I first came across Nikesh on Twitter, where we came together over absurd desi memes, fawning over Deepika Padukone and sharing links of the best desi clothes designers we can find. He is an advocate, mentor and all round good egg, when it comes to pushing for BAME writers and the recognition they deserve.
His first book, Coconut Unlimited, was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award in 2010 and I'm going to admit now, I haven't read it.
I got my hands on Meatspace, and as Nikesh was quickly becoming a friend, I was readying myself to speak in platitudes of 'it was so...good' and 'I really liked how...it was...done'. While reading, I found myself having real things to say to him. There weren't going to be any ellipsis' between my words.
Meatspace is the IRL and digital journey of Kitab, as he finds his way through surviving a break up and the anticipation of a failed first book release. He lives with his brother Aziz, while attempting to write his next novel but when his brother packs up and leaves to go to America for a few weeks (to meet his namesake), Kitab is left to his own thoughts. This is when he meets his namesake Kitab 2, who sends him into a spiralling adventure of dick pics, sex parties and unmanageable anxiety.
Nikesh is now Bristol based, with his beautiful family, working for Rife Magazine and continuing to give talks, while balancing being a dad. I managed to get a few moments of his time to ask a few questions about Meatspace.
After meeting Nikesh online, I was curious about how autobiographical Kitab's relationship was with social media, both hating and relying on it so passionately.
(it's) totally autobiographical, except for all the porn wanking stuff. I am a new dad so you know, my child might google her idiot dad in years to come so I should categorically deny all knowledge of the murkier edges of the internet. Although she'll probably be like, awww the internet, how quaint. We now have [whatever the future version of the internet is]. It's completely autobiographical about the social media habits, about the ticks, about the inability to hold conversations without scrolling, about the obsession with googling any queries that come up in conversation, about how I walk with my phone, scrolling, everywhere, about how my brain is frying. A week after the book came out, I had a social media induced panic attack, which made me come off the internet immediately, but all I could think of at the time was, the irony of not being able to tweet about how doing social media for a book about social media anxiety caused an anxiety and oh the irony.
Aziz's character was so interesting to me, I found him both unrealistic and very similar, like a surreal echo of people I've come across in my lifetime. I wondered if he was based on someone Nikesh knew in real life.
Aziz is definitely not based on a real person. He's like Super Hans in Peep Show, the fearless representation of your id, the version of your personality that shows you to be a coward because he shows no remorse and no compassion. He's a composite of many people I know. I basically wanted to use him to explore lifestyle live blogging and how utterly curated and made up they sound and whether, say someone live blogged, in instalments a story of vigilante justice, we would believe them, especially if they did it so naturally as if to say, look at my life. I took the beats of a classic episodic superhero arc and blogged them. I wanted the audience to keep expecting to have the rug pulled from under them so they question whether this bullshit is real. And the truth is weirder than what they think.
After watching Master Of None, one thing that stayed with me was Ansari's relationships were mostly with white women. I found it interesting because, although I muttered 'same', I wondered if it was a conscious decision. I had the same feeling reading Meatspace, as Kitab's old and new love interest were both white.
I wanted to write about my relationship with my wife, if I'm being honest, and sum up the two contrasting parts of us - how i'm obsessed with the internet and she's off-grid, and also our playful nature. And so, they kinda just manifested as two white girls. Mainly because so many elements of this are playing with my own life and re-narrating it or meta-exploring it or what have you. I don't think that's a conscious decision for all my work though. It's interesting, the comparison to Master Of None -- like I don't think it was a conscious decision like it seemed to be in the early seasons of The Mindy Project. Without being crap about it, it just was, because it was mirroring my own self (i.e. the relationship I'm in and have been in for an extremely long time).
Kitab 2 was (I'm going to be straight here) the most frustrating bastard I've ever read about. I found myself screaming 'KICK HIM IN THE FACE AND WALK AWAY', but at the same time 'don't because I wanna know what happens to him'. Maybe it's how I see myself approaching that situation, but I found Kitab too forgiving of Kitab 2's misdoings.
... (Kitab's) digital life made him passive. I think the slow pull back to meatspace, to the real world, is pretty much what Kitab 2, as our agent of chaos is there to do. And in the early interactions, it's Kitab's passiveness that needs to be challenged. I kinda love Kitab 2. Like, Jon Macqueen (the sitcom writer who worked on Phoneshop) and I are working on a television version of Meatspace, and we're doing it as an Asian Arrested Development, and the more we write Kitab 2, the warmer I feel towards him. He's actually quite loveable, because whenever he's being malicious and self-serving, he thinks it's serving both him and Kitab.
I found myself picturing Kitab 2 very immediately and clearly. Instantly, I was worried I had stereotyped someone as a 'disgusting Indian boy' (with people I have definitely encountered in life), but wondered if Nikesh was also worried if it was a harmful depiction.
Yeah of course. I worry about stereotyping all the time. But I didn't want to write him as a stereotype but just as a foreign exchange student who comes to England and suddenly has to adjust to the rhythms of London. So actually the descriptions of him and his Indian-ness are quite light touch. Like we hear snippets of what he's like.
When I worked at Thorpe Park, I came across another Sharan Dhaliwal (a very basic version of me), and was honestly more offended than anything. She was far too excited about our names, but also was not what I wanted in a namesake. She was dull, and cared little for anything I cared for. The season ended in Thorpe Park and I (thankfully, after reading this book) never saw her again. I wondered if Nikesh had any himself.
Yes. He messaged me the other day, actually. There's three other Nikesh Shuklas on Facebook. When I noticed the first one (I went through a period early on in my account history where I added every Nikesh I could find, trying to invite them to a League Of Nikesh), I sent him a questionnaire to find out how similar we were. Which he ignored. Which was one of the inspirations for the book. Alongside my mum dying and us finding a picture of my best friend's doppelganger on Google image search while looking up bow tie tattoos. But those are other stories for other times.
Here's what to look out for from Nikesh. I don't say this lightly: you should all follow him, promote his work and most importantly, talk to him.
I've put together a collection of essays from 21 British writers of colour, called The Good Immigrant, exploring race and immigration in the UK today. It's out in September but we funded it through crowdfunding. Currently we're trying to get it crowdfunded to 200% so we can build a budget to go tour libraries, schools, etc. Basically, places that can't afford to pay us but it's important that a bunch of writers of colour show up. You can preorder here: unbound.co.uk/books/the-good-immigrant/
I sign off this interview with one last thing from Nikesh.
I once sent a Tayyabs lamb chop into space. Seriously. Google it.