Nikesh Shukla writes about some of his experiences in the publishing world in advance of our National Conversation event on diversity at Bloomsbury Institute this Thursday.
1. Agents and Authenticity
Before Quartet Books picked up my first novel Coconut Unlimited – as a direct, unagented submission – and published it, I had sent it everywhere. I sent it to every agent and every publisher I could find. At the time I worked in the industry and so I met people all the time. My submissions weren’t always unsolicited, often it was someone I met at an event who seemed interested. They all rejected me, because, they said, the story of three hip-hop obsessed Asian boys was too niche. One agent, white, told me that she didn’t feel the characters were ‘authentically Asian enough’. I asked what she meant. My characters were drawn from my own authentically Asian observations and experiences. I was baffled. She said that none of them acted in a way that readers would identify as Asian.
2. The Madness of Meritocracy
At London Book Fair four years ago, I sat on a panel about diversity. All the panellists agreed that one of the biggest problems with the industry was that because the make-up of the people in the houses was mostly white, the books they published by non-white writers felt like a romanticised or fetishised experience. We all agreed, as a panel, that the industry needed to be more diverse, so that the types of writers published were too. Someone (so ridiculously high up in the industry at the time it’s embarrassing) said that it was a meritocracy, because they tended to hire people through their internship programme. I told him that only a certain type of person can afford to do a free internship in London so a meritocracy is a fallacy. Later that day, at a party, he mistook me for another Asian male who worked in publishing.
3. Reviewing the Situation
A reviewer once said of one of my short stories that he was glad to see Indians going through the universal experience. That stuck with me.
The characters weren’t Indian; one was Bengali, one was Pakistani, one was from Watford. That wasn’t even the issue for me – that generic catch-all of the continent as country (cf ‘African dress’, ‘Asian spices’) is not new. The thing I found most problematic about this comment was that it was even a question – that an entire subcontinent might miss out on ‘the universal experience’. It’s ‘universal’. That means it applies to everyone. That’s not a revelation. The universal experience isn’t an entirely Western concept. It’s a universal one. Like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or universal plug adaptors.
It made me realise what the problem was with the wider literary establishment. The universal experience is for white people; other cultures have culturally specific experiences.
4. Questions I’ve Been Asked In Interviews/At Events/At Launches
What do my parents think of me wanting to be a writer?
What do I think of [insert name of Pakistani/Bengali/Sri Lankan writer]?
Did I find it easier to get published because my partner is white?
Do I think by getting more Asian boys to read, it will make them less prone to being radicalised?
Do I think the term ‘people of colour’ is offensive to white people?
Thank you so much … your work really reminds me of all the yoga retreats I’ve been to in India.
The way diversity is viewed is not just an issue for people of colour to combat – it needs to be challenged in all its forms by all of us. That’s how intersectionality works. I recently wrote an essay as a provocation to white writers, asking them to help normalise the experience of others by occasionally including non-white characters in their work, not as a token, but because you recognise that it’s pretty messed up that people in books tend to be white unless they have to do something culturally/racially specific. Now, that’s a provocation for a utopian time when things like the above aren’t still happening in 2015. But they are. And you need to help me call it out, friend.
Nikesh Shukla is a writer of fiction and for television. His new novel is Meatspace, the Guardian saying of the book that ‘like Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, this novel captures a cultural moment.’ His debut, Coconut Unlimited was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2010. Nikesh’s short stories have been featured in: Best British Short Stories 2013, Five Dials, The Moth Magazine, Pen Pusher, The Sunday Times, Book Slam, BBC Radio 4, First City Magazine and Teller Magazine. He has written essays (‘Generation Vexed: What the Riots Don’t Tell Us About Our Nation’s Youth’), a novella (The Time Machine, 2013), and for TV, including ‘Two Dosas’ with Himesh Patel, and his Channel 4 Comedy Lab ‘Kabadasses’. Shukla has written for the Guardian, Esquire and BBC 2 and hosts the The Subaltern podcast, the anti-panel discussion featuring conversations with writers about writing.
The National Conversation events feature a full provocation, panel discussion and audience Q&A and are form a wide-ranging debate taking place around the country. Over the last twelve months we have been discussing pertinent literary issues with Ali Smith, Will Self, Michael Rosen, Kamila Shamsie, Philip Gwyn Jones, Meg Rosoff, a host of national partners and writers and now you.