“A Flea Can Trouble a Lion More than a Lion Can Trouble a Flea”
The One Who Wrote Destiny is a precious piece Nikesh has grown out of deep grief. It’s based on his family, makes me think of Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, but feels more than that. Nikesh – and I’m not going to pretend I don’t know or haven’t worked with him, Nikesh edited The Good Immigrant, the book which, quite frankly, launched my writing career – has a family at the centre of the story but he’s woven in multiple characters, ones I recognise from having met Nikesh two years ago, who deeply affect, provoke and open up the world of the book. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.
The One Who Wrote Destiny. I think it’s about…being. Being where you are as who you are. Stay in your own shoes, a therapist once said to me, instead of reaching out to people who don’t want you. In the quiet, the space you give yourself, the ones who matter become clear. I’m still an unsettled first generation immigrant in the UK, fourth generation child of immigrants in Malaysia, a woman of colour, a wannabe achiever driven to prove my life has some value in an always-foreign land.
Nikesh is often described as a diversity champion. He’s been featured in The Asian Writer, and descriptions of his latest and, as he’s professed, most personal book, tend to include buzzwords like “immigration” and “intergenerational”. On the surface, the Asianness (what on earth is that?) of Destiny is striking. SO. Who is this book for and what does it matter?
“Why even tell them things?” asks Laila, one of Nikesh’s many not unimportant ancillary characters, of comedian Rakesh, who tries to use his stand-up to try and re-represent British South Asians to white people as being more than cornershop or curryhouse owners or (insert any Indian person stereotype here). Laila backtracks and says that she’s talking about one of her favourite places to eat and how she doesn’t want it to be colonised and appropriated or ruined by white interlopers. But her underlying assertion is that Asians aren’t all the same so how can they ever be represented by one funny guy who may or may not even be funny or talented? Can we ever change the minds of those who consider us “Other”, and if we can’t eradicate generalist, divisive, or racist thoughts, why bother trying at all? Reni Eddo-Lodge’s sharp, shocking and entirely necessary book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, published last year, bears this provocation in its very title. Destiny considers the journeys of various characters and their belief systems – what gets them from day to day, what gets them out of bed and keeps anyone going, in a world no one has any control over. I find myself thinking that, in 2018 UK, I do not know what I believe in – not science, religion nor politics, as I am overeducated and privileged – and so I do not know what to do with my remaining days on this earth.
The Good Immigrant was published in 2016. Nikesh had collected essays from various immigrants, or children of immigrants, of colour. It is a document of a mere twenty-one lived experiences, a snapshot of how we were feeling at a very particular time. Anti-immigration and Brexit was in the air. Since then, much has happened to Nikesh, to me, within the world of publishing, film, and international politics since then. We have seen that those who speak out against injustices can shift the world: #MeToo, gay rights, trans rights, the school walk outs against the NRA, the huge shifts in the gender pay gap movement. But there is always a cost, and humans are short-term creatures, and change needs to happen urgently, and will enough people with privilege give it up or share it? What beliefs do we need in order to believe in a future?
The characters in Destiny seem pretty focussed. Individually, they want to build a better life or to leave a lasting legacy, to effect social change or to repair familial relationships. In the book, the future is vital, but for me, (spoiler alert ahead), in the here and now, anti-immigration and Brexit is still in the air. The polar caps are melting – I was recently in the Arctic and the reindeer are definitely dying. The Great Barrier Reef is officially dead. Some say there is a holocaust happening in Syria, and POTUS is just – I have no words. Destiny has its protagonists challenging what their lives can be – they speak to Death (the granny), humiliate themselves publicly (the son), work out algorithms to challenge cancer (the daughter), and punch waaaay above their weight, romance-wise (the dad).
Nikesh also introduces us to forces like Jonathan, a figure who daubs himself green and waits, still and silent in the shrubbery. Jonathan practises the “art of keeping still”, waiting and watching life pass by, affecting little and absolutely not partaking in worldly things like sex. He seems unworried by the future. “Be in the moment”, “You are the sky, constant and expansive. Let the clouds pass by”. This is life advice I have heard, in various guises, part of guides on how to be meditate or be to mindful, exercises to help me see the path my life with more clarity.
I was very interested in the mention of geocaching in Destiny. It’s a game played in real life and in real spaces, where gamers find and exchange treasure. You are directed to find treasure in your vicinity via your phone or GPS machines, giving you a sense of adventure and achievement. It also connects you to an international community and enables you to look at the space around you in a different light. If you choose to be a player, your world is now filled with possibility and delights: “Geocaching is an anytime, anyday adventure that can take you to amazing and beautiful places…Just choose the geocache you want to find then navigate to its location” (geocache.com). Easy! But, a little like life, which geocaching is modelled on or is trying to reflect or improve on, the website concedes that, “What you’re looking for varies…Geocaching isn’t always easy” AND the rule is, any time you remember you’re playing the game, you LOSE. Is being aware of and remembering the social constructs we swim in – the patriarchy, for instance – the surest way to lose? What does losing mean? I am reminded of the Garden of Eden, where eating from the Tree of Knowledge is a bad thing. I recall conversations with newly-politicised folk, hurting and despairing – once our eyes are opened to unjust systems in the world, you can never unsee them.
Are there masterminds controlling us little poeple and keeping us in our place with bread and circuses, video games and virtual reality? What is our fate? It’s not just a question for spiritual Asians types.
Nikesh is wonderful in his geekiness. Destiny is beautiful and never laborious with its detailing of contemporary life. It includes real-life, modern, and British characters – who happen to be Asians would you believe it – who, just like everyone else, are trying to get from one day to another. They get caught up in everyday things and they have existential crises. There’s a fantastic bit where we read about a woman who weighs up the price of a train ticket versus the amount of cheap glasses wine she could drink. In fact, there are many bits with women, fantastic female characters written well. SO Destiny is a book for everyone? Hurrah! Not so fast. And now, this is for the people who protest, “but I don’t see race!”. Destiny is difficult. It might be an elegant study of a group, a type of people, of their relationship with suffering. Think of any marginalised group. These people are tired. They carry a burden and it is passed down like a horrible heirloom, or like a genetic imprint. Destiny, DNA, or a choice to hold on to the identity of one who suffers because…because if that is all you believe you have, if you believe that that identity is all you’ll ever be allowed to wear. If where you are is where your winnings are capped, if your landscape is one you’re not allowed all the tools to navigate, surely your life be quieter, more peaceful, if you ignored that the game you’re playing isn’t on a level playing field?
But Nikesh writes. He asks tough, angry questions with immense openness and care. He’s behind The Jhalak Book prize and an agency for writers of colour (The Good Literary Agency). He champions young adults and set up a quarterly journal featuring British writers and illustrators of colour. He’s not a Jonathan, sitting in a shrub quietly. This is ridiculously cheesy but is Nikesh the writer of his own destiny? I wonder about what this is costing him. If “history…prizes only news and big wins”, if stomach-churning Uncle Dave, the media, and the Man are against you, if the movie Get Out isn’t so far from reality, if there is never going to be a homeland to go back to, if you carry grief, what, Nikesh asks, is there to do with life?
‘You don’t need to be anything,’ I say, picking the kebab off his plate and biting into it. ‘You certainly aren’t required to be self-hating.
Spend time with loved ones.
I don’t really know Nikesh Shukla, but I better understand my grief, my anger and my questions, and I hope to live and live WELL, grateful to those who are and have become my family. I want Nikesh to keep writing with more ferocity, with an ever-growing assuredness that we will get it – get all the emotional and cultural references, tiny and large – get him, see him.
A postscript on pain:
In order for forgiveness to happen, something has to die. If you make a choice to forgive, you have to face the pain. You simply have to hurt. – Brene Brown, Rising Strong