Candice Brathwaite and Nikesh Shukla at Henley Literature Festival 2021
Candice and Nikesh were interviewed by Leah Boleto who did an excellent job at connecting and differentiating the authors as they shared their unique and yet related journeys.
The audience got to hear from the authors on what is important to them and the inspiration behind their books. Candice‘s book is called ‘Sista Sister, notes on things I’ve learned the hard way, so you don’t have to’. Nikesh’s book is called ‘Brown Baby: A Memoir of Race, Family and Home.
Candice wanted to write a book that would have been welcomed by her younger self. She speaks of Sista Sister as a coming-of-age book that centres identity and personal development. Looking back at some of the episodes recounted in the book she is still shocked at what we can put ourselves through to attain some arbitrary concept of beauty. Now at 33, with age and hindsight, she is confident in who she is. She remembers too that before Black Lives Matter (BLM) her book was rejected several times but now people are interested in stories centring a variety of women. Her main aim is for someone like the younger her to see “my life now and know that they can have such a life and that they are deserving.”
Nikesh had followed two comedy books with The Good Immigrant. It came out in 2016 and was very successful. He shares that he hadn’t realised what it would be like to tour the country and some of the world talking about race in a post- Brexit post-Trump world. “It messed with my head,” he says. He then became a parent and wrote an article trying to explore his daughter’s response to her dolls; she ignored the white one but continuously hid the brown one. In exploring that he stumbled upon the question that is at the centre of his book –
“How do we raise our kids to be joyful in a world that feels bleak that I feel so angry about?”
Both books touch on parenthood as the parent and as the child. Having moved out of London Candice is aware of the different ways this might affect her daughter. When her preschool child experienced racism from another child she began to look for solutions and this led her to paying for public school. Whilst that was the best option for her child, she was now working through her sense of privilege that she can afford to do that, whilst many others did not have that option.
Nikesh started writing the book as a parent but as he looked forward to raising his daughter, he kept remembering his mother. She passed away when his first novel came out, so he kept busy and avoided dealing with it. With the birth of his first child the memories of his mother brought his grief to the fore. He wanted to connect to his mother’s wisdom but in reconnecting to all of that he would have to say goodbye to her again. He wanted to capture her on the page. The writing took him to a dark place but there was a sense of lightness once the book was done. Now 10 years after his mum’s death he is reimagining a life without her.
For Candice there was grief too. Her father died whilst she lived in Italy some years ago. Despite being an only child, she was not given the opportunity to clear out her father’s house and does not know where his ashes are. She admits to feeling orphaned and accept that she may never get closure. She has a vivid memory of seeing him in the funeral parlour and how awful they made him look. In random moments she thinks she’ll set up a funeral parlour herself so no one else will be left with such an unsettling image of their loved one.
After he moved to Bristol, Nikesh spent some time commuting to London and staying in his childhood bedroom. He was able to clear out his mother’s stuff. In clearing out the family home he came across one of his mother’s Tupperware dishes in the freezer. As he heated up the meal it smelt like her kitchen and her food. Turning on the radio to her favourite station made it ‘a magical thing.’. It also made it clear to him that he needed to start cooking this food that he grew up on.
He is now building a life in Bristol, getting to know the community and engaging with important conversations. More recently in talking about the Colston statue his kids found out about the Bristol bus boycott. They wanted him to explain what racism was and he went from trying to explain it to them, to just seeing the world through their eyes.
Candice shared the negativity she can receive from being the first to do many things. She admits to being delusional but explains that is the only way she could aim and believe in the possibility of the life she has now. She felt she needed that extra belief and manifestation was that for her.
Both authors spoke to the challenge to create in the modern age and the distraction of social media. They suggest that it is not possible to do their best work if they are tied up in conversations online. Some advice for us creatives is to give the brain space and take time to sit with complicated feelings. Candice quoted a friend’s mother “silence can never be misquoted.” Nikesh quoted Michaela Coel who said that it’s okay to disappear for a while and see what comes in the silence. He has been taking walks and seeing what comes. As Candice reiterated, it is about living in alignment with ourselves and knowing “I am deserving of a good life.”
Author of Black British Members of Parliament in the House of Commons, 22 Stories of Passion, Achievement and Success