Time of the writer: Shubnum Khan


Shubnum Khan is one of the most visually reflective writers to come out of recent South African memory. She has an uncanny ability to transpose past events and place them in current socially inclusive contexts, something which is both a marvel and somewhat comes out of necessity to see herself reflected in the literature medium. We spoke to her about Indian writing, Creative processes and participating at Time of the writer. 

Tell us a little bit about what initially influenced you to become a writer and your early experiences with books?

When I was little my sister used to take me to the local library. She chose some of the best authors but I didn’t know it then. Every night she would read to me from Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. I would sit enthralled as I heard about the saucepan man and the magic farawary tree and would be frustrated that I couldn’t read the rest of the story by myself when she went to sleep. 13 years later I found myself at the library again when I had given up on studying architecture, fine art and then visual art. I was at my wits end and took up a job volunteering at the library. Being around all those books reminded me of how much I enjoyed reading and then I took up a degree in English and Media and started a Masters in Creative Writing. The rest as they say, is history.

Tell us a little bit about your writing process, how do you go from an idea or a concept in your mind to an actual story?

I usually notice something inconsequential – the way a woman crosses the street, the way one person berates another and the image matures in my mind until they become an idea and when I finally sit down at my computer I kick it around a little and it becomes a story. I don’t think too much planning goes into it and this could be a good thing or a bad thing. I’m still deciding.

Lets speak a little bit about Onion Tears and how did the concept and the idea of the book initially come about?

Onion Tears is a novel about the love and losses of 3 generations of Indian Muslim women living in South Africa. I never planned to write a novel like this; I thought I would have written something more funny with talking cats and invisible worlds. But, in retrospect, I realise my mother had 6 older sisters and I have 3 and it seems inevitable that I would write about the pain and joy of this community. Indian women are so dear and work so hard; they are stories waiting to burst onto a page with their cooking and heartaches and hard work.

You have always emphasised the idea of exploring identity, why do you think this issue is important in South Africa today?

I think it’s always important to explore issues of identity. It is so telling of histories and contexts and states of nations when we discuss issues of identity. It is a life long struggle of everyone. We always seen ourselves in relation to our parents and our children and society and religion and culture and in my case, being Indian and African. It’s almost overwhelming. To think about it and to explore it through literature is to take a step into understanding yourself. Of course in South Africa today, identity hold relevance as we make our way in understanding what it means to be a South African in this age where our leaders are letting us down, where apartheid still lingers and where globalisation is hitting us full force.

You have also spoken about the identity of Indian Women, what do you think of the image of Indian women in South African women? Is it directly reflective of how Indian women actually are?

As with most identities, it is never static and I would never say Onion Tears is representative of all Indian women in South Africa. This is exactly why each women in the novel is so different from the other.

You write both fiction and journalism, how do you manage to transition between the two mediums?

I often think that failed journalists go into fiction writing and failed fiction writers turn to comfort in journalism. In some ways they are the same – you look for a story and you write it with a beginning, a middle and an end. Of course the way you do it is different. Journalism requires a certain technicality and feverous dedication that I did not think I was suited to. On the other hand fiction writing requires patience, reflectivity and even a level of messiness that I enjoy. I mainly write creatively now but if I do write feature pieces it’s mainly from a reflective point of view. In my few journalistic gigs I’ve done  I’ve seen the kind of life you have to lead and I’m still deciding if that’s for me.

What do you think is the role of literature in South Africa today?

Literature in South Africa today must attempt to grasp the younger generation’s attention without falling into old rhetoric and old complaints. The truth is this is a new South Africa. I think we need to find new ways to bring in history (for of course it must never be forgotten) and discuss the current problems we are facing. For too long we let the past hold us back. Literature at its essence is to encourage people to think and we have new problems to think about.

We see a lot of younger women in South Africa getting their writing published, what do you think this means for the future of local writing?

In all fields it seems that increasingly young people are achieving success. I take this as a positive sign that the fresh perspective of youth is finally being encouraged and appreciated. It’s why I enjoy teaching at a university. For the future of local writing I think it means we are going to get a lot of interesting and unique stories coming out of South Africa. The women’s perspective is one often fraught with emotion and pain and often ignored. It would be interesting to see what would happen if the literature powers in this country shift from old white men to young black women.

You teach at UKZN, tell us a little bit about some of the questions you have been asked by your students and what sort of practical advice do you give them?

I love teaching at a university because I am surrounded by fresh ideas and generally a good energy. Students generally always ask about how to make it in writing whether it be in journalism or creative writing. My advice has always been the same: work hard at it. I started sending stories to magazines when I was 16 and I cringe when I look at the quality of work I sent. But eventually I got better and O the Oprah magazine was the first magazine to actually accept my first publication. It’s about putting the work in and trying despite the rejection.

There are not many recognised ‘Indian writers’ in South Africa as one would hope, where do you see the future on ‘Indian writers’ in South Africa?

Increasingly I believe it is very difficult to label writers as “Indian” or any other form of cultural classification. While my novel and previous novels by Indian authors like Ronnie Govender do focus on the Indian culture very closely, other new Indian authors do not.  Hamish Hoosen Pillay writes crime fiction, Azad Essa focuses on political discourse in South Africa. So I wonder if there is a future for the ‘Indian’ writer in South Africa when increasingly we see in this country how similar our narratives are becoming. Surely as our cultural pot melts further, we will have ‘South African’ writers.

You are going to be participating in Time of the writer tell us a little bit about what you are looking forward to in the festival and what it means for you as an author?

I’ve taken part and participated in a number of festivals outside of Durban and even out of South Africa so it is a pleasure to finally be speaking in my hometown. There are so many things I would like to share with the people around me first. I’ve always been proud that our little city by the sea hosts this event every year and I’m looking forward to finally being able to talk to my people on my own turf. Also, I can have the upper hand on the other writers by making inside jokes with the audience.

What are some of the projects and initiatives that you are currently working on?

I’m teaching at the moment and I draw political cartoons for a national newspaper and a satirical Muslim website. I’ve started writing for Thoughtleader and I still write feature articles when I can. I’m trying to work on a book of poetry and I have a vague idea in my head for a next novel. I’m waiting for the ideas to marinate a little and also for some time to work on it. I’m want to start a creative writing classes at my very local library when it all started but that will probably be later in the year.

Images courtesy of Time of the writer Books Live, and Al Jazeera. Khan will be speaking at The Time of the writer festival 19-24 March. Tickets are R25 for the evening sessions, R10 for students, and can be purchased through Computicket or at the door one hour before the event. Workshops and seminars are free. For more info contact the CCA at 031 260 2506/1816 or e-mail cca@ukzn.ac.za

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