Hello Nikesh, and thanks for joining us at Shift to discuss your latest novel! Why don’t you start off by telling us a little about Run, Riot?
Sure. Run, Riot is the story of a bunch of teenagers who see something they shouldn’t have seen — the apparent murder of a community organiser in their area, and as they evade the police, they uncover what appears to be a conspiracy to do with the building they all live in. It’s a novel about gentrification, community and standing up for what you believe in despite the power structures and institutions stopping you from doing so. It’s told in real-time too, so it takes place over nine hours of a summer evening. It’s very exhilarating. I hope.
This is your first YA novel – Where there any challenges that came with writing for a younger audience, or did you find the voice came quite naturally?
Writing for teenagers wasn’t massively different from writing for adults. I have been a youth worker for the last four years and worked on a project called Rife where I spent a lot of time mentoring young people and helping them to tell the stories they wanted to tell in their own voices. The thing that was actually difficult for me was writing a thriller, something I’d never done before, in real-time, which gives you continuity pressures and four different narratives, which gives you voice issues. I think I did a fine job. I don’t know. That’s up to the readers.
Gentrification plays a massive role in the novel, which is somewhat unique in the YA world. What made that a subject that you wanted to deal with?
Gentrification and who has the right to cities, to spaces, to neighbourhoods has always been a concern of mine. And I’ve wanted to write about the importance of community for years. I will never forget in the one broadsheet interview I did, the interviewer made fun of me in the write-up for saying I believe in community. And that really enraged me. Because I do. Community is all I have. Whether it’s my family and friends, writers or people around make doing projects. Community makes things happen. And neighbourhood communities around the country are shifting and being shifted for the illusion of progress, for the development of property. Cities are being filled with unaffordable housing and supermarkets and private gated areas. Meanwhile, parks and libraries and public spaces and youth centres are all under pressure because of public funding cuts. These are all important services. And we’re losing them. I wanted to talk about that. About who has the right to live in cities and who doesn’t.
With The Hate U Give highlighting police violence in the US, it’s excellent to see you addressing police brutality in the UK as well. Why do you think subjects like this are so rarely confronted in fiction for young people?
I don’t know. I think fiction should be uncomfortable and speak truth to power and make young people think about their place in the world. I’m not addressing police brutality though. Definitely not. That’s a whole other book. I wonder sometimes, if these subjects are rarely published is because editors don’t spend so much time with teenagers so don’t necessarily know what they want to read.
I remember one of the bits of feedback to this novel when it was on submission was that young people don’t like books with conspiracy theories. I thought that feedback was preposterous and not based on any real research. I’m a youth worker, I can assure you, young people are obsessed with conspiracy theories. Also, I was a teenager once. I was obsessed with conspiracy theories. When you feel like the world is against you, it’s easy to assume it’s because of some shady thing beyond your control. So I think subjects like this are rarely confronted in fiction, because editors don’t spend a huge amount of time with teenagers. And because hardly any British writers of colour get to write YA.
If there’s only one thing you’d like young people to take away from Run, Riot – what would it be?
You have a voice. It is important. Keep going. Keep fighting for what you believe in.
You recently set up The Good Journal, a literary journal with the aim to highlight work by writers of colour – will you be taking on writers aiming at a YA readership within its pages?
Yes definitely. It’s an underserved canon — YA by British writers of colour. I’m desperate to find as many new ones as possible.
Who’s exciting you in the world of YA? What’s coming out that you want to champion?
I love all the books by US PoCs being published but it does highlight how few British writers of colour get the opportunity. I recently really adored Juno Dawson’s Clean, and Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo.
What would you like to see from the future of the UKYA scene? Are there any stories you’re desperate to read (or write for that matter)?
I want to read about British PoCs falling in love and funny stuff happening. I loved When DimpleMet Rishi, and I’d love to read the UK equivalent. I’d also like there to not be so much pressure on UK YA PoCs to write political stuff. Sometimes we want to write a knockabout comedy or a hardboiled sci-fi detective. We don’t always want to write our race. I mean, I’m a really politically-minded writer, so for as long as I write YA, it will be political. But I want there to be more more more.