Author Nikesh Shukla reveals how his writing career has shaped him as a person, and why he’s sharing his most vulnerable self through his words...
When Nikesh Shukla is asked to introduce himself on Happiful’s podcast ‘I am. I have’, he pauses for a moment. “I always feel weird answering these questions, because my natural instinct is to undercut everything and say: ‘I’m just one of those guys, you know…’”
But Nikesh is far from ‘just’ anything. He tells me that he’s a writer, a dad, and probably best known for editing The Good Immigrant – a critically acclaimed collection of essays. His latest offering is the beautiful, poignant, and deeply personal read Brown Baby: A Memoir of Race, Family and Home.
Nikesh has spent the majority of his adult life writing, continually developing new ways of reaching audiences and sharing stories. It’s clear that he’s passionate about his craft and helping emerging writers, paying forward the support he’s received, and speaking up about the mental health impact of being a writer of colour, something that’s so rarely addressed in the industry, or beyond.
From mentoring to mental health, and what makes for the best writing, here Nikesh shares the insight he’s gained, the choices he’s made, and the challenges he’s encountered in his career and life to date...
The importance of paying it forward
Part of the reason I am where I am, is because at the moments in my early career when I was ready to give up, and I’d lost all capacity for persistence, I had the right people intervene. I’m really lucky to have had amazing mentors at those points in my life. I had so many people get me to where I needed to be mentally and spiritually. My mentors gave me so much time and space, and I would be nowhere without them.
I can’t ever pay them back, I can only ever pay it forward, because that’s just what you do. When you’re from a marginalised community, your elders pass on skills and support to you, and then you pass them on to the next generation.
I now do that. I’ve helped writers to set up magazines, find literary agents, and edit their work, and I’ve helped them to understand what happens to you mentally when you get published, or win a prize because no one ever tells you that. I’m not expecting anything back from them. What I do expect is that when they are in the same position, they’ll pay it forward, too.
"As a writer, I’m communicating from the heart. I throw myself into my books and it takes a piece of me every single time"
The mental health impact of being a writer of colour
As a writer of colour, people will constantly challenge where you are in your career, and accuse you of being there because of ‘positive discrimination’, or because everyone is so ‘woke’ at the moment. Or they’ll question why you take up certain spaces, and that will mess with your head. Your own community will tear you apart because when you’re the one writer who gets through, they expect you to be representative of everyone, and that is impossible.
For me specifically, the thing that I didn’t even consider as a job was being a public intellectual about race and immigration. I’m a comedy and fiction writer, that’s where I started out, and then The Good Immigrant led me down this weird cul de sac where I was asked to go on the news and talk about Nigel Farage!
My tweets were mentioned in the papers, MPs were reporting me to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and editors were snarking behind my back saying the only reason I was doing any of this ‘race chat’ was to further my own career.
So you’re constantly made to feel like you don’t deserve any of it. The sad truth was that I didn’t want to be speaking on any of those platforms in the first place. I just wanted to be writing my dumb jokes, and books about men trying to be better at their lives, that’s all I wanted to do when I started out, and now here I am.
In the two years that I was touring The Good Immigrant, I had a new kid, I was being trolled on the internet, and was being sent death threats to my house, my inbox, and on social media. All of this because I just wanted better representation in books. With all of that vitriol, you start to think: ‘What’s the point? Why am I doing all this stuff?’ and you start to feel alone.
No one tells you about any of this when you start out, so I’ve decided to be honest about it.
The value in being vulnerable
I’ve been having a lot of therapy recently to address a couple of things I talk about in Brown Baby, such as binge-eating and depression, and it’s all rooted to a feeling of worthlessness that I have. I’m still trying to understand where that comes from, and I’m working through the murky waters of it.
When I feel stressed, worthless, or anxious, I reach out for comfort. Now my mum isn’t around, and because I can’t lie on the sofa with her, split a bag of crisps and watch Frasier – which would be my happy place – I just reach for the bag of crisps instead. The thing about it is one bag is not enough, the act of eating is what’s sustaining the feeling. The immediate response afterwards is to feel shame, and that’s why I think: “If I keep eating, I’ll be OK.”
Putting the binge-eating into the book was my way of carving out a space, because I’m happy to be vulnerable and open with my friends, and I really want that to be reflected in my writing. I shared it in the hope that other men can start to have these open and transparent conversations, too.
The big questions about parenting
My new book is about the stuff that keeps me up at night, such as raising my kids to be proud of their heritage, but also mindful that the world is very racist, and how I – as a father – raise my daughters, but don’t take up space in their life that perpetuates the patriarchy. Also how I might talk to them about my own mental health.
The best writing bleeds on the page
I remember when I May Destroy You first came out, Michaela Coel talked about bleeding for your art, and putting your soul on the page, and her words just really resonated with me. As a writer, I’m communicating from the heart. I throw myself into my books, and it takes a piece of me every single time. I think that’s really important.
‘Brown Baby: A Memoir of Race, Family and Home’ by Nikesh Shukla is out now (bluebird books for life, £16.99). Listen to Nikesh’s episode of ‘I am. I have’ on iTunes, Spotify, and other podcasting platforms.
To connect with a counsellor or to talk to a professional, you can visit counselling-directory.org.uk