“An important, timely read,” JK Rowling said of The Good Immigrant, a collection of essays, edited by Nikesh Shukla, about being black or Asian in modern Britain. That was in late 2015, when Shukla and his publishers were trying to crowdsource the money to get it printed.
The 36-year-old novelist conceived the project because he was dismayed at the lack of diversity in storytelling. Since then, Britain has voted to leave the EU, reports of hate crime have spiked and Donald Trump has won the US presidency. The issues of race, diversity and immigration are timelier then ever.
Within 20 minutes of the Brexit referendum result, London-born Shukla was getting tweets telling him to “go home”. One threatened to set his “greasy ass” on fire. “Whenever people complained about ‘political correctness gone mad’ you’d know actually it was because they weren’t being allowed to say what they wanted to say,” Shukla tells me. “But now 2016 has torn that plaster off and the wound is seeping. It’s infected and Nigel Farage is the nurse.”
Shukla’s Indian family has lived here for more than 50 years but the abuse fed into his “constant anxiety of that this isn’t your home... it just makes me think ‘what more do I have to do?’”
Around the time of the referendum, review copies of The Good Immigrant were appearing to wide praise. The book brings together 21 black and ethnic minority people to, in Shukla’s words, “tell their own stories in their own voices”. Zadie Smith called it a “lively and vital intervention into the British cultural conversation on race”. It was voted Britain’s favourite book in the Readers’ Choice Award at the inaugural Books Are My Bag Readers Awards, beating the script of Harry Potter And The Cursed Child.
Its title refers to what one of the contributors once said - that Britons from immigrant diasporas must prove themselves before society stops deeming them bad. In one of the most striking essays, Rogue One star Riz Ahmed reveals the moment he returned from a festival to be interrogated at Luton Airport over his latest film about Guantanamo Bay.
Shukla arrives at HuffPost UK offices at 10am already tired. He’s been up since 5am and has travelled from Bristol to meet me before he needs to head to the Arts Council to discuss a project. We talk about his struggles to feel proud of the British part of his identity, why he doesn’t want to be a “good immigrant” and how the book might have been different were it commissioned and written six months later.
“It probably would’ve looked like a different book. It probably would’ve felt more like a political manifesto,” he says. “But at the time it was less about it being a manifesto and more about it being a collection of personal essays which were allowed to disagree with each other.”
After the referendum and the abuse, Shukla grew sick of people assuring him it was isolated and “just a bunch of idiots”. He grew up proud of of his Indian heritage but one “isolated incident” when he was 17 left him ashamed. “All it was was being called a ‘Paki’ in the street by someone. It caused so much anxiety. It caused so much depression. I know the alt-right would call me a snowflake for daring to have feelings but I did have feelings.” He smiles. “Sorry alt-right.”
Anxiety about identity runs through Shukla’s fiction. His first novel is about an Indian boy growing up in Harrow who suffers racial abuse at his private school, which Shukla calls an attempt to “reconcile my teenage years and why I felt so unhappy”. Now, he embraces the fact he is “brown, British and Brown-British”. “There’s a fluidity. There are three different circles and the intersection of it, the overlap, is the truest sense of my self.”
The British part of his identity is what he feels ashamed of now. “I’d much rather feel prouder to be British than I do.” I ask why and he looks at me incredulously.“Have you seen the shitty disarray we’re in? I don’t feel proud.
“When I think of Theresa May, all the things she did as Home Secretary. There was a news story last week about how children of refugees were put to the bottom of list of school selection. Children shouldn’t be refugees. Children shouldn’t be treated as criminals. Every child matters. That was a big Tory thing, right? Every child means every fucking child Theresa. How dare you? Stuff like that makes me feel ashamed. Our response to the refugee crisis makes me feel ashamed.”
Shukla has said he wants the book to be “uncomfortable reading” that challenges the Right and the Left. I ask what the Left, where so many are unconditionally pro-immigration, has to learn. “I think having an abstract belief in a thing, doesn’t necessarily mean you understand it or understand the nuance of it,” he says, adding everyone can have unconscious biases regardless of their politics.
Despite his “naive, having-not-done-a-politics-degree perspective”, he says the Right rallies much quicker around certain issues, while the Left tries pandering. “[The Right are] very, very quick to mobilise behind their core, innate sense of rightness... Whereas the Left has spent two years just tearing itself apart.”
