Nikesh Shukla - Blood On The Page.Feb 21, 2021
From the Desk of Nikesh Shukla.
A lot of writers talk about the importance of voice, so I’m going to talk to you about the importance of soul. Because the best writing, the writing that moves, excites, commiserates, calms, saddens or breaks the heart of the reader, the writing that makes them laugh and cry and gasp and sigh and pump a subtle fist at their waist in celebration is the writing that bleeds on the page.
It’s the only way I know how to write and the only thing I like to read. I’m not interested, as a writer, in intellectual gymnastics. I am not bothered by experimentation for its own sake. I cannot spend time with characters who are cyphers for an author’s grandstanding political point. I want your blood on the page.
Because otherwise, what is the point of this big undertaking? Why write a novel? A novel is as the old saying goes, a sculpture you’ve made after many attempts to shovel sand into a box. A novel is a moment in time, a mirror, a window, a powerful way of understanding the world and the people in it. But also, a novel is a piece of your soul, on the page, for everyone to hold within themselves. It is the way you see the world and the way you see yourself and the way you see us. It’s your interrogation of the universe.
I first started writing my third novel, The One Who Wrote Destiny in 1999. I was hung up on a story I’d heard about my family. My uncle had fought a landmark legal case in the late 60s and had in the process done something to make lives better for non-white people in this country. He stood up against a piece of every day racial discrimination and condemned it. It went to court and while the decision didn’t go his way, the entity in question change a company policy they held. As one man, he made a difference and made my life easier. What a hero. I wanted to write a book about him. All I had to go on were summarised snapshots of conversation about what had gone on. It wasn’t a stoy because I was telling someone’s story, not my own, and I was telling it as factually as I could. I wrote 10,000 turgid words and gave up because it was such a disservice to my uncle.
Years later, I realised that what I was lacking was characters, so I tried again. This time, I made the characters big, larger than life, filled with foibles and slapstick reactions. I made the action farcical and I wrote with whimsy. Again, it wasn’t working. I showed it to my then agent and her assistant gave it the death knell. Her reply was akin to a cut and paste rejection for an unsolicited manuscript rather than a thoughtful response to a book by a client her boss represented. Humiliated, I parted ways with the agent and parked the book.
Years after that, I found myself on a lot of trains, to and from venues where I’d rock up, talk about The Good Immigrant and come home. Something happened on those train journeys home. Having spent an entire evening talking about racism, and feeling on edge because it’s hard to talk about the trauma of such things night after night, I found myself always heading home to my children, on a late train, two hours or so to myself, and I would feel vulnerable and stressed and I would comfort eat and write my novel. The vulnerability and depression I was feeling at the time unlocked something in me. I knew what I needed to do to make the book good. Now it was called A Man Without A Donkey.
I realised what these characters needed. They needed me to bleed on the page. Often we think about giving our characters wants and desires, and stakes. What will it mean for them if they don’t get what they want or need?
What about the author? What are my stakes? If I didn’t write this book, what would it mean for me? A friend once told me that the way he considers a new project is to ask himself three questions: does this stretch me? Does this stretch culture? Is me, doing this, the difference between it happening and not?
Answering the last question shook me. If I didn’t write this story about my uncle, and about the intergenerational conversation I wanted to have about immigration, then who would write it? And would they write it with my unique take and worldview?
If I didn’t write it, it wouldn’t exist. Those were the stakes for me. It became life or death and I wrote the book, on those trains, putting twenty years of expectation about what it could be into the book. And I ended up with my third novel. One where I said everything I needed to about immigration.
I always say - I gave it my all - about all my books. And it’s true. It was true of my third novel and every one I’ve written. It’s especially true of the memoir because on the memoir, I cannot hide the emotional truth behind fiction, behind made-up people occupying made-up spaces. I have to put the emotional truth front and centre and curate the events from my own life in order to show it. That’s what Brown Baby is. My blood on the page. It means that whatever anyone says about it, I know that I put everything into it. And it was life or death stakes writing it. It stretched me to write it, and it’ll stretch culture by widening the conversation on some of the themes discussed and if I hadn’t written it, then who would have done?
So, my challenge to you is to bleed on the page.
Write each thing you work on like it’s life or death. Because these works will exist forever, and if they contain small chips of our soul within them, then we will make our mark on the world. Don’t write to play intellectual gymnastics. Write like you are communicating with the world, all your joy and pain and it was the only book you could have written in that instance.
Nikesh Shukla will be with us for a live session at The Novelry on Monday 1st March.
He is the author of Coconut Unlimited (shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award), Meatspace and the critically acclaimed The One Who Wrote Destiny. He is the editor of the bestselling essay collection, The Good Immigrant, which won the reader's choice at the Books Are My Bag Awards. He is the author of two YA novels, Run, Riot and The Boxer. Nikesh was one of Time Magazine’s cultural leaders, Foreign Policy magazine's 100 Global Thinkers and The Bookseller's 100 most influential people in publishing in 2016 and in 2017. His memoir Brown Baby: A Memoir of Race, Family and Home was published this month, February 2021.
'Brown Baby is a beautifully intimate and soul-searching memoir. It speaks to the heart and the mind and bears witness to our turbulent times.' - Bernardine Evaristo, author of Girl, Woman, Other