“Made me laugh and cry at once” – Brown Baby by Nikesh Shukla

On hearing that Nikesh Shukla was releasing a memoir called Brown Baby, I incorrectly assumed that this would be a book about his experience of growing up in Britain as a brown man. I was wrong. While Nikesh’s early experiences certainly play a role here we are instead treated, in the main, to his musings on fatherhood and the particular nuances of bringing a brown girl up in modern Britain. Broken into eleven chapters, Nikesh decides to focus on a set of certain challenges that he has been forced to navigate – be that ‘How to talk to you about your skin colour’, ‘How to talk about to you about being a girl’, or ‘How to tell you it’s time for bed. Fucking hell, go to sleep.’ Adding to the emotional weight that is already heavy in each of these chapters, Nikesh is also writing this book while coming to terms with the death of his mother and trying to work out how he can best tell his children about her without overwhelming them.

Given I am not yet a father and my mum is, thankfully, still very much with us, the premise of this book felt a little less relatable than the one I had been expecting to encounter. But I needn’t have worried. As Nikesh navigates the various issues he is trying to get his head around, it becomes obvious that this is not just a book about how to bring up a child. It is a think piece about how we all deal with a complicated and ever-changing world. While the author may very specifically be talking about the importance of letting his daughters know about diversity and bringing them up to have a compassionate worldview, his considerations have echoes for all of the difficult conversations we are all avoiding in our day-to-day lives. And when he talks of his mother, we also see an understanding of the things that happen to change our paths. It is an incredibly relatable read throughout.

It is also, despite the upsetting subject matter on display, very funny at times. Nikesh is known for having a comic element to his writing, and when considering the foibles of himself and his family it is always done with warmth and wit as well as complete honesty. In a chapter when he talks about his struggles with food, and how he might avoid passing them to his daughters, he manages to be self-deprecatingly hilarious at the same time as making you feel like giving him a hug and telling him it’s all going to be okay. And at certain moments, these descriptions of his struggles and small victories are so touching. A scene towards the end, in which he narrates his daughters biggest shit followed by one of her earliest smiles, will live long in the memory. It made me laugh and cry at once.

It is scenes similar to that one, moments when it is just him and his child, moments when he makes some small breakthrough, that make this book so powerful and important. It’s the universal story of parenthood, tied into one very particular person’s experience. For any new parents, it might make you feel less alone. And for anyone, like me, who has experienced the complications of growing up in a white country with brown skin, it might help you to consider some ways to not get lost in the mire.

Any Cop?: This was a more involving and emotional read than I possibly could have imagined when I picked it up. Memoirs aren’t really meant to be page turners. But, as I watched Nikesh manoeuvre the ups and downs of parenthood, the debilitation of grief, and the impossibility of coming to terms with an ever-evolving and increasingly fucked up world, I couldn’t put the book down. One of the most relatable memoirs I remember reading.

 

Fran Slater

 

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