Brown Baby is a memoir/letter from Nikesh Shukla to his eldest daughter, nicknamed Ganga, exploring themes such as racism, colourism, feminism, mental health, grief and our shifting ideas of home. This isn’t your typical memoir in that it doesn’t account for all of Nikesh’s life. Rather, it covers two fundamental moments in his adult life - losing his mother to cancer and having his first child. I find it difficult (and maybe even a little insensitive) to review a book that is based on true life experiences, so, instead, I will attempt to explain its main themes and express which parts resonated with me the most.
Quite a large portion of this book addresses Nikesh’s grief at losing his mother and writing through these emotions as catharsis. He worries that his daughter won’t feel a strong attachment to her roots because she never got to meet his mother, and writes to fill her in with the family history she’ll never get to know first-hand. Although years have passed, the loss of his mother is felt in every page of this book. This manifests in various forms, one of which is through food: the way it ties us to our cultures and how it can be used to provide comfort to us when we are hurting. Parts of this memoir I struggled to read because they felt so raw and vulnerable, but the writing really was beautiful.
A lot of what Nikesh had to say about raising a mixed-race baby really resonated with me. He addresses topics that for years I didn’t feel able to speak openly about with my dad. Written in second person, I felt as if Nikesh was speaking directly to me and I clung onto every word. From the start of this book, he expresses concern that his daughter will grow up feeling disconnected from her Gujarati heritage. The fact that she is mixed race, coupled with the grief of losing his mother and being away from his family in London, leaves Nikesh feeling a responsibility to teach his daughter about race and how it will inevitably affect how she experiences the world.
“When I look at you, I think perhaps you might end up passing for white. I don’t want you to. I don’t want you to ever consider yourself white. Is that bad? Sure, you are half white, but that half is a default that comes with a much more defined identity to topple into. Will you ever truly pass for white? Your name is hardly Anne Smith. And even then, not all Anne Smiths are white.” This is my favourite quote from the book and if you’ve read my reviews before, you can probably guess why. I wouldn’t consider myself Brown exactly, but I wouldn’t feel right classifying myself as white either, because my heritage and upbringing means that I can’t navigate the world with a white woman’s lens. Being white passing has never stopped from me being asked where I’m from or how my name is pronounced or why I have patches of discoloured skin on my legs. You don’t ever truly pass, as Nikesh says, “the moulds society presents for you to fit into are fixed and immovable.”
There was a chapter in the book where Nikesh discusses womanhood and how since he has become a father, he feels more attune to the issues women (especially women of colour) face. For example, he confesses frustration at how the young children in his family are treated like dolls to be passed around. As someone who has never really been into showing physical affection, hearing about how distant relatives didn’t respect his or his daughter’s wishes for physical boundaries actually made me feel heated. Growing up, people often found it strange that I didn’t like to give out hugs to friends or even relatives. It’s taken me this long to realise that it’s those people who force affection from you who are the strange ones. Why do they feel entitled to your personal space, even when it’s clear you aren’t comfortable? While you may have good intentions, teaching children to not fight against this unwanted attention can have dangerous consequences.
The stereotype is that Asian fathers are driven by duty and pride, and as a result, forget to love their children. Nikesh admits to having flaws, but he is such a great role model for his two young daughters and reading this memoir gave me an even deeper appreciation for him as a writer and activist. I highly recommend this book to any of my fellow Brown babies out there (or to anyone who is raising one).
A big thank you to Jess and Bluebird Books for my review copy.