The One Who Wrote Destiny is "about what it is to integrate and assimilate, what it is to be an immigrant, ‘the other’"
Nikesh Shukla on piecing together the immigrant experience in the UK
Growing up in London, Nikesh Shukla would come home from his predominantly white school with small tales of everyday racism. If he expected sympathy from his father though, it was in short supply. “He used to say to me, ‘Nikesh, that is Mickey Mouse racism’ – and he had a point,” says Shukla. “I mean, in the 1960s he was bottled by a member of the [extreme right-wing British group] The National Front and nearly bled to death at a bus stop.”
By the time Shukla was 19, this and many other family stories – his uncle was the first person in the United Kingdom to bring a case of racial discrimination to court under the Race Relations Act, while other relatives hid Mau Mau rebels in their Kenyan maize factory – started to cohere in his early attempts at writing. He wanted to write a novel about family, immigration and racism, piecing together anecdotes, experiences and long-held feelings into a novel which could explore what it meant to be a person of colour in the UK.
“And thankfully, I put it in a drawer,” says Shukla, now approaching his forties. “I was still trying to work out my voice and what I was trying to say.”
The Big Story could wait. Eventually, Shukla penned a “love letter to my years of being a mediocre rapper” called Coconut Unlimited (2010), Meatspace (2014) – an achingly current fictional exploration of social media – and, in 2016, he edited the hugely influential collection of essays on “what it means to be a person of colour in Britain today”, The Good Immigrant. And it was the experience of working on that book which finally flung the novel he had always wanted to write into the world: The One Who Wrote Destiny, which was published last week.
“The two books do talk to each other,” says Shukla. “The novel is basically the fiction version of my essay, expanded over 400 pages; both of them are conversations about what it is to integrate and assimilate, what it is to be an immigrant, ‘the other’. I just always wanted to write something about the interior lives of an immigrant family.”
That family story begins with Mukesh, who comes to England from Kenya and experiences life-changing – or perhaps definingly – overt racism. His very different children – computer expert Neha and stand-up comedian Rakesh – pick their way through life and death in the 21st century before their grandmother, Ba, finally ties the family history together.
There is tragedy and pathos, moments of genuine anger spliced with wry comedy. Shukla says the moment the book came together was when he listened to a podcast in which Arrested Development creator Mitchell Hurwitz talked about the paradigm of the matriarch, patriarch, craftsman and clown – a quartet which resonates throughout culture and history.
“I wanted Nikesh’s part to be a bit like the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, with a dad talking to his children in this incredibly long-winded, romanticised way that’s almost like a Bollywood film in which he is the hero. Plenty of love, intrigue, action, rivalry, politics,” he says.
Fast-forward through the decades and Neha is dying from lung cancer – a genetic condition from her mother – and Rakesh is struggling to succeed in his funnyman career, until he happens upon the old Steve Allen maxim that “tragedy plus time equals comedy”.
“There is a degree of cowardice to him, he lacks a bit of character and moral fibre so that’s the journey he gets sent on, to find it,” says Shukla. “People have said it’s a very personal book and, thematically, Rakesh is the closest to me. The week my first novel was published in 2010, my mother died quite suddenly and I’ve always been quite perplexed by why I put my grief on hold for a few months to continue doing novel stuff. So Rakesh, in a way, represents my catharsis in dealing with that trauma.”
So if that means the authorial hand is sometimes a bit too present in The One Who Wrote Destiny, it’s understandable. Shukla wanted to honour what his grandmother and father went through – and in any case, it’s so refreshing to read a novel which is unapologetic about how it is to live in Britain with a complex ethnic and cultural identity. The exploration of what destiny might mean – “a way for some immigrant families to rationalise pain and trauma” – is well handled and Shukla is stylistically daring, too, with Ba’s last ethereal “novella” a real step change in feel and tone from what has come before it.
“She’s really the key to the whole book,” says Shukla. “That generation hold so many secrets and are the opposite of our generation – because we say so much.
“She’s coming to terms with the pain and trauma of immigrating and it not being what she thought, and she becomes a love letter to this idea of going back – which my mother, for example, never got to do. I think there’s something beautiful – and sad – about that.”
The One Who Wrote Destiny is published by Atlantic Books