Nikesh Shukla: Fighting back against racism

AWARD-WINNER: Nikesh Shukla (Pic credit: Jon Aitken)

by LAUREN CODLING

AN ACCLAIMED writer has revealed how a racist incident inspired his latest young adult novel.

Nikesh Shukla is an award-winning author, editor and columnist. The Bristol-based novelist is releasing his second young adult book, The Boxer, in June.

It follows an amateur boxer who takes up the sport after he is attacked in a racially motivated incident.

The story is inspired by Shukla’s own experience of racism. He was on a train when he was approached by a group of men who threatened him.

Fearing he would be attacked, Shukla recalled feeling scared and unsure of what to do.

“All I wanted was the confidence to stand up and walk away from the situation with the knowledge that if I was attacked, I would be able to defend myself,” he revealed.

The men did not attack him, but Shukla decided he had to take control in case of another threatening situation ever arose again. As a result, he began to practise boxing.

Becoming fascinated by the combat sport, Shukla spoke to criminologists on the mentality of young men and how boxing can teach them skills.

“All of that stuff I learnt made me think, there is a novel in this,” the writer said.

The story also centralises on the rise of the far-right, as the protagonist’s best friend becomes at risk of being radicalised.

Shukla said: “I felt like it was a good time to address the terrorism that comes from the far-right,” he said. “It is something we don’t talk about enough in this country.”

The British-Asian writer rose to prominence in 2016 when he edited The Good Immigrant. A collection of essays by UK writers of colour such as Riz Ahmed and Vinay Patel, the anthology told stories about race and immigration.

Now, three years later, The Good Immigrant USA was released last week.

The Good Immigrant caused the publishing industry to have a long, hard look at itself in terms of the voices it was representing and the types of stories it was telling,” Shukla told Eastern Eye before the US launch.

“Whenever the issue of lack of diversity had been raised in publishing, the solutions have been quite short-term. Now, because of books such as this one, there are a lot of movement trying to look at long-term solutions.”

The book also resonated with young people, he said, who felt the essays represented them.

It made them feel they had role models and stories they could relate to. They did not feel alone.

“Especially in a world that has felt so divided and so full of uncertainty and inequality,” Shukla stressed.

Recently, Arts Council England released their annual diversity report which showed only a small increase of diversity in the arts – from 10 per cent to 12.

In response, the Tara Arts artistic director Jatinder Verma said the way around it is to tell more Asian stories.

Shukla agreed with Verma, although  he wants to ensure Asian stories are not stereotypically about identity or struggling with oppression.

“I want to read about young brown people in love, fighting crime or being superheroes,” he said. “Diversity isn’t just telling the stories of oppression – it is telling all stories.”

Shukla, from Harrow in north-west London, grew up reading Spider-man comics and crime novels.

When he was 14, Shukla discovered The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureshi. The book, which follows Karim, a mixed-race teenager in south London, changed Shukla’s life.

“It was the first time I’d read a book with a protagonist that looked like me,” he said. “That was when I realised it was important to tell our stories.

“I wasn’t weird, alone or abnormal – I was a kid going through stuff just like Karim.”

Nikesh Shukla will be appearing at the Huddersfield Literature Festival on
Friday, March 29