Four years ago the writer Nikesh Shukla contemplated putting together a contemporary book about race and immigration in the UK, one that gave a platform for writers of colour. A year later that book, The Good Immigrant had not only come into being, but had won the Readers’ Choice Award at the Books Are My Bag Awards.
Whilst The Good Immigrant rightly continues to be read and championed, this year has seen the arrival of a fresh collection, with Shukla and fellow writer Chimene Suleyman joining forces to curate The Good Immigrant USA. In October 2019 the pair appeared here at Southbank Centre to discuss the process of putting together this edition, and its impact, but before that we caught up with Nikesh Shukla to discuss making time for writing, the challenges of co-editing and the impact of The Good Immigrant.
You’re a prolific writer – with both The Good Immigrant USA and your YA novel The Boxer published this year – how do you manage to get so much done, and stay on top of so many projects? And what motivates you to keep writing?
I wasted my twenties as a less than average rapper and so I feel compelled to make up for lost time. With The Good Immigrant USA, having my sister and collaborator Chimene Suleyman on board was key. Without her there’d be no book. The main thing is, I exist on four hours sleep a night, I spend a lot of time on trains and I have a supportive team around me. What motivates me? There’s so much bleakness in the world and I have limited skills. Writing is the only thing I’m particularly good at. So if I can use writing to hold mirrors up to those in the margins so they feel seen, speak truth to power and spread joy, then that’s what I’ll do.
It’s three years since The Good Immigrant was first published. Was there a key moment or instance that prompted you to put the collection together, or was it more of a sustained build up?
I did a few too many diversity panels and I felt like enough was enough. There were writers I knew coming up against the same barriers I felt coming up. Doing the book allowed me to create a platform for them and do something other than whine on twitter and have endlessly circular conversations on diversity panels. So after I read Between the World and Me and Citizen, I wondered about putting together a contemporary book about race and immigration in the UK, and so it all came together.
The word ‘immigrant’ is very often used in a very one-dimensional all-encapsulating way – by both our politicians and our media. Was the want to step away from this, and show the breadth and diversity of the people bound together by this word, part of the inspiration for the collection?
The original intentions of the original book was to platform writers of colour. At the same time though, we have Trump and Farage and the deterioration of conversations about immigration and people from immigrant backgrounds increasingly felt like people were talking for them. So the book came out at the right time. It became a political tool on release. On reflection, had I curated it in the wake of Brexit and Trump and Farage, there’s a chance it would have ended up a different book.
Were you surprised at all by how far reaching, and how impactful the collection has been?
Yes, every day, I’m surprised. It changed my career. Every week I hear from people who feel like the book has meant something to them and that’s incredible.
With so much talent out there, how hard has it been making a selection as to who to feature in the two Good Immigrant collections?
The first one I just asked a bunch of people I knew and/or was inspired by and the ones in the book are the ones who said yes and turned essays in on time. I didn’t think too much about the curation. The second book, Chimene and I worked closely with our editors Sharmaine Lovegrove and Jean Garrett and really thought about what we wanted to do. The first thing we decided was, this was a political book and we had to be sensitive to that. We were careful in our curation. We took the title more seriously. We thought about the complexities and differences around conversations on race and immigration in the States and we asked people who would give us perspectives we needed to hear.
Was it a natural step to go on to produce The Good Immigrant USA? How did it come about?
At first I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to get back to my own writing. The first book was never planned and it just blew up. But I wanted to work on my YA and hone that. Also, I didn’t want to just open up space so writers of colour were only writing about race and immigration. I wanted to do other stuff. But it was hard to look away from what was happening in America. And Chimene was living there and we’re in daily close contact. And her stories about the conversations she was having as a person of colour in America were fascinating. And so we decided to do it.
Is co-editing a collection an easy process? Did you and Chimene have any disagreements or different perspectives that needed to be worked through in putting the collection together?
It’s hard and it’s easy. We’re both close enough that any disagreements were dealt with transparently and we have different tastes as well. So it meant the book had a different feel and tone to the first one. We didn’t have any real disagreements. More stresses about deadlines and working with so many people at so many different paces.
The Good Immigrant USA has been described as “an urgent collection of essays…” Aside from the collection’s core premise is it that sense of urgency which is the most common theme of the collection? A need to respond to current events? A sense that this is a critical point in time?
I think it’s about home. How do we build homes in precarious spaces. And how we protect them.
Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman joined us as part of London Literature Festival on Saturday 19 October, however Nikesh Shukla is back with us once again Saturday 26 October as part of our YA Lit Day