Nikesh Shukla – 'My skin colour is not a fluctuating lucrative or unlucrative marketing trend; it's my fucking life'

Nikesh Shukla – 'My skin colour is not a fluctuating lucrative or unlucrative marketing trend; it's my fucking life'

credit: Sham Phat Photography

We catch up with the writer ahead of his Edinburgh International Book Festival appearance to discuss his unexpected but extraordinary year

Let's stop for a minute to talk about diversity. Or specifically how, in 2017, people of colour are still having to discuss, debate and demand their inclusion in certain spaces. In the arts and media, conscious and unconscious bias loom large, despite the efforts of those who actively attempt to alter what is considered the default.

Nikesh Shukla has been at the forefront of these conversations, particularly in publishing, which suffers from a profound eliteness and monoculture at all levels of the industry. As the editor and driving force behind the massively successful essay collection The Good Immigrant, he has been vocal about the industry's failure to support BAME authors and diverse voices. But he is also candid about his frustration in having to keep up this fight for representation.

'I don't think that any of the work I do around diversity is anything more than the basic work that we should all be doing to push for equality, not only in the arts but also in society.' he explains. 'I'm really sick of talking about diversity because I feel like we were beyond that conversation decades ago and we're still having it and it doesn't move on. People throw knee-jerk reaction panel events and money at diversity so we can all sit and talk about it rather than actually doing anything that has any long-term benefits.'

It is this lack of real action along with an increasingly troubling political climate that resulted in the birth of The Good Immigrant, a project which brought together 21 black and minority ethnic writers to examine what it means to be BAME in Britain today. In September, it will be a year since the collection was released and a year since Shukla and his fellow contributors shifted the conversation surrounding identity and Britishness for the better.

'It has been a wild year!' Shukla proclaims when asked about the reaction to the project. 'I thought we would maybe sell like a thousand copies and people would go "oh yeah, that was good". But we really did do alright.'

Despite the past year being a whirlwind of praise and accolades, it's also featured plenty of right-wing trolls and criticisms from a Tory MP, who described Shukla's work as discriminatory to white people. Still, The Good Immigrant has certainly caused a stir in publishing, prompting more attention to be paid to non-white writers and readers. But even though there is an unbridled sense of hope that surrounds the project, Shukla believes that the industry still has some way to go.

'I think there's definitely a feeling that diversity's really on trend right now. Someone told me that they've been in a meeting where someone has said "well, black girls are so hot right now". Here's the thing, my skin colour is not a fluctuating lucrative or unlucrative marketing trend depending on the whims of the market; it's my fucking life.'

For there to be a real change in the output of organisations and companies, there needs to be diversity across the board, which Shukla thinks is especially important for young people who don't see themselves represented in the media and in culture enough.

'When the thing that makes you feel like you don't belong is a social construct or the colour of your skin and the history that imbues on you, it's really hard,' says Shukla. 'And so having those aspirational role models could be so powerful for young people to make them feel, on the one hand, normal and, on the other, like they can do anything.'

Shukla has himself been a positive role model and mentor to many young people of colour, especially in his work as the editor of Bristol-based youth-led magazine Rife. 'I can't pay my mentors Salena Godden and Niven Govinden back for that instrumental role they played in my life,' he says, 'but I can pay it forward and be that person for other writers. Sometimes just giving someone your time could be the critical thing that they need to further their career.'

Along with a myriad of other projects currently in the works, Shukla has most recently contributed his first YA story to A Change is Gonna Come, an anthology of short stories and poetry from British BAME YA writers. For now though, his sights are set firmly on Edinburgh, where he'll be making his first appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with fellow The Good Immigrant contributors, Coco Khan and Miss L. The trio will be discussing, among other things, how you fit into the world if you feel unwelcome in the place you call home.

While we shouldn't have to keep having these conversations, the reality is that being BAME in the UK in 2017 means constantly being reminded of your difference through systemic inequalities that exist in society. Nevertheless, thanks to writers like Nikesh Shukla and the impact that books like The Good Immigrant have had on readers all over the country, people are finally listening and we're finally getting a seat at the table to contribute to a working multicultural society.

Nikesh Shukla: Unwelcome Welcome, Charlotte Square Gardens, 15 Aug, 8.30pm, £8 (£6).

Nikesh Shukla

It's tough to be an immigrant, even in a multicultural melting pot. In The Good Immigrant, Bristol-based novelist and diversity activist Nikesh Shukla brings together 21 writers to explore why immigrants come to the UK, why they stay and what it means to be mixed race. He is joined by fellow contributors Coco Khan and…

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