Nikesh Shukla and Nish Kumar launch Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival

Nikesh Shukla and Nish Kumar launch Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival

24 September 2018

Priyanka Mogul, Communications Officer

“I am an Englishman born and bred. Almost.”

That was a sentence that changed Nikesh Shukla’s life when he read it in Hanif Kureshi’s Buddha of Suburbia, the author told an Asia House audience at the opening night of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival 2018.

Shulka said it was the word “almost” that made him realise the author he was reading understood him – because he too was an Englishman, “almost.”

“After that, I saw the value of telling stories based on being a weird, brown kid from the suburbs,” Shukla said.

The critically acclaimed writer, whose debut novel Coconut Unlimited was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award 2010, was joined onstage by his good friend and professional funnyman, Nish Kumar, to discuss his new book and the themes it explores.

The One Who Wrote Destiny, Shukla’s latest novel, shines a light on racism and assimilation in Britain, following three generations of the same family who are riven by feuds and fallings-out, but united by fates and fortunes.

Following a short, lighthearted reading from the author, the discussion turned to race, representation and what it means to be British-Asian in a post-Brexit environment.

The two friends shared deeply profound reflections with an enthralled audience during a discussion which touched on some very serious issues –  before one of them veered the conversation off into hilarious and anarchic tangents.

Writing for British-Asians

When it comes to representation, Shukla emphasised that he doesn’t believe in the economic and business case for diversity. Instead, he believes that there is a social case for having more people of colour in the arts.

“If you have inclusive culture and art, especially from a young age, children will grow up in environments where it’s normal to see people with disabilities or people of colour or who aren’t in traditional family set ups,” he said.

“It’s then much harder to dehumanise them.”

Watch our interviews with Nikesh Shukla and Nish Kumar below

Meanwhile, Kumar pointed out that having representation in the arts doesn’t just improve the lives of people from those the specific minority backgrounds, but that everyone benefits from diversity. He added that when he first started out in comedy, he was afraid to become known as “that brown guy.” However, he is now happy to take up all gigs that refer to him based on his ethnicity as he believes that the increased representation can only be a good thing.

“If people only want to see me as a person of colour in the media, then I’m fine with that,” he said.

Integration and assimilation post-Brexit

A member of the audience was interested to hear the speakers’ thoughts on whether British Asians have assimilated well enough into local society. Shukla and Kumar responding by noting that both their parents had encouraged them to integrate with white, British people, rather than stick to their Asian cliques.

While both of them consider themselves British, Brexit has made Kumar feel unwelcome in his home country. Kumar believes that true integration and assimilation can only happen when there is an equal “willingness and openness” from the other side.

He added: “What I see in my mother’s eyes now is a kind of disillusionment post-Brexit because her feeling is that we spent years playing by the rules and the country still sided with people who hate us.”

Both Shukla and Kumar acknowledged that – for a long time – there had been a generational gap among British-Asians regarding perceived notions of “racism”. While their generation of British-Asians tackles issues such as cultural appropriation, their parents often experienced racism that was violent in nature – thus causing them to see today’s issues as relatively unimportant. However, Kumar noted that Brexit acted as a catalyst to reunite Asians across generations around a common goal – as well as bring together people from different minority groups.

He concluded: “If you’re from an ethnic minority background, we’re all engaged in the same struggle and we’re all engaged in the same fight.”

It was a fitting opening night for this year’s festival, which aims to explore the pressing issues in Asia and the diaspora today, including race, representation and the role of women.

Literature Programme Manager at Asia House, Anna Temby, said, “Comedy is a really important medium with which to explore and raise awareness of very serious issues in a non-threatening and even entertaining way. We think it’s important to have these conversations and we’re pleased to be able to provide a platform through literature and comedy to reach as wide an audience as possible.”

Watch the event in full

There’s lots more coming up at this year’s Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival – check out the full programme

Images: George Torode