People shouldn’t write literature to make people comfortable, Shukla scoffs. So I ask what in the book made him uncomfortable. He’s initially hesitant, saying he doubts it’s “useful” to cite specifics. “There are couple of perspectives in the book I am glad I commissioned. they just let me into worlds I had never known about before,” he says. He cites one essay on caste and how this Indian system of prejudice still impacts immigrants in Britain and their descendants.
“I’ve never considered it important and I’ve had the privilege to not consider it important because the caste of my family gives us that privilege,” Shukla says. He felt uncomfortable reading about the South East and East Asian communities being more likely to be racially abused than other minorities and their feelings of being ignored. Shukla says: “It makes you uncomfortable because then it makes you think, well, what unconscious bias do I have?”
The Good Immigrant ends with an essay called ‘The Ungrateful Country’ by Musa Okwonga, a British-born, Old Etonian son of Ugandan refugees, who made the “heartbreaking” decision to leave Britain. I ask if Shukla has ever considered the same. Initially, he thinks about what this could mean for his writing, noting emigration has given other authors perspective on their homeland. “Zadie Smith’s writing about London is so amazing since she moved to New York,” he says with awe.
But he rules it out. He has a young daughter and his wife is due to have another baby in May. Both children will, he says, “always be seen as half Indian”. “That’s the thing about mixed race kids, they’re rarely seen as white,” he says. For their sake, he wants to “fight for this space that I believe to exist, that of multi-cultural Britain. I don’t want it to feel like a myth. I don’t want it to feel like a thing we talked about in the 90s, like it was this mystical thing.”
He wants Britain to give his daughter “positive representations of the whole of her identity from Kenya, to India, to Aden, to London, to Keighley, where my mum lived as a teenager, to Bristol where she’s growing up now. Then she gets to make the decisions herself. My decisions about my identity were kind of borne out of pride and then shame.”
Shukla used to read a children’s book to his daughter with a “brown dad, brown mum” whose child wears a yellow mac like hers. He would point to the child in the book and say to his daughter “That’s you”. Eventually, she would ask: “Can we read the book with me in it?”
The first original story he wrote as a child was about ‘Catman’, a hero whom Shukla saw as white. “That is to do with some kind of internalised thing, we were never the heroes of our own stories,” he says. “Every time there was a brown face on TV, we’d go and call our mum and dad and we’d see all sit down and watch together.” His family would watch shows like The Cosby Show, Desmond’s and The Fresh Prince Of Belair, shows that weren’t about Indian people but they watched because “we were so starved of representations of ourselves” and wanted to see other immigrant diasporas.
But the late Nineties were a “really amazing time” for representation, Shukla says, with shows like Goodness Gracious Me and bands like Corner Shop and Asian Dub Foundation. In the Noughties there was “nothing”, though he adds: “There was all this talk about political correctness. We now know that political correctness was like a plaster over a much deeper thing.”
The debate around immigration has become “hideous and toxic” in 2016, Shukla says. He calls Zac Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign “kind of racist” while grimacing and stretching out the words. The Brexit vote was ostensibly not about immigrants from outside Europe but Shukla thinks Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster sent a clear message: “If you want to stop these brown faces entering your country, you had to vote Leave.”
He laments the Left’s failure to be a counter-weight to this. “We’ve got four more years of Theresa May. We’ve got four more years of Donald Trump, we’ve potentially got a hard Brexit and we’ve got Farage having this unwieldy amount of power despite being unelected... I feel like I’m waiting for a hero.”
As it is, The Good Immigrant isn’t about Brexit. It has no voices from those European immigrants whom the vote could literally force to go home. Shukla says, if the book had been written later, he might have sought them out. “Maybe there’ll be another book and that will address this very thing,” he says.
Shukla has hope. He thinks the publishing industry is gradually mobilising to address its lack of non-white voices. “That makes me feel hopeful,” he says. He loves that one of The Good Immigrant’s contributors called it “furiously hopeful.”
“I really like that there’s anger but there’s also hope,” he says. “I feel the darker the year has been, the more I want to try and be hopeful.”
The Good Immigrant is out now, published by Unbound.