Nikesh Shukla: Unwelcome Welcome

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
August 15 2017

Bristol-based novelist and diversity activist Nikesh Shukla recently contributed to and edited the much-talked about book of essays and personal stories of 21 people of colour in the UK, The Good Immigrant. He leads a discussion with two of the contributors, Coco Khan and Miss L, which was informal and spirited. The book contains essays from many of the current leading lights of young culture and informed debate, including Riz Ahmed and Reni Eddo-Lodge. It was a sell-out talk, cheerfully and humorously chaired by Daniel Hahn, a writer and translator who was both shortlisted for and a judge for the Man Booker International Prize. In between some good-humoured jokes, he chaired an important and much-needed discussion in this Brexity climate of hostility towards immigrants.

Nikesh’s initial trigger for creating this collection was being invited to speak on a diversity panel on many occasions over a period of years, without seeing much progress in the acceptance and promotion of writers of colour within the publishing world in between. He yearned for the kind of book in the UK that we are seeing coming out of the USA discussing issues pertinent to people of colour in a racist society. He personally knew several great writers like Riz Ahmed that he could commission, and managed to raise funds easily through a Crowdfunding project, sidestepping the usual publishing routes with all its problems. The indignation at this sorry state of affairs comes through, rightly, without apology. And to the equally infuriating idea that now Blackness is ‘in’ and ‘cool’, he exasperatedly exclaimed, “It’s not a marketing trend, it’s our fucking lives!” Miss L is an actress of Asian origin and read her story ‘The Wife of a Terrorist”, about the disappointment of being typecast and held back by well meaning white tutors and audition judges. Coco Khan read us a hilarious and disturbing account of dating on the sly while living in a mainly Asian area of East London, and, as she put it bluntly, atttempting to get laid at her mainly white university just like everyone else, but running into problems being “Brown around Town”. Her own blog has helped to normalise and give a voice to young Muslim women navigating overlapping and sometimes conflicting subcultures within the U.K., and is now writing for the Guardian as well as other publications.

Nikesh said the book had two jobs; realising the power for people of colour in seeing themselves as visible, and for white people to fully humanise people of colour by realising the ‘universal experience’. Nikesh read his story ‘Namaste’, with its infuriation at cultural appropriation and the lack of respect for the origins of whatever trend happens to be fashionable and lucrative this season. The questions were from curious and concerned white people of various ages, who brought the discussion briefly to the burden of representation, getting past tokenism and what needed to be done in order to move forward. As expected, it comes down to the gatekeepers of power. In this case, who decides what gets commissioned, many of whom are benevolent but rather sheltered in their experience. Who perhaps unconsciously and unwittingly stand in the way because of their own preconceptions about people who don’t look or behave exactly like them. But there was no time to break this down further, which was a shame. We need details and strategy in this area to be able to fuel the kinds of ideas and momentum to move forward more swiftly.

It might just be a measure of my age, being at least 15 years older than the panel, but it did seem like many of the themes of the conversation among British people of colour were the same themes being discussed almost a generation ago, in the days when the theories of cultural theorist Stuart Hall were in the forefront. The difference, I think, this time, is perhaps the range of voices and the keen interest taken by the mainly white audience of all ages. In this, the book has served its purpose. At minimum, a solid platform has been created for people to have their voices heard, to express their frustration and disappointment at the systematic, structural racism that still unfortunately exists in this country. Are enough gatekeepers of power and the white consumers of culture listening and willing to move forward now? We will be all the richer for a true diversity of voices in a multicultural Britain where noone is made to feel like an unwelcome outsider, and there will no longer be any need for Nikesh to be wheeled out unwillingly to sit on another ‘diversity panel’. Because it will be completely normal to be accepted as fully British, whatever colour or religion you happen to be.

Reviewed by: Lisa Williams

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