Shubnum Khan is a young Muslimah from Durban, South Africa. Her book Onion Tears has been shortlisted for the Penguin Prize for African Writing. Her novel explores the lives of South African Indian Muslim women. I interviewed Khan about her book and her writing.
Safiyyah for MMW: Tell us a little about the book.
Shubnum Khan: Onion Tears is a story about the lives of a strange grandmother, a rebellious daughter, and her own angry daughter. The novel is primarily about a young girl’s search for her supposedly dead father but it also entwines other stories of love, loss and hope. Each character is searching for something: peace, a father, lost love and forgotten memories, but ultimately it all comes down to that elusive search for one’s identity.
MMW: How has your identity as a South African Indian Muslim women shaped your writing? Tell a little about this complex identity structure spanning nationality, culture, and religion, and its influence on your writing?
SK: Well, the saying goes, “Write what you know” and I draw my experiences from being a South African Indian Muslim woman. It’s important to remember that these titles link to the other – the type of suffering for each woman character is often unique to the Indian community and Indian culture is often mixed with Islamic principles by the characters. As you’ve mentioned, it is complex and while I don’t deal with it directly in the novel, it often just comes out naturally in the story as can be seen with the character, Khadeejah, whose dialogue is made up of a mixture of Urdu, English and Afrikaans.
Does this mean we have a confused identity or a new, unique one? This whole idea of identity is a complex one and the novel asks several questions which the characters try to answer: What is it to be a woman in an Indian community? Khadeejah believes it is her duty to be a good cook and her daughter, Summaya rebels against being the “typical” Indian woman. What is it to be an Indian in post-Apartheid South Africa? Khadeejah is afraid of white people, while her daughter invites them over for lunch.
When it comes to the issue of being Muslim – I don’t necessarily believe that is a “separate” issue on its own. For me, it is in everything these characters do. It is integrally woven into the book in the decisions the characters make to do good or bad. Of course, there are ideas that arise in terms of practices and Islamic events (like Eid and funerals), but for me, it was how these characters behaved with other people, how their thoughts evolved, that I would attribute to the discussion of Muslim identity.
I have three sisters and my mum has six sisters, so I know a lot of stories about the lives of Indian Muslim women! The most real writing that comes out of me was about women and the challenges they face in this society.MMW: What message are you hoping to convey about Indian Muslim women through this book?
SK: There is no “message” as such – I try not to write with a message. Hopefully, through their personal experiences, readers will draw their own messages. Although I do hope if anyone reads it, they would understand that women go through the same trials and tribulations all over the world, no matter race or religion.
The women in my life are always an inspiration to me – they endure so many hardships and they survive. So while the story grapples with difficulties that are unique to Indian Muslim women (stigma of divorce, caste issues, marriage pressure, cultural pressures), I hope readers will bear in mind that most of these issues are pertinent to all women. Injustice exists for women in all communities and this is a story of one of them.
MMW: Has your book challenged/reinforced stereotypes of Indian Muslim women? How so?
SK: In some ways it does challenge stereotypes. Each character is different and so they each have their own views and behaviors. Khadeejah is a hard-working, loyal wife who can cook up a storm in the kitchen. But she resents her husband, she can’t cope with all the work and she smokes quietly to find some peace. I often use this phrase in my novel, you can be and you can’t be – you can be in love with someone and you can’t be, and I think in that way the characters fulfill the stereotypes but they don’t. Khadeejah is a good wife but she resents it and so, she is a good wife but she’s not. So I think in that way stereotypes are explored and challenged.
MMW: Authors sometimes attach different aspects of themselves to their characters. Do your characters represent something of you? What do they mean to you?
SK: My characters are a mix of young me, old me, present me, the opposite of me, people around me, and pure fiction. The main element though is that characters are often created in relation to the writer — in whatever ways that may be. So in that way, each character is very close to my heart, including the repulsive characters, like Fareeda Khala, because she is an exploration of what I could become if I gave into the ugly side of selfishness and fear. Most of the characters in Onion Tears are some sort of exploration of identity.
MMW: We at Muslimah Media Watch hope you win the award and that your book gets published! If it does, what will this mean to you, as a Muslim woman, and what do you think it will mean for all South African Muslim women?
SK: Well I hope South African Muslim women will realize they can aspire for any dreams they set their heart on. Dream! Think big! Work for it! Hard work eventually pays off!
And I would hope from the actual story that they would draw strength and inspiration from the characters. No one is really alone. You may feel alone and miserable but there are others out there like you. I guess in a quiet way the book says, you are stronger than you think. And sadly, most of us learn that only through experience.
Stay tuned tomorrow–we’ll publish a preview of Khan’s book!