Nikesh Shukla's first YA novel, Run, Riot, is a powerful and timely novel about community, corruption and the importance of standing up and being counted. Here, Nikesh talks to us about why he wrote Run, Riot, the problematic nature of gentrification, and how vital it is for all young people to feel seen.
I was once 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 take most of the kids back to their cells, because I didn’t know how to be with them. The thing that stayed with me was that sense of failure: knowing that I could have made a difference.
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 books 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 this YA 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.
Nikesh Shukla is the editor of British Book Award-shortlisted anthology The Good Immigrant, a collection of essays by British writers of colour about race and immigration in the UK. His debut novel, Coconut Unlimited, was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award. He has also written for The Guardian, Esquire, Buzzfeed, Vice, and BBC 2. Alongside his writing work, Nikesh edits Rife magazine, mentoring young writers and filmmakers and enabling them to tell their own stories in their own voices. He lives in Bristol with his family.