A top comedian comes of age | UK-Iranian Shappi Khorsandi is a star of stand-up who has mined her comic talent to unearth a witty, sometimes shocking debut novel. Nina is not OK is a coming-of-age drama about a young teenage girl battling her addictions. What tempted Khorsandi to shift from making people laugh in public to working on the grand scale of longform fiction? She joins the Edinburgh International Book Festival to discuss.
“I didn’t feel maternal towards her – I was in her skin.”
“I feel slightly a fish out of water,” begins Shappi, noting that this is an odd blip in her month of stand-up comedy. “I will get into author mode in a mo.”
Comedy is collaborative: you get an immediate reaction and interaction, but writing is solitary. She has written a memoir before, but did that help prepare her for this lone approach? It helped in that the only big thing she’d written before was her dissertation, so she wasn’t daunted by the word count.
“I enjoyed writing fiction more,” she continues; a memoir was quite daunting – deadline stress, she was going through a personal crisis, this has been in very different circumstances. “It felt much more fun.”
Nina is not OK is unsparing on both Nina and the reader. There’s a lot of hangovers and throwing up. “The thing is, I feel very connected to my own youth,” explains Shappi. She doesn’t think any of us are different to how we were at 17, we’ve just learned how to be better versions of ourselves and become more comfortable in our own skin. “I didn’t feel maternal towards her – I was in her skin.” Youth isn’t a linear thing. She pauses and points out she knows how grand that all sounds.
It was a chance to revisit feelings of youth and have a better understanding of them, “that thing of being young and not being able to properly admit you’re not having the best time”. People say they’re the best days of your life, but what if they’re not?
Nina is in grief. She might not realise it as her father died a while back, but it’s a prominent part of her life. Children’s grief is something Shappi has been interested in as her father lost his own dad when he was just seven. There are two great fears you have as a parent: that you’ll lose your child, or your child will lose you before they’re big enough to face the world. She wanted to look at that.
Nina also has strength, a definitive point being in rehab when she realises that you have to be strong to commit to stay in the pit of compulsive behaviour – addicts can also be strong enough to leave it. It’s a moment where it all clicks.
“I suddenly found a real clarity that I could look back on my youth.”
It’s set today in the world of social media. Privacy is over, pictures can be taken and used against someone, it can alter lives like never before. “I remember the worst someone could do is write that you’re a slag on a toilet door,” she says. She wanted to explore these new things that make people feel dreadful, but make sure blame is not assigned to those it’s being done to.
When she was young, the conversation was “She can wear a short skirt and she’s not asking for it” and that felt radical, now it’s evolved to drunk consent – she’s so happy to see these conversations moving on. It’s prominent in her book – she thought she was writing about addiction and forgiveness, but there’s a strong line of consent present, it’s all of the times. Nina’s bisexual and not one of her friends even care, it’s barely a footnote in the story, it just is.
Shappi would love to write another, say, ten years down the line for Nina; “You’re so different at 27. Everyone over 25 is the same age,” but at 17, it’s a world apart. Her job is writing anyway; stand-up has always been tied to that craft more than acting. “We write our jokes, our narrative, our scenario.” It’s very different, and once a book is out in public it can’t be changed. You do readings and you go, “Oh, I could write that better!”
“Not to compare myself to a Renaissance artist…” she says, “but if they were to go to the Vatican, I’m sure they’d go, “Aw I can’t believe I painted a finger like that!”
It’s a fun and interesting hour navigating comedy and fiction. Nina is Not OK is a modern fable for young people. Shappi’s at a point her in her life where she feels her own wreckhead days are behind her and “I suddenly found a real clarity that I could look back on my youth.” She wanted to really look at it and be truthful, “create a version of my own youth and rescue her.”
When she read The Catcher in the Rye, her favourite book, she promised herself “I will never, ever forget what it’s like to be a teenager.
Maybe that’s the reason she wrote this: “a girlfriend for Holden, who knows?”