Pro-Chancellor, introducing Nikesh Shukla today in less than 600 words is very likely the most difficult task I have ever been given as a researcher. An essay at the very least would be required to begin to do justice to his achievements and impact, what it means for the University of Bath to confer on him this honorary degree, and the hopes and expectations it raises for our future as a community of students and staff. For this extremely exciting task, I owe a huge debt to my colleague Joshua Callander who not only nominated Nikesh Shukla in the first place, but helped me craft this address.
Nikesh Shukla recently declared in an interview: ‘I wasted my twenties as a less than average rapper and so I feel compelled to make up for lost time’. That he did. His debut novel, Coconut Unlimited, was published in 2010 and in less than ten years, he has become one of the leading figures in our literary landscape. Since then, he has published another four critically acclaimed novels, Meatspace in 2014, The One Who Wrote Destiny and Run Riot, both in 2018, and most recently The Boxer. He has also published a number of prize-winning short stories, and Two Dosas, a short film he cowrote, also received two prestigious awards at the Aspen Shortfest and the London Short Film Festival.
All this would be more than enough for anyone to be deserving of the award he is presented with today. However, what makes Nikesh outstanding is his relentless and selfless drive to fight injustice and use the platforms he has secured through his talent and hard work to help others, and particularly to provide those with fewer opportunities with a voice in a society where access to speech remains uneven. For this work, Nikesh has been shortlisted for a Liberty Human Rights Award, and Time Magazine recently named him as one of the twelve leaders shaping the next generation of artists.
The importance of this activist work could not be better exemplified than in his role as editor of the partially crowdfunded 2016 essay collection, The Good Immigrant. In it, 21 British black, Asian and minority ethnic authors discuss race and immigration in the UK.
The book offers uncompromising views of the state of racism in the UK. It resonated far and wide, and was voted as the British public’s favourite book of 2016 at the Books Are My Bag Readers Awards. In 2019, an American version of the book, co-edited with Chimene Suleyman, was published and one can only hope that this collection spreads further afield to explore the experience of immigrants and the other more generally in their various contexts.
In a publishing world dominated by particular voices and demographics, Nikesh Shukla’s work has helped render visible those who are too often made invisible; he has challenged narratives which make the British experience solely white and male, and made clear that what makes our communities strong, interesting and thriving is their diversity. In this, he has clearly achieved his ambition, which in his own words, is ‘to hold mirrors up to those in the margins so they feel seen, speak truth to power and spread joy’.
Perhaps there is no better way to define what makes Nikesh Shukla an outstanding nominee than the words of Musa Okwonga, one of the contributors of The Good Immigrant who said of Nikesh: “He is a true hero, an utterly humble soul with extraordinary courage”.
Pro-Chancellor, I present to you Nikesh Shukla who is eminently worthy to receive the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.