February 2011

Margaret Howie

features

An Interview with Nikesh Shukla

Nikesh Shukla’s debut novel follows the misadventures of a crew of dedicated hip-hop fans in the early '90s -- well, at least one of them is dedicated, the others get a bit distracted by girls and Michael Jackson, respectively. Coconut Unlimited is a funny, tender coming-of-age story which got the performance poet/filmmaker/musician a nomination for the Costa First Novel Award. He graciously gave this interview to the South London desk of the Bookslut empire about the inspirations behind the book, the struggle to evade the little box in publisher’s minds marked "Asian Author," and George Costanza as literary muse.

When did you decide to write Coconut Unlimited? Was it always the plan to write this book, or was it a surprise to find it take shape?

Coconut Unlimited started life as an anecdote in something else I was working on. I started with the story of recording the rap tape and as I wrote it, I knew that this was beyond an anecdote. It was something else. So I thought about who it was who would be narrating the rap tape, rather than an incidental character in an inferior and as yet unfinished manuscript, and the line came to me: "It was Amit’s idea to start the band." There was my mission statement. And everyone flowed from there, I put down what I was working on and threw myself into Coconut Unlimited. It helped that at the time I was reading the hilarious Colson Whitehead book Sag Harbor, which was so funny and honest and charming and well-written, relentlessly laugh-out-loud moments in every sentence, and I was quite into The Inbetweeners… you know that point when us "early adopters" like something so we can drone on ad nauseum when everyone else catches up about how we were into it first. So between the two, I was so inspired to throw myself into a coming-of-age tale, and they both break all the rules of that trope, so I thought I could be loose with it too.

How would you describe the book to someone from outside the UK who has no interest in hip hop culture?

Everyone has struggled or worried about fitting in at school. Some of us managed it. Some of us formed alternative tribes like the trekkies or the homework club. Some of us tried to shove our lack of acceptance in other people’s faces by being cooler than cool. This book is about those kids. Those kids who didn’t fit into the misfits, the cool kids or even the trekkies. These obsessive boys don’t have the time, resources, understanding or sensitivity to throw themselves into their gangsta rap lifestyle choice, yet do so with such charm and stupidity, you will be spirited along. It’s less about the suburbs in the '90s and Nas’s first album, and more about the self-delusions we project on to ourselves to get us through school. I hated myself at school. I couldn’t figure myself out. I constantly felt like a supporting actor in someone else’s film, despite my attempts to steal the show. And I felt like that at home too. So I turned to outsider music. And this is kinda that tale.

There’s an appalling racist teacher in the book who made me cringe, and I wondered, did you took the opportunity to take revenge on any real people through fiction?

I didn’t want to take revenge on anyone. I wanted it to be a warm and tender and poignant celebration of growing up in a time and place with a real sense of time and place, but with a universal feeling. I clumped together a lot of influences to help tell the story. It being a coming of age tale, there were always going to be similarities with my own life growing up, but I didn’t want to tell a dark tale, I wanted to tell a warm and funny one. You know, this was inspired by Proust, goddamnit. Proust and Public Enemy.

In the recent Guardian top ten list you comment that Hari Kunzru got to be "un-brown" in his book My Revolutions -- almost four years after its publication, do you think it’s any easier for an Anglo-Asian author to produce a novel without the typical stereotypes (mist, mangroves, arranged marriages, etc)?

Nope.

Ahh wait, you wanted me to expand on that? No, I don’t. I had a lot of problems finding a publisher for the book. Publishers couldn’t see a market for it, told me that my characters weren’t authentically Asian and people wouldn’t believe them. When I pushed them to tell me what was authentically Asian, you know what with me being authentically Asian, they pointed me to books about repressed marriages in mangrove swamps and I thought, god, this is ridiculous. We’re not always allowed to write outside our boxes. One publisher told me once that they’d already signed an Indian writer that year, like there’s a quota. What got me was that all they could see were the cosmetic elements: it has Asian characters, it’s about hip hop (my thoughts on that little thing here) so they weren’t willing to publish it, instead of looking beyond these cosmetic elements, to the, what I think are, universal themes. I read books about white American middle class failing marriages all the time, I may not be that demographic but I get it. But then endlessly more books about white American middle class failing marriages are published than books about self-deluded suburban Indian teenagers setting up a rap band. Who knows? Everything’s a niche. People just decide which niche they want to fill your bookshelves with. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with my second novel.

You’ve blogged about the book bridging the gap between Asian and non-Asian readers, and I am interested in finding out what kind of response you’ve had from non-hip hop fans.

Really great. There have been some wonderful blog reviewers who have talked about being completely out of the demographic of my characters and being into indie yet getting it because they felt I’d got that universal tone of unbelonging right, and there’s lots of hilarious banter too. That heartens me so much. That people who aren’t Gujaratis into hip hop are feeling my stuff. Big.

There is a brilliant scene with Amit convincing his mother to buy him new clothes from a funky store in London, it’s a great comic piece but also aches with the awkwardness of his desperation to become a new person. Who are your comedy heroes?

I’m a massive Seinfeld fan and if that scene you mention wasn’t already partly based on my own experiences with my lovely mum, you could imagine George and Estelle Costanza running into similar situations. I’m a big sitcom fan. I love Peep Show, American shows like Seinfeld. I love the American Office, probably more than the UK one, anything Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci touch and I love stand-up comedy, people like Stewart Lee, Richard Herring, Josie Long and Robin Ince deal with politics, universal truths and being outsiders with such wit and cleverness, that I’m completely in awe of their words.

Amit struggles between being stuck between the push and pull of different cultural groups and sets of expectations, like a lot of teens. I felt like the line from your poem "Virgil Levy" -- “Recognition of our differences that would make us win” – is the key to how he eventually gets through this, though not before tripping up several times along the way. Is there anything particular you’d like to tell the teenage Nikesh about life? 

Your persistence will pay off bruv. Stick with the degree. Also, be sensitive about others but don’t care so much about what they think. But most importantly, the woman you marry is gorgeous. Keep the weight off now so she doesn’t look like a chubby chaser in 15 years time.

The book was shortlisted for the Costa first novel award, congratulations. What was that experience like?

It was noise, Bookslut. Proper noise. If anything, it really validated Quartet books, and my lovely writer peers’ investment in nurturing me as a person and as a writer because the book made noise, got on shelves and tables and into people’s consciences, which for a debut on an indie about rap and browns is a difficult proposition. It was amazing and brilliant and I only wish my mum had been around to see it.

Unlike his crew in Coconut Unlimited, Amit is drawn to the more political, darker, angrier edges of hip-hop, while his bandmate Anand “loved the summery stuff” and their DJ, Nishant, is a Michael Jackson fan. Did you find politics through music, or vice-versa?

Definitely politics through music. But then when Public Enemy is the first ever rap song you hear, and Boogie Down Productions is the second, you’re dealing with a lot of rhetoric, there’s no choice but to get educated so you can keep up. I’m glad I did though, because when a band like Asian Dub Foundation eventually came along, I was in the right time and place in my brain for it to change my life completely.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a sitcom pilot for Channel 4's Comedy Lab for this year at some point, in talks about getting Coconut Unlimited on to celluloid, working on book two, which is about grief, but you know, funny, I’m running a half marathon and I’m still dabbling in short stories. And eating and sleeping.