for example, there’s still anti-blackness in south Asian communities that needs to be looked at. So even as people of colour who are doing anti-racism work we need to make sure we’re checking ourselves and making sure we’re being as inclusive and representative as we can.
Many see the vote for the UK to leave the EU as a backwards step. However you work with a lot of young people and have said that their views are very progressive. Will British society eventually dispense with all these racial labels?
I run a youth magazine in Bristol and work with young people trying to amplify their voices – so I have these conversations a lot. The last three elections we’ve had in the UK – the 2015 General election, the EU referendum and that stupid election recently. People ask, “where’s the youth vote?” The youth came out for all of those votes! And the country voted against them. So if you look at how that demographic voted, then I’d say the country is in safe hands; but fatigue sets in.
People are saying “we came out three times, we told you what we wanted, we told you what we wanted the country to look like where you’re all dead, when trees are growing out of your coffins, and you fucked us, every single time.” So I can imagine a scenario where there’s a snap election next year and young people don’t vote as much.
I have hope, because you have to have hope. I want life to be like the end of Rogue One where despite all the odds, the flash drive ends up in Princess Leia’s hands and they ask her what it is and she says, “it’s hope.” We just have to hope that things will be different.
If we’re looking for hope, in-between all those elections Sadiq Khan won the London Mayoral Election and your book won numerous awards, which suggests that there is a market for progressive ideas. In terms of media representation for ethnic minorities, do you think the climate is improving?
I understand that media representation is the thin end of the wedge in terms of anti-racism work, but the reason it’s so important is because when we’re children, where do our aspirations start? They start in the things we read, the things that we see on TV. Representation shows us who we can be.
There’s a wonderful quote by Junot Diaz, “if you want to turn a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” The same can also be said for people who need to see diversity, because it gives them an alternative to the default that is them.
I wonder if there really is change, or if this is actually just a blip. We saw this in 1997/98 when there was a whole summer when being Indian was cool – it was called ‘Cool Asia’ and it lasted three months. These things happen in trends because marketeers can see the potential money that can be made from diversity. I’m not interested in that, I’m interested in changing the fabric of society – so things like Riz winning an Emmy, or The Good Immigrant winning a vote by readers, or Sadiq Khan [becoming mayor of London]… All these things are really important in challenging the status quo, but at the same time you see the war that’s being waged on Sadiq Khan. To all his detractors Sadiq Khan is Muslim first and people just can’t get past that.
A lot of people who voted to leave the EU had worries about mass immigration. Do you feel that if the country were to have a lower rate of migration and were to change less quickly, it could provide a better environment for migrants or minorities? As is often said, some of the biggest critics of migration are recent migrants…
Yeah… sellouts. This is what I mean when I say we were lied to in the referendum campaign. The thing is that the EU does have mechanisms in place to control borders, but they’re just not implemented in this country. Somehow the EU gets blamed for our government’s inability to run a bureaucracy that has been properly been laid down by the EU.
That’s dangerous. We’re building up that narrative about immigration when the people to blame for the lack of control of borders are this Conservative, and the previous Labour, government. And also we’re now finding out that the numbers are much lower than the papers would have us believe.
The problem is that the Leave campaign and the narrative about migration are totally built on lies, and it’s hard to imagine an alternative to a lie. Start with the truth and then we can have a conversation.
You stated that your idea of British values is of tolerance and openness. Are those values enough to form a collective identity? Does a country need more than that to be cohesive?
Fundamental British values are, democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs, and for those without faith. This is how British values are taught in schools.
Now, to me, those are things that all of us should ascribe to. In terms of a collective identity – you’re right, they are pretty vague. It’s not like in America where they have really tangible values.
As we continue to decolonize things like our university system and these statues of [slave traders] like Robert Clive and Edward Colston, we can get to a point where we can start to build a collective identity around icons that are multicultural, that do represent difference and tolerance. I’d much rather have statues of French and Saunders than Robert Clive. But this decolonization is going to be slow met with constant resistance.
I understand some people’s fear of erasure, and I think it’s perfectly fine to have constant reminders on every street corner of Britain’s sins, as long as it’s taught properly in schools.
Do you think immigrants self-segregate to an extent? Do you think they have a responsibility to integrate into the mainstream?
There’s a rapper called Heems who said, “my parents didn’t come here to integrate, they came here to make money; but if you want to make more money then you have to integrate.” People move for very different reasons, people rarely move because they want to assume a national collective identity. They often come much for selfish reasons, or because they’re escaping war.
In 1968 the race relations act came in, my uncle tried to buy a house in Leeds and he was refused the house he wanted to buy because the owner refused to sell to a ‘coloured’. My uncle was the first person to bring a case of race discrimination under the Race Relations Act; judgement was reserved and the case was unresolved, but my uncle was then able to find a house in a more Asian area. So who created that self-segregation?
We all know about ‘white flight’, we all know about how these impoverished, multicultural areas occurred – it’s because the housing is cheap, and they came to where the community was welcoming. So it’s not the fault of immigrant communities – they just want to be able to walk out of their house and buy a pack of butter without getting ostracized!
So is it the government’s duty to try and form some sort of collective identity?
I think it’s our duty as British citizens to come up with a collective identity for what it is to be British now. It’s all of our responsibility. We talk about Britain being a multicultural society; the conversation we need to have is about forming a collective identity that embraces difference. How we do that? I don’t know. Maybe, Stormzy will do it. He seems like he’s got his head screwed on, he’s very earnest and feels all of this stuff.
Is there a country that is doing that any better than the UK?
No idea. From the outside Canada looks pretty cool but it probably has it’s own massive problems that we just don’t hear about because we think their Prime Minister’s hot. I suppose there aren’t many places that have the same kind of post-colonial pull that Britain does.
The book was provocatively titled the Good Immigrant. Is there a bad immigrant?
Yes. But not on the scale that is currently attributed. The thing that happened during the referendum was that all this stuff became conflated – immigrants become migrants, become economic migrants, become refugees, become asylum seekers, become people of colour – it all becomes this homogenous mess of the diversity of other. And that is the problem.
Nikesh can be found on Twitter @nikeshshukla. Interview by Joe Barnes.