Monday, February 14, 2011

Filmi Girl talks to... Nikesh Shukla

I have about a billion different interests but two that are among my biggest are rap music and coming of age novels, so imagine my pleasure to find that author Nikesh Shukla had written a coming of age novel about rap!

"Coconut Unlimited" is as of yet unavailable in the USA but keep your fingers crossed that it will be here soon. He was kind enough to answer some questions for me.


FG: What initially started you off writing fiction - was it something you fell into or a deliberate choice?

Nikesh: I always wanted to tell stories and thought I wanted to tell them through music and through poetry but the more I wrote, the more I realised the voice I was developing was more rooted in prose. So I sat down and wrote the words: ‘It was my idea to start the band…’ And I was away…

FG: Were your parents supportive of your choice or was there pressure to go into a more practical field?

Nikesh: Ah, if I had a £100 for everytime I’d been asked this question! [Ouch! Point taken, stereotypical question, thy asker is FG.] I did do a law degree, which wasn’t my choice and I finished it because I’m not a quitter. But after university, I worked solidly till I had a book deal, and still do have a day job, so my parents’ viewed softened because I’ve always been solvent. Their concern was my becoming a starving artist, which thankfully didn’t happen because of their pressure on me to not give everything up and Kerouac around the UK. I did good. Plus, doing work for the BBC, a national institution no less, that’s the ticket to parent approval.

FG: What barriers have you come up against in publishing a novel about British Asian characters that doesn’t fit into the “Brick Lane” mold?

Nikesh: There are quite a few barriers to being a first time ethnic author. First of all, people feel that Asians should only write books about identity struggles, mangrove swamps and repressed marriages. I wanted to write about being teenagers and their self-delusions.

Secondly, they think they know what ethnic readers want and assume white readers are only interested in one type of ethnic voice too. People in publishing just don't seem to think Asians read that much, which is why there aren't that many books out there that appeal to us. Sure there are books that replicate landscapes we are familiar with, but they say nothing to us and of us. [I think this is such an important point. It’s just like how
Slumdog was set IN India but was not really speaking TO Indians. It tanked at the box office there. - FG] So trying to write something that doesn’t fit into those tropes of what an Asian novel is was a struggle.

Having said that, it’s heartening to see that I’m part of a wave of change and have been published near enough to authors like Nikita Lalwani and H M Naqvi and Niven Govinden and these guys break the mold.

FG: The boys in the book choose to form a rap group. I haven’t read the book but I’m curious why you chose rap instead of rock. We in America have a certain set of associations with rap music - basically that all rappers are like Waka Flocka Flame (i.e. “ghetto”) - are those associations the same in the UK? Are the boys trying for a harder image?

Nikesh: I chose rap instead of rock because rock was probably the easier option. Because goth isn’t a landscape I’m familiar. Because a coming-of-age tale will inevitably have crossover with your own life. Rap in the mid-90s was seen as rebellious dangerous music. Snoop Doggy Dogg was on the front of tabloids pleading with immigration offices to not let him into the country; Ice-T was banned for seemingly inciting violence.

The music was loud and in a language that the establishment couldn’t comprehend, using slang we worked hard across the water to decipher and so it became outsider music for those who hated guitars. Jungle soon took over as it was a UK sound, rooted in our musical culture and frame of reference. I’m not sure rap here is seen as ghetto. We assume that mainstream rap is for suburban white kids and indie rap is for music nerds and purists. [I’m constantly amazed at how art has different interpretations in different contexts. I would totally read a book about rap in the UK. In the US, there is definitely a divide between rap for the “mainstream” and rap for a Black audience - although some artists overlap, the same songs usually don’t. For example, Snoop Dogg's recent "Wet" is all over my local Urban music station but not in rotation on the local pop station but other of his songs certainly have been. -FG]

The boys in the book aren’t trying for a harder image. They’re trying to be cool, and what they think is cool is what differentiates them from everyone else, and that is rap.

FG: Do you think it would have been more marketable if they started a rock band because of the ‘white’ association with rock?

Nikesh: Of course. Editors and sales people would understand references to The Libertines and Oasis and Arcade Fire. But that’s not truth. It would seem more contrived. Whereas these boys’ journey has more grounding in reality. But then, just because it’s about rap and Asians, does that make it any more different from any other coming-of-age tale. Each book is a landscape and a universe and a niche, we’re forcefed volumes of books about suburban repressed failing middle-class white marriages (because some people have read Richard Yates and seen Mad Men) and that doesn’t appeal to me, but I read it and I appreciate it and I love it. The rap landscape isn’t the key, the brown faces aren’t the key. It’s that journey an outsider makes along the fringes as he/she comes of age.

FG: Was rap important to you growing up? Do you still follow the scene? Who do you think is really nailing it right now?

Nikesh: I loved rap as a kid. That Public Enemy story in the book is pretty much how I came across this strange loud sound. I still follow who I like in the scene. I’m really excited by some UK rappers at the moment: Ghostpoet has this fractured yet hard poetical urgent rap over throbbing electronic beats; Riz MC is a genius, darkly satirical (he’s an actor too) and futuristic grime post-rave rap about everything from politics to being cooler than cool; and Kate Tempest from The Sound of Rum is so wonderful and textured with her layered imagery and tales of struggle, she will break your heart. And I’ll always love De La Soul.

FG: I was so thrilled to see you put Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope” on your top songs of the year. Janelle is in an interesting position in the US music industry where because she is black, she get pegged into the “urban” category but her music is really more based in prog rock and jazz. I know in the US we like to pretend that we’re post-racial but things like this... well, you see the firm dividing lines. I’d love your take on the racial divide in popular music - especially since there is a strong desi scene in the UK that exists parallel to “mainstream” (i.e. white) music.

Nikesh: The racial divide only exists to perpetuate ‘easy labelling.’ The people who used to run the music industry, the A&R people, the people who got paid hundreds of thousands of pounds to do sod all, needed a shorthand to prove their worth so put everything into boxes and say this person is black, you’ll like them for this. This person is slightly urban, you’ll like them for this. The internet made these douches irrelevant and people found what they wanted and opted into sounds they got down with. I think things are changing. [And thank goodness! -FG]

The thing that gets me with the desi scene is there’s still a need to brand it as brown music (from the musicians) themselves rather than let it exist on its own two feet, which I think is what holds it back. Bands like Engine-Earz Experiment have no interest in pursuing the brown audience because they think their music is brown. They make beautiful bass-heavy music and have the most eclectic following because even though there’s an eastern influence, it’s not signposted in your face.

FG: Do you have any plans for turning the book into a film? And if you did, who would you like to see cast?

Nikesh: There are plans to bring the book to the screen. In what format, I’m not sure, but we’ll see. It’s definitely in the works and looking strong. It’s hard to imagine who would play who because the main action features a bunch of teenagers and, well, all teenagers look the same: spotty with bad hair. [So, not a 40+ hero with some botox then... I like it! -FG]

FG: Have you had any interest in the book from publishers in India? Do you think the story would work well there?

Nikesh: I have had interest but the feedback always seems to be that the humour wouldn’t translate over there. People think it’s funny but not an Indian type of humour, it’s the humour of embarrassment, like “The Office.” [To be fair, directors like Rajkumar Hirani are working with a more subtle kind of humor these days. - FG] Also there’s a perception that funny books aren’t as worthy as the ones about suburban repressed middle-class failing marriages so there’s that barrier to break through. [SO TRUE and so annoying. How many times have you just wanted to yell at some middle-class failing marriage book for them to get over it and divorce already. People have serious problems in the world -FG] Heck, I was inspired by Proust on this book. The story would work there because it’s a universal outsider tale.

FG: Do you have another project you’re working on? What is coming up next?

Nikesh: I’m working on a sitcom pilot for Channel 4 and my second novel, which is about grief and oral histories passed down through generations about how they mutate our ancestry. And a collection of short stories. And I’m running a half-marathon.

And a big thank you to Nikesh for taking time out from his half-marathon to satisfy my curiousity. I really hope the book gets picked up here in the USA - so I can buy a copy and read it.

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