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New book ‘Rife’ amplifies urgent voices of British youth
Rife: Twenty-One Stories from Britain’s YouthIllustration Mikey Womack

This new book amplifies the most urgent voices of British youth today

Nikesh Shukla and Sammy Jones collate the writing of young people from across the UK to platform issues from immigration to gender, and our precarious future

It’s hard being a young person in 2019; from rising rents to bulbous university debt, knife crime, the erosion of mental health services, and the toxic online sphere we’re forced to navigate. Author of The Good Immigrant, Nikesh Shukla, and editor of Rife, Sammy Jones, have gathered and edited 21 essays from young writers under the age of 24, collected together for their expansive new anthology Rife: Twenty-One Stories from Britain’s Youth. The book is a reaction to the gulf between the younger and older generations in terms of politics, both personal and social, and allowing a diverse group of young people to have the platform afforded to the most privileged elsewhere.

Nikesh Shukla is a writer based in Bristol, predominantly writing about societal issues that we face and giving a voice to the people who often get ignored. Previously writing a series of novels and delving into YA fiction just last year, this is Shukla’s second anthology, having had huge success with The Good Immigrant – published in 2016, it’s a collection of essays written by BAME writers about race and immigration from a range of perspectives. Sammy Jones is the editor of Rife, an online magazine that supports young people to have their voices heard. Based in Bristol, the magazine aims to mentor and develop the skills of young people, giving them a platform to express their opinions, create content and meet each other through workshops and events.

With Brexit chaos brewing and the Tory party coming to blows over its leadership, the position of today’s youth is on a knife edge. In a political climate where every decision affects the next generation and with nobody listening to them, we’ve seen young people harness art to make their causes known. The book touches on topics that affect a large number of young people in society – mental health, the education system, gentrification. It feels painfully timely, coming at a time when nobody really knows what the future holds for the UK.

Below, we catch up with Shukla about Rife: Twenty-One Stories from Britain’s Youth.

What led you to working on a collection like this?

Nikesh Shukla: I’ve been working as a writer for ages, but while I was writing, I was also working as a youth worker in Bristol. I was working on a youth project where I ran a magazine for young writers and documentary makers to make films, and write articles and essays about the issues that were really important to them. It ended up being a really political endeavour – a really political magazine. It kind of gave me a pause to think that there are always amazing young voices with so much to say about how the country is being run, how they wish it was run and how no one was really asking them what they wanted their country to look like.

In your own words, what’s the main mission of the book?

Nikesh Shukla: This book is an attempt to give a platform to young people to talk about the issues that are important to them, as we head towards Brexit and climate change. You hear all these statistics about how young people didn’t vote for the Conservative party, and yet Brexit happened, and Brexit is going to affect young people the most – no one was really talking to young people about what the state of the nation was. They’re just as important in the conversation as any other marginalised group, and so off the back of the success of The Good Immigrant, we thought that a good thing to do would be to kind of turn this youth magazine that I was working at into a book project, where we had similar goals as The Good Immigrant to give space to young people to write essays about things that were already important to them. We ended up doing essays about mental health, the education system, voting, gentrification, housing, and how we view old people as well. It was a really incredible, eye-opening thing to me. It was quite a privilege to read and edit these essays, and bring the young voices to publication.

“There are always amazing young voices with so much to say about how the country is being run, how they wish it was run, and how no one was really asking them what they wanted their country to look like” – Nikesh Shukla

It’s been in the works since 2017, but it feels more timely than ever.

Nikesh Shukla: It comes out at a time when we’re going to have another prime minister we (didn’t vote for) dictating what the future of this country is, and I don’t think that they are massively in line with what young people want it to be.

What stories in this collection resonate with you personally?

Nikesh Shukla: There’s a really beautiful piece about gentrification in Hackney that spoke to what’s going on in a lot of cities, written by Malakaï Sargeant, that I just found very poetic. There’s also an essay by Liv Little and Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff from gal-dem, which is all about women of colour, and An Intergenerational Conversation by Tom Greenslade I think is a really interesting choice from him, writing about how young people should be taking care of old people. He writes kindly and generously about his time as a carer, and it made me think a lot about how we look after our elders, and that they shouldn’t be forgotten in these conversations about what the future of the country looks like.

How did curating The Good Immigrant reflect on and differ in this endeavour?

Nikesh Shukla: The Good Immigrant came from a very visceral position of feeling like... enough is enough, I need to do something other than just whine on Twitter about representation, I need to do something proactive and in-your-face, and it kind of paid off. I’d been working on Rife for a long time anyway, so I’ve been working with lots of writers who were writing about stuff that they might not have the same opinions on as me, or they might be writing about stuff that I don’t even have any interest in. I’ve always been really excited by was helping young writers find their voice. One of The Good Immigrant contributors’ proper commissions was the first book after doing a mentorship with me at Rife, so they both intersect.

Varaidzo, who wrote the second essay in The Good Immigrant, is also one of my mentees from my time at Rife – they’re both important spaces for people finding their voices. We hear a lot about people living in echo chambers and they don’t ever really read outside of their comfort zone. I’ve never really felt like that, because editing a magazine by young people who are still trying to find their way in the world, their views and opinions are emerging and they’re still experiencing life. It’s an interesting space to see how you then manoeuvre that to help people develop their voices.

How did you and Sammy come to work together?

Nikesh Shukla: Well, Sammy was one of my first ever mentees at Rife Magazine – as soon as I met her, I knew she had a really brilliant voice. She kind of became my protégé for a little bit! When we were putting the book together, it felt a little bit silly for me, as someone who is nearly 40, to be editing a book of essays by young people, so we asked her if she wanted to co-edit the book with me. We used that as an opportunity for me to impart some skills on her, and work with her to edit other writers, and now she has gone on to take over my job as the editor of Rife Magazine. That’s been a really nice, circular thing, to see that career trajectory for her. 

How important is it for you to cultivate relationships with other writers?

Nikesh Shukla: Writing can be such a solitary profession and art form, but we can also forget that it takes a village to raise a writer. To put it as a cliché, I am the sum of all of my mentors, all of the editors I’ve ever worked with, and all of the writers who gave me advice and support, a shoulder to cry on, and gave me critical feedback on my work. I’m here because of all of those people, I’m here because of Niven Govinden, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Salena Godden, Rajeev Balasubramanyam – without them I wouldn’t have a career. I stand on their shoulders and I can’t ever pay them back but what I can do is pay it forward and so when you see people like Sammy who are paying it forward again, cultivating the next generation of young writers, it’s really exciting because it keeps the equality of people writing for the margins, to keep going in an exciting way.

What did Sammy teach you in this process in turn?

Nikesh Shukla: Sammy is really good at keeping me from becoming the ‘how do you fellow kids’ meme. One of the things that’s really hard when you’re editing other people’s work, especially non-fiction and opinion-based, is dealing with your own, sometimes very different, worldview. Sammy is really good at making sure that it felt authentic to those young people who are writing and choosing what they want to say and how they want to say it. I also learned what a ‘situationship’ was, which I didn’t before! Kaja Brown’s essay about fan-fiction forums and how she used it as a space to play with issues around gender was an insight into an internet subculture that I didn’t even know existed.

“Young people are treated as this homogenous group of people who are constantly talked over and talked down to” – Nikesh Shukla

As well as learning new internet-speak, did curating this book change your perspective on the younger generation?

Nikesh Shukla: It more clarified for me that young people are treated as this homogenous group of people who are constantly talked over and talked down to. Young people have so much to say, with different opinions and different nuances, having much more progressive conversations around things like race, gender, sexuality, disability, and mental health. I’m not saying everything is perfect, but they’re much more equipped with language and format; they’re having those conversations that I think gives me hope in the future. It’s nice to place your hope in the next generation, because they’re going to be the ones raising and being role models for my kids. Knowing who these young influencers and thinkers are – I kind of think that we’re going to be okay.

You’ve had such a positive experience working with young writers, do you think that’s something you want to revisit again in the future?

Nikesh Shukla: I don’t work at Rife Magazine anymore, but I still mentor young writers to this day. I still spend a lot of time with young writers  – that’s something that I will always allocate time towards. I think it’s super important to give back, to keep that ecology going, and keep passing on skills, networks, connections, and support, otherwise people don’t feel as involved to get up and write.

You’ve already covered a range of topics in your books as well as your novels, what is something you’d like to touch on in future projects or a subject that you would like to revisit?

Nikesh Shukla: I want to write something to do with superheroes – I’ve always been a big comic book fan and my dream would be to work on a comic book.

Buy Rife: Twenty-One Stories from Britain’s Youth from Watershed