Nikesh Shukla: ‘Reading Spider-Man made me feel less alone’

The author and screenwriter on his love of comic books, James Baldwin’s moral fury, and how The Buddha of Suburbia is one of the funniest books ever written

My earliest reading memory
When I was six, I went with my mother and sister to India for the first time, to visit relatives. Here I discovered comics. My cousins were obsessed with Archie comics, which I didn’t really understand but found very readable. My masa gave me my first ever Spider-Man comic on that trip, a classic tale featuring the Green Goblin. I read it over and over again, the entire six weeks we were there.

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My favourite book growing up
My mum used to take me to the library every two weeks: she had a Mills & Boon addiction to feed. I had free rein of the library and I worked my way through every single movie tie-in novelisation I could find, as well as expanded universe Star Wars and Star Trek books. I think my most treasured book was The Karate Kid Part III.

The books that changed me as a teenager
On my weekly trips to Calamity Comics in Harrow town centre I would sit at the back of the shop, reading Spider-Man comics. Peter Parker is me. I am Peter Parker. Which means I could be Spider-Man. Those comic books made me feel less alone.

The writer who changed my mind
On my 21st birthday, the singer Deedar Zaman, then the frontman of my favourite band, Asian Dub Foundation, gave me a copy of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and it changed my life. Asian Dub Foundation had already introduced me to so many different movements and people by then, from Udham Singh to the Naxalite movement to the Bradford 12 to the case of Satpal Ram, and my anger and interest were growing. Then Baldwin wrote: “Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” in a letter to his nephew and I knew I had to read everything he’d written. His simmering moral fury, the elegance of his prose, the complex compound sentences that were wise and world-weary and hopeful: they were everything to me.

The book that made me want to be a writer
Zadie Smith’s White Teeth had a huge impact. On the surface, it was a book about people I was familiar with, in a part of London I grew up in, using the language of my friends. And then she wrote: “There was England, a gigantic mirror, and there was Irie without reflection”, and I knew I had stories of my own to tell. White Teeth was many things, but my sense of it at the time was that it was so funny. I was a student of sitcom, and White Teeth showed me how to be funny on the page.

The author I came back to
The rapper I didn’t really appreciate at the time but revisited as an adult is Jay-Z. The flow, the timing, the metaphors, the sense of humour, the storytelling and that warm chuckle.

The book I reread
I read Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia again recently and I still love it. As a teenager, it made me feel seen and more OK with how much of an outsider I felt, and really made me understand my place in the world. Rereading it now, I find it’s filled with mischief and joy and moments of silliness, and ridiculous characters who walk the line between pathetic and absurd. It’s one of the funniest books ever written.

The book I could never read again
Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was a seminal piece of work. It was the blueprint for so much that came after it, from how we viewed a superhero’s place in society through to dark, gritty films like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. However, I cannot help but draw a line between Miller’s Batman and the hooded bat-like “hero” of his grossly Islamophobic book, Holy Terror.

The book I discovered later in life
I read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys on holiday, and couldn’t understand why it had taken me so long to get to it.

The books I am currently reading
I am enjoying Samira Ahmed’s new run of Ms Marvel comics. Roopa Farooki’s jaw-dropping memoir, Everything Is True, about being a junior doctor in the first six weeks of the pandemic, is brave and powerful. I am also reading Pankaj Mishra’s novel, Run and Hide, a satirical look at finance bros.

My comfort read
During a recent period of grief, when I lost someone close to me who was as big a rap head as I was, I found myself rereading Hanif Abdurraqib’s Go Ahead in the Rain, about A Tribe Called Quest. The book is haunted by Phife Dawg, a former member who died in 2016; the way Hanif talks about him and to him made me feel closer to my cousin.

Nikesh Shukla’s Brown Baby: A Memoir of Race, Family and Home is published by Bluebird (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.


Nikesh Shukla

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