Writing Destiny with Nikesh Shukla

As he brings his two new novels to the Edinburgh Book Festival, we talk fate, thrillers and diversity with Nikesh Shukla

Feature by Katie Goh | 26 Jul 2018
  • Nikesh Shukla

Nikesh Shukla is from a long line of people who don’t take shit. His uncle was the first person in the UK to bring a case of racial discrimination to court under the Race Relations Act, following a building company’s refusal to sell him a house in 1968 because he was a person of colour. This incident was the inspiration behind The One Who Wrote Destiny, Shukla’s latest adult novel, a sweeping multi-generational epic following the lives of one immigrant family.

“I had this idea when I was 19 years old that I was going to write the great novel about immigration,” he says over the phone. “This was in 1999 and I was sitting in my university dorm room and I was like 'I’m going to drop a mixtape and put out an amazing novel'". The novel didn’t manifest just yet, but Shukla did spend his twenties as a self-described “average at best” rapper. When he sat down to try and write the novel again, it wouldn’t come. Instead, he wrote Coconut Unlimited – “an ode to my year spent as a not very good rapper” – and Meatspace. In the middle of a third novel, he hit a dead end. “I felt like I hadn’t really challenged myself as a writer. I was listening to a podcast with the creator of the US comedy show Arrested Development, and he was talking about archetypal characters where you have a matriarch, a patriarch, a craftsman and a clown and you use them to create chaos. This was exactly what I had been looking for, so then I went and wrote what became The One Who Wrote Destiny.”

This novel, the one he’d longed to write all those years ago, follows four narratives of a family across different generations. Mukesh, the patriarch, immigrates from Kenya to Keighley in the sixties. There he meets the love of his life Nisha, who has pulmonary fibrosis, a literal and symbolic hereditary curse that she passes down to her daughter Neha. Meanwhile, Neha's twin brother Rakesh negotiates the overwhelmingly white world of comedy. Writing an intergenerational story was at the heart of Shukla's novel. “I wanted to interrogate this tension that I used to feel with my own dad. In the late sixties, my dad was nearly bottled to death by a member of the National Front. He nearly died. To my dad, that is racism. So when I used to come home from school and say the kids said I stink of curry, my dad would just be like, ‘Ignore them, who gives a shit!’ I wanted to talk about that coming together of how my dad and I felt about this stuff.”

The title is a nod to the different attitudes towards destiny. “On one hand there’s the idea that everything is pre-written, so whatever will happen will happen. On the other hand, you have the thought that you have to write your own destiny which, to me, just sounds like living your life. So I wanted to talk about how sometimes we can get this form of stage fright by thinking that everything is predetermined for us and there is a journey for us that doesn’t necessarily fit what we want to do.” Immigration is another sort of destiny – how a family ends up where they do. “That family history could have looked completely different if Mukesh decided not to go to the UK or if he didn’t go to Keighley. The whole family hinges on that one mistake. Is that coincidence or is that destiny?”

Shukla’s other new novel, Run, Riot was a much more spontaneous work. “My agent had suggested that I think about it,” he recalls. “In 2014, I was working on a youth project where I was mentoring young people to create digital content, like documentaries and essays and I always asked them what they were reading. Hardly any of them read beyond Harry Potter or Malorie Blackman. The reason a lot of them cited was that they didn’t feel represented in YA. One of them asked why didn’t I write them a YA novel and I said, ‘Yeah, I should.’ So I did.”

Run, Riot is his first Young Adult novel – a thriller about teenagers who witness a police shooting, set in real time. “I don’t think it was necessarily a challenge for me to write for teenagers and in the voice of teenagers because, until very recently, I worked with teenagers nearly every day. The hard bit was that I’d never written a genre piece before. I was writing a thriller set in real time, in a single location with four narratives and using it to try to make an important political and social issue accessible. That was the really hard stuff for me. How do I ensure there aren’t any continuity errors and how do I ensure people aren’t just monologuing at each other about the evils of property development?”

Although he had a first draft written before the events of Grenfell Tower, the tragedy deeply impacted the novel. In the author’s note, he writes: ‘This is a work of fiction that was conceived and drafted before the tragedy in Grenfell Tower. While I did my best to ensure that this remained a work of fiction, the awful events that happened in 2017 loomed large in my consciousness.’

“I didn’t want anyone to say that this was a police brutality novel or this was a Grenfell novel,” he notes. “In an early draft before Grenfell happened, there was a significant fire that broke out halfway through the book, which I then felt was inappropriate so I took that out. The fire was not as important as telling these kids’ stories and this community’s stories and that’s what I wanted the book to be about. When I think about the two most significant things that have happened in the UK in my lifetime, it’s the murder of Stephen Lawrence [a black teenage boy who was killed in a racially motivated attack in 1993] and Grenfell Tower. I still feel haunted by both of them and I feel like I’ll be haunted by both of them for the rest of my life.”

Shukla has always been a politically motivated writer and he is a champion for improving the lack of diversity in publishing. When asked whether he’s seen a change since he began advocating, he pauses before saying, “I’m going to say things are improving rather than they have improved. Because whether this has any long-term effect is TBC. I want all these things that are happening to have a long-term lasting effect because no one who is doing work around diversity wants to be doing work around diversity. I want to be writing and reading books. I don’t want to spend my time banging the drum for equal representation. Yet, I do it because I have a platform and people pay attention to what I’m saying, so I can’t stop saying it until it’s done. And when it’s done I need it to be done forever so I don’t have to talk about it anymore.”

Tense Thrillers with Sarah Mussi & Nikesh Shukla, Garden Theatre, Charlotte Square, 25 Aug, 5.45pm, £5 Philip Hensher & Nikesh Shukla, Garden Theatre, Charlotte Square, 26 Aug, 5.45pm, £10-12