Hafsa Zayyan is Stormzy’s favourite new author
She won Merky Books’ New Writers prize with just a few chapters of her enrapturing debut, ‘We Are All Birds of Uganda’. The enlightening book is out now.
Photography Farzanah Mamoojee
It’s been a long road to literary eminence for Hafsa Zayyan. The London-based author’s debut, titled We Are All Birds of Uganda, was released just a few weeks ago, but it has been finished for close to two years; before that, the story had been “stewing in [her] mind for a while”. This book, a sprawling and epic dual narrative, spoke of her lived experience, but that which she’d seldom seen in the books she read: a story of cross-generational divides, and being both Black and South Asian. “The interaction between these two communities was always something I was interested in,” she says, speaking over the phone almost a year before the book was released, coronavirus stalling things a little. “But I had a job and a life, and I just assumed I’d never write it. Then the competition came along, and it happened.”
The competition she’s referring to? #Merky Books’ seminal New Writers Prize, an award that, in its inaugural year, selected two novelists under 30 to mentor, eventually publishing their debut works. Part of Penguin, #Merky Books is, of course, an imprint curated by Stormzy that focuses on amplifying the often unsung voices of marginalised writers. For a famously impenetrable world, it’s a lifeline for those with talent but fewer industry connections.
All it took was four pages of A4 to change Hafsa’s life. A dispute resolution lawyer, she had loved writing as a kid, but as she started work after graduating from Cambridge University, “the writing thing took a backseat”. But when the competition opened, the idea was in her head, and she submitted the required 2,500 words, assuming it wouldn’t go anywhere. Thankfully, it did.
Set both in contemporary Britain and 60s Uganda, shortly before the Asian Expulsion, We Are All Birds of Uganda is a lyrical and enlightening story of two life experiences aligning despite decades separating them. In Uganda, Hasan is a man grieving the loss of his wife, rebuilding his successful business as the expulsion unfolds, an event that forced the mass removal of the country’s 80,000-strong population of Gujaratis (over a quarter of whom came to Britain). In contemporary Britain, Sameer is the epitome of city success: a lawyer whose track record has invited him to kickstart his London firm’s new office in Singapore. But it's news he fears to tell his family; dealing with their own tragedy, they yearn to have him closer to home. He’s torn between familial expectation and personal motivation.
It’s woven together with gentle urgency; sensitive and with a rare perspective on how our mixed race backgrounds can help form feelings of both internal power and conflict. Having moved around the world as a kid, from Saudi Arabia to the United States, Hafsa’s family permanently moved to the UK when she was nine. Her mother’s Pakistani culture shaped much of her own, but her father’s Nigerian heritage gave her “the exterior” of a Black woman. “I had an entire South Asian family who were lovely and accepting, but in South Asian communities I felt rejected because of the way I looked,” she says. “People wouldn’t believe me when I said I was South Asian, but on my Nigeria side, I was expected to know everything about how to be a Nigerian woman. It was a strange dual identity.”
In this conversation, Hafsa unpacks how that dual identity led to her telling the story of a lifetime.
There’s an underlying narrative of displacement and battling against expectations running through this book, but how do you describe it to people?
It’s hard to give it a one sentence answer! The first thing I thought when I sat down was the concept of identity, home and what it means to belong. That ties in with the generational perspectives: the generation immediately above you, or two above you. Your experiences are perhaps similar to theirs, but you don’t realise that. Then, in terms of race, it’s about how Sameer, the modern protagonist, is treated, realising that he’s been a subject of racism that he hasn’t clocked before. You see how Sameer perceives Black people, and how white people perceive him. It overlaps. And the last is success: what it means to be successful, and how you reconcile success as a millennial. How the ones who didn’t come from “nothing” came from their pasts into paths of success.
It deals with weighty and vital issues, but it’s also teeming with joy and ambition too. What had you seen out there already that you were hoping to subvert?
I never really saw myself anywhere. Not the Black perspective, or the Asian perspective, but the mixed perspective. Being half-Nigerian, half-Pakistani is not something that’s [common] — I don’t know anyone beyond my siblings and I. I wanted to explore that relationship and how it all works. In my mind there’s no popular or mainstream fiction or non-fiction that deals with this specific topic. Trying to read into it from a non-academic perspective, Black and Asian communities and how they mix, was quite hard. There’s obviously a lot out there about the Ugandan Asian Expulsion. It, for me, was one of those things I hadn’t seen talked about — probably because I didn’t know anyone who had learned about it.
“A lot of the things that happen in the book are lived experiences. I’m too close to the subject matter to become phased by it. You sort of become numb and expect it; you feel sad that it’s not surprising.”
Do you see this as an educational tool?
That’s absolutely the goal. From the historical angle, it’s a highly fictionalised account but a lot of research did go into it. I hope people will look into the expulsion afterwards. There will be a long bibliography here! [I also hope people look into] what happens to Sameer, things that people may do subconsciously: racial microaggressions, like [when his friend is] sending brown emojis when he’s not brown, not thinking it may offend whoever he’s sending it to.
Was there any part of the process of writing this arduous emotionally?
A lot of the things that happen in the book are lived experiences. I’m too close to the subject matter to become phased by it. You sort of become numb and expect it; you feel sad that it’s not surprising. So it wasn’t uncomfortable to write, it was genuine.
What I would hope, is that people reading it who haven’t had those experiences can feel uncomfortable and question the perspectives of some of these characters. I want them to engage in a dialogue about it. A person reading the book from Sameer’s perspective might think he’s perpetuating the white gaze, but this is a brown gaze. South Asian people do this as well. He’s subconsciously reflecting his own prejudices and perspectives. It’s part of the reason why the dual narrative was so important, between historical perceptions and what we see as right and wrong now. White people might see themselves in Sameer’s shoes.
I read an interview with Brandon Taylor recently about his dislike of writers referring to his work, and work by non-white people, as “visceral” or “raw”. Do you have an idea of how you’d like people to perceive this?
I think it’s partly down to the author: just because I’m Black, how will people perceive my book? It’s also partly a question of the questions contained in the book. If I wrote a book about a white person, maybe they wouldn't think any differently as to if a white person had written it. Obviously, the story is written from a South Asian perspective. You have that strange duality. I don’t know how it will be perceived — I just look forward to hearing it! I’m not expecting anything.
Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to write but doesn’t know where to start?
If you don’t feel like you’ve got the time to write, enter competitions, because you have a reason to do something! Since I won this, I’ve come across so many of them. The great thing is if you can enter three chapters, you can write three chapters. Personally, I need someone telling me ‘If you don’t do this by his time, then you’ll miss out on this opportunity’. I really admire people who are already super self-motivated. I don’t know how they do it. But if you’re super keen and can find the time, keep at it. Don’t let it fall by the wayside. Write anyway. Take a break then come back to it. It’s important.
Now you’ve done this, do you consider giving up the day job?
I love my day job, so I wouldn’t want to give it up easily, but I also really love this writing thing. Who knows? I definitely have more stories to tell, but I don’t know when I will tell them!
We Are All Birds of Uganda is out now on #Merky Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.