We are delighted to welcome Nikesh Shukla editor of The Good Immigrant, author, columnist for The Observer and tireless champion for representation in publishing and books to discuss his journey into Young Adult fiction with the publication of Run, Riot.
Run, Riot is my first book for teenagers and it’s an interesting journey, I think, for why I decided to write for teenagers. One of the more inspiring things about working on The Good Immigrant has been the wealth of teenagers who feel represented by the book and that they are seen, their stories valid. Some have said that it’s the first time they’ve read books featuring about people just like them. Others told me that it was the first book they read that wasn’t for school and now they can’t get enough.
So working on The Good Immigrant has been a real vindication of my desire to find young readers of colour and why it’s so important that they see themselves in books.
But my journey to writing YA starts well before that.
In around 2012, I was invited to do some creative writing workshops at a Young Offender’s Institute, not long after my first novel came out. I hadn’t ever really taught creative writing and I didn’t know how I should be in front of the young people. What did they want to get from me, the session, the day? To cut a long story short, I was terrible. I sucked so badly at teaching creative writing that the guards had to intervene and most the kids back to their cells, because I didn’t know how to be with them. I didn’t know how to inspire them or what I wanted them to do. I think, sadly, I wanted them to think I was cool. And when they asked me questions about how much money I earned as a writer, the facade dropped, for them, and for me, and I realised what an utterly stupid thing to wish. To look cool. How facile of me. The thing that stayed with me was that sense of failure: knowing that I could have made a difference.
I decided that the thing I needed to do was youth work. Be with young people, inspire them, help them find their voice. I remember talking to another workshop leader at the YOI, an ex-gang member who had turned his life around and did motivational talks. He impressed on me the importance of inspiring the next generation. And I believed him.
This is how I found myself, a few years later, working on a youth project called Rife magazine, designed to give young people in Bristol where I live a platform to tell their stories in their own voices and talk about the issues directly affecting them.
One of our first team of journalists was a young Asian filmmaker/poet/stand-up called Adibah. One of her first pieces for Rife was called ‘We Need To Talk About Stokes Croft’ and discussed her experiences of growing up in this ‘cool’ area of Bristol, and how it was now utterly gentrified, to the point where she no longer felt welcome there.
It led me down a rabbit hole of exploration about gentrification: how ultimately most of us are complicit in how it manifests. Live in any city in the UK and you will see property developers buy up properties in low income areas, offer out cheap space to artists, who create a cool vibe, which attracts people, which drives up property prices, which in turn then allows those property developers to flip properties for huge amounts of money. This is a very ‘dummies’ guide to gentrification’ way of looking at things, but talking to the young people I worked with in Bristol, this is how they described what was happening in the city they all grew up in.
And I was complicit. I moved here from London cos it was cheaper to live. I’m part of the problem.
Talking to those young people about the types of book they read, a lot of them said the same thing about YA: they didn’t feel it was for them. One of them even went so far as to say she felt ‘UK YA was written by white women in their late twenties for white women in their late twenties who wanted to read the books they wished they’d had in their teens’. Whether this is an accurate reflection of UK YA or not, it is still a valid perception by a young person outside of the industry. However those of us who are inside the industry see it, we have to listen to the consumers who have no insider knowledge. All this young person was, was someone who wanted to feel seen. She wanted to feel like her story was being told.
So I wrote Run, Riot for Adibah and for all the young people I met along the way at Rife, who felt like their stories weren’t being told, and the issues they felt were important weren’t being seen on our bookshelves. This is a thriller about gentrification and corruption and the things we hold on to in order to maintain our communities. I know that young person I mention feels seen. Because this one is for her.