At the Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre, in one of the final author events of the day, Nikesh Shukla, Coco Khan and Miss L look out into a room full of white faces. Chaired by Daniel Hahn, each speaker contributes to a panel event about diversity that was exuberant, angry, charming and above all poignant.
Shukla, a novelist, is also well known as the editor of The Good Immigrant, an essay anthology released last year, produced by the crowdfunding publisher Unbound which included a £5,000 donation by JK Rowling. The Good Immigrant features twenty-one BAME voices in powerful and often contradictory essays, in which Shukla, Khan and Miss L are all contributors. Daniel Hahn tells us the book ‘makes it very hard for us to generalise’ when we are shown human glimpses of lives lived in the UK who must strive so much harder to be heard or seen.
‘It’s exhausting to feel like you have to represent all the time,’ Guardian writer Coco Khan explains, wishing for a time when it’s possible to win an Olympic medal, or bake a cake, without the colour of one’s skin having anything to do with it. It’s the insidious, ‘well-meaning’ discrimination that openly persists: Shukla often sits as the token writer of colour on a diversity panel; Hindu women are the figures of fun in a recent mixed race romantic comedy (The Big Sick). Miss L, an actor, was cast in the role of terrorist’s wife upon finishing drama school. ‘It’s the most silent role there is,’ she notes sadly.
‘Our imaginations had to work tenfold to be visible in the universe of whiteness’, says Shukla, and given the impact of The Good Immigrant, perhaps we are now beginning to see glimmers of change. Mention is made of Reni Eddo-Lodge, Ta-Nehisi Coates and a new anthology of stories by BAME writers for a YA audience called A Change Is Gonna Come, as well as actors Aziz Ansari and Riz Ahmed. But a few exceptions, each speaker agrees, is not nearly enough to signify change in a deeply-ingrained culture of discrimination in society.
No one leaving Charlotte Square tonight, after hearing this passionate panel, should have any illusions that the battle is won with a handful of BAME voices in the mainstream. There is so much to take away from this discussion, above all that there is so much more to do. As Nikesh Shukla tells us: ‘It’s dangerous to be happy with the representation you have’.