Monday, 3 October 2016

Onion Tears by Shubnum Khan

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Shubnum Khan is a South African author, freelance
journalist, university lecturer and artist. She majored in both English and Media Studies, has a Media Honours degree, summa cum laude and an English Masters degree cum laude. She published her first novel Onion Tears with Penguin at 25. She has written for publications like O the Oprah magazine, The Big Issue, Marie Claire, Seventeen, Flash the Short Story magazine, Glamour, Sunday Times Travel magazine, Eish! and Al Qalam. She has a fortnightly column with the Sunday Tribune and blogs for the Mail & Guardian's Thought Leader site. Her political cartoons have been featured on Kabobfest.com, Al Jazeera Talk Online, Al Qalam newspaper, The South African Labour Bulletin, The Mail & Guardian and Al Huda. In 2012 she was selected as the Mail & Guardian's 200 top young South Africans. She has participated in the Midlands Literary Festival, The Franschhoek Literary Festival, The Jaipur Literary Festival, Time of the Writer and was a speaker at the Foundation for Womens' Rights and Muslimah Today, South Africa's first Muslim women's conference. Her interests vary from: women rights issues, children's rights, effects of social media, popular culture, Kashmir, Palestine, Russia, the Far East, abandoned places, Urdu, memory and photography. Currently she lives by the sea in Durban, teaching Media Studies, freelancing articles, drawing cartoons, completing her second novel, Paper Flowers and watching as many different series as possible.



1. When did you first take an interest in writing? Did you always want to write books?
I think I first took an interest when I was young and I realised that I could also make up stories like the ones I borrowed from that magical library. I loved reading from a young age so as I developed my reading and writing skills, I realised I could take that a step further and write my own stories. I always wanted to write novels, I just didn't know I could do it until I tried!

2. Your debut novel Onion Tears delves into the lives of 3 women, each on a migratory journey of discovery. Tell us a little more about that.
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.

3. Could you tell us more about the title Onion Tears?
The novel often draws on the image of onions to describe the layers of each character's lives and the sadness they experience. The novel flits through layers of past and present until it provides the core of each character. Also, Khadeejah cooks to make a living so the onions are very symbolic of the foods that are constantly referred to in her chapters.

4. Although your book is not "muslimcentric", the characters in the book are Muslim women. Do you think the presence of Muslim characters in South African literature needs to be exploited?
My focus is on Indian Muslims so I would say yes, they need to be more explored. Different cultures and religions must write their stories of their lives in South Africa. For example, we ALL experienced apartheid, even White people have their stories to tell. Coming from a Muslim Indian background I have this story to tell. Indians Muslims are part of a great history in South Africa, we need to embrace this as our home country and write our tales so that we can integrate and unite as a nation whilst still maintaining our culture.

5. There seems to be a scarcity of South African Muslim authors, particularly in exploring the fiction genre. Why do you think this is?
I can jokingly answer that our community think it’s better to encourage their children to become doctors and engineers than writers but there would be some seriousness to that joke. Writing our stories is so important especially for a displaced community like ours. Stories build foundations and thread a history through our lives. That said, there are a number of South African Muslim authors like Imraan Coovadia, Mariam Akabor and Hamish Hoosen Pillay who are making a name for themselves with fiction writing in South Africa. Our community must be encouraged to write - the time for our stories to be told has come - and not just political dramas by politicians of Muslims’ struggles during apartheid. No, it must also be the stories from the intimate corners of our kitchen cupboards.

6. Where do you draw inspiration from in your writing?
I draw inspiration from people, especially the people around me. A large part of the story is set in Bronkhorstspruit where my mother grew up and the rest is set in Mayfair where my aunt lives. I also am inspired by the details of things - it's in the little things - the way someone moves the hair from their face or the details of a vase that I pass. The little things ma ke the big things and that is something that I hope comes across in my writing.

7. Are you working on another book?
I am working on a new novel, its working title is “Paper Flowers” and it is set in Durban alternating between the 1920s and present day. I'm trying to work on something quite different from my last book: it's a bit more mystical, darker and much longer.

8. You participated in The Time of the Writer Festival in 2012. Tell us about your experience.
It was a wonderful experience as it's a much smaller festival than others I have participated in, so you really get to know the other participants well. This is great because you get to hear about their experiences and viewpoints on issues and you’re exposed to current literary trends, especially in Africa because most of the writers are selected from Africa. I also got to speak in Durban, in my hometown, which is always great.

9. How has Onion Tears been received?
Surprisingly, really well. I say surprisingly, because I was never sure and I felt it wasn't your typical Indian happy story with the usual characters. A lot of Indian art in SA is about laughing at ourselves and that's great to an extent but while it opens avenues for self-reflection it also cuts out some avenues of understanding. I really wanted to explore the serious side to the culture - the aches, the pains, the things we don't talk about, or don't question, so I was surprised at the almost overwhelmingly positive response I received - I've had people - men from London, women from Canada - people from other races telling me they really enjoyed the book and identified with it. So, Alhamdulilah, it's been a blessed journey.
Shubnum’s advice to budding writers: “My advice is: just read as much as you can and work hard - this is a kind of job that you have to have true passion for and that will only show if you put the work in. Tell every story you can tell, unearth the stories from inside you and share them with others - we need to take control of the Muslim narrative, especially the Muslim woman narrative - who best to tell our stories than ourselves!”

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