Saaleha Bhamjee is a South African writer, mother and baker. In 2015, she made the Writivism Short Story Prize shortlist with her short story, ‘Dreams.’ Two years after, she’s back on the shortlist and we talked about her shortlisted story, ‘Fairies’, sexual abuse and what it means to write about sensitive topics as such.
Good to have you again, Saleeha. I hope you win this time. What happened during the ‘break’ and why are we back on the shortlist this year?
I haven’t thought beyond the shortlisting, which came as a huge surprise, so thanks for hoping for me. In the two years since we last spoke about writing, I opened a restaurant; saw my second child turn 18; gave up on writing. I felt that between work and home, I wasn’t able to give it the attention it deserved and this made me feel guilty. Also, I don’t deal with rejection well and the few people that I sent any writing to, all rejected my work. So I made a conscious decision to quit. But the novel just wouldn’t let me be. So in order to convince myself, finally convince this stubborn heart that I was not meant to write, I chose a chapter – one I didn’t think was horrific – and sent it off to Writivism. I didn’t agonise over the entry. I didn’t put overmuch thought into what I was doing and was certain I wouldn’t hear from anyone and that would be the final nail in the coffin of my novel writing days. And then…Well, you know what happened then. So here we are.
I remember how you used to say that writing is a labour of love. I guess that kept you going with the novel. Your shortlisted story, ‘Fairies’, contