Nikesh Shukla Recommends Some of His Favourite Books of 2020
This year has seen a heap of exciting books by writers of colour come out during lockdown. And the bottleneck of publicity means that there has just been an (wait for it) unprecedented amount of titles requiring shelf space, social media space, review space and so on. Yes, I am sorry, I started an article in Covid times with use of the word unprecedented. Let’s hope, in these strange times, I don’t do it again.
But look, part of our reason for setting up the Jhalak Prize was to celebrate and shine lights. So much of the conversation around *ahem* diversity and *cough* inclusion is miserable, especially for writers of colour, and I want to ensure that we’re taking as much time to celebrate books as we do speaking truth to power, if not more.
So, here are five books that came out this year that deserve your attention:
I cannot believe this - The Actual - is the first official collection from the maestro who brought us Barber Shop Chronicles. Having put out many essays, plays and pamphlets over the years, Inua Ellams gifts us this, his set of poems with no fucks left to give. Each poem is framed as a takedown, we have Fuck / Batman, we have Fuck / Tupac, we have Fuck Kipling, Tommy Robinson, Boko Haram, Empire, weak hugs! It’s a gloriously diverse collection, taking in social and political history, pop culture and love and heartbreak, to give us a collection that is about masculinity, vulnerability, colonialism, and more, all with Ellams’ signature brand of beautiful imagery, sly subtle humour and rhythmic prowess.
Nikita Lalwani is the master of political fiction that never allows itself to be didactic, is always skewering and humane, and filled with character. Having spent years researching and speaking to illegal immigrants, she brings - You People -an excellent thriller, set in a restaurant where many of the staff are runaways, escaping war, abuse, dark pasts, now working in a restaurant for a mysterious figure, who is part master criminal, part Robin Hood. As two characters fight to keep their pasts catching up with them, immigration vans get closer and closer and they must decide to take a stand. A masterful piece of thrilling political fiction that manages to always keep you guessing.
Ever since I came across Nikita Gill’s poetry on social media, I’ve been entranced with her ability to create magic. And The Girl And the Goddess, her first novel, told in verse, is definitely a welcome addition to her body of work. This is about a young queer girl called Paro, trying to find her place in the world. With help from goddesses, she will self-actualise. The poems all come together to send her on a journey with the Trimurti in what becomes an astonishing tale of healing and trauma and the power of womanhood and community. One of those books I wish I’d read as a teenager but am glad to have come to years later as well.
These poems, all taking place in and around an estate in Peckham, are breath taking, stories about love, loss, grief and violence. Caleb Femi manages to find beauty in house parties and music and friendships, and he manages to wring huge political points out of specific tales of lives squandered because of social inequality and the decisions people are forced to make. Peppered with photographs and always lingering on the cracks in the pavement where flowers might find themselves growing, Poor is a masterful book that never ever flinches.
4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE are Sheena Patel, Sharan Hunjan, Sunnah Khan and Roshni Goyate, and they are a community of writers with such electric individual voices that when they come together, you feel like they could decimate entire cities. These four pamphlets are each unique and different, and beautifully packaged by Rough Trade Books. Sunnah writes about inheritance and loss, in I Don’t Know How to Forgive You When You Make No Apology For This Haunting, where she speaks about grief and absent fathers and class. Meanwhile, Roshni Goyate’s Shadow Work is a spiritual mediation on race, motherhood, rebirth and connections. It manages to be otherworldly and real all at the same time, in language that is a grenade wrapped in honey. Hatch, Sharan Hunjan’s gorgeously experimental book on motherhood and community, is both raw and powerful, always vulnerable and always yearning. It also manages to skewer how colonialism remains in our language today. And finally Sheena Patel’s astonishing This Is What Love Is is the arrival of a British Asian voice I have never read before. A ragged, brittle piece of autofiction about mental health and the deterioration of various relationships, this is a brutal and honest depiction of youth, sex, mental health and the stories and people we surround ourselves with as the walls come in. These four pamphlets are a huge achievement, an arrival, a line in the sand, a gold standard for British Asian writing.