Nikki May: “I always fail at what people want me to be”
The author on confused identities, colourism and how being mixed can be twice the joy
Hi, welcome back to Mixed Messages! This week I’m speaking to Nikki May, an author of mixed-British and Nigerian heritage. Nikki’s debut novel Wahala follows three Anglo-Nigerian best friends whose bond is threatened by a newcomer to the group. Nikki has seen first-hand how mixed people don’t all think or feel the same, sharing her perspective below.
How do you define your ethnicity?
I say mixed-race, Anglo-Nigerian and half-British and half-Nigerian, but many times I say I’m Black, because that’s an easier box to put myself in. I can’t imagine ever saying that I’m white, even though I’m just as Black as I am white.
You’ve grown up across the world - has that affected your sense of identity?
I was born in Bristol but don’t remember it. I was raised in Lagos from the age of two, spent twenty years in London and now I’m in Dorset.
My mum taught in a private school with quite a few white teachers and more mixed or white people than in other schools, and I felt comfortable there. When I got to secondary school however, I vividly remember feeling like a fish out of water. It was the first time I felt a real sense of not belonging.
When I came to London, I remember trying to blend in by straightening my hair and modulating my voice and pronunciations. Being looked down on was a novel experience because in Nigeria, being mixed-race puts you on a sort of pedestal. Suddenly coming to England and suddenly being Black, I wanted to say “I’m not Black! I’m mixed-race!”
Did you ever speak to your family about your heritage?
My conversations about mixedness were more with friends, but when I was in Nigeria, I remember telling my mum that I wanted my hair plaited to fit in. She said no because I had “lovely soft hair.” My mum gets very upset when I say I’m Black, she says “you’re half-Black and half-White,” whereas my dad would freak out if I said I was white.
Do you feel like people put their own perceptions of your race onto you?
I get really irritated when people decide what I am. I am what I want to be, and that can be different things at different times. Usually I’m not Black or white enough, I always fail at what people want me to be. I don’t call people out on it because you can spend your whole life rallying - I don’t want to spend my whole life educating people.
At some points in my life, I’m not even sure I know who I am, because if you dumped me in Nigeria my accent and syntax would change, my voice would get louder, my expressions and gesticulations would be wilder. But I wouldn’t feel like I was putting it on – it just happens. Sometimes I think it’s only when I’m with my husband or close friends that I can be me.
Wahala is based on a lunch you had with your close friends – can you tell me about the book?
I always wanted to read a book that had people like me in it, mixed-race and middle-class, and I’m sick of books about struggle. Those books must exist, and they’ve been done beautifully, but there are other stories about regular people living regular lives, and that’s the book I wanted to read. Yes there is a backdrop of colourism and racism, but I didn’t want that to be front and centre.
At the lunch that inspired the book, I was at a Nigerian restaurant with a group of friends, a mix of Black, white and mixed-race people. We drank, laughed, talked and shouted in this restaurant for five hours. I started thinking about how we all had different experiences.
One of my characters Boo has never met her Nigerian father, who abandoned her white mother before she was born. She moved to a white village with white step-siblings, and she had no concept of her Blackness. If she could have, she would have rubbed it off to fit in. She has opinions about Nigerian men all formed by this father she’s never met, and not in a good way.
Another character, Simi, is embarrassed when her parents turn up in native clothes with their Argos catalogues and loud voices - she loves them, but she doesn’t want to be seen out with them, and that’s valid. We’re not all perfect characters who behave perfectly, we have prejudices. Black people have -isms too! I wanted to show that being mixed-race is complicated.
You mentioned colourism – is there more you wanted to share on that?
I grapple with it. It’s a factor in the book, but in interviews I feel like I'm supposed to have a solution for it. Sometimes I feel like being mixed-race is objectionable to some people because of colourism, but what am I meant to do about that? My book didn’t resolve it because it’s unresolvable. If I could sort colourism, I wouldn’t be writing books!
How do you want the conversation about mixed identity to change?
Sometimes I think that the mixed identity should be a standalone identity. It might seem like I don’t want to be Black, but I don’t want to be Black or white, I just want to be me. I don’t want to keep thinking that I’ve got to pick a side, I find that quite offensive. I often feel that way in Black spaces, almost like I’m letting the side down because I have a white husband.
Who do you think speaks interestingly about being mixed right now?
Afua Hirsch is just a goddess. Then I remember being hysterically happy when Kamala Harris became Vice President, this sassy mixed-race woman. Thandiwe Newton is amazing, and wears her mixed-raceness beautifully. Bernardine Evaristo is a wonderful activist and author, then there’s Adam Rutherford, a really interesting scientist who speaks about being mixed.
What’s the best thing about being mixed for you?
Having a foot in two camps. Two homes can be twice the joy. It can make you a more rounded, solid person. I also think we’re less judgemental.
Can you sum up your mixed experience in a word?
A mixed bag! Sometimes my sense of belonging is really concrete. Other times it's elusive. But I wouldn't change it for the world. It’s made me who I am.
Next week, I’ll be talking to Soraya Abdel-Hadi. Soraya is the founder of All The Elements, a community working to increase diversity in the UK outdoors. Subscribe to get Mixed Messages in your inbox on Monday.
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Mixed Messages is a weekly exploration of the mixed-race experience, from me, Isabella Silvers. My mom is Punjabi (by way of East Africa) and my dad is white British, but finding my place between these two cultures hasn’t always been easy. That’s why I started Mixed Messages, where each week I’ll speak to a prominent mixed voice to delve into what it really feels like to be mixed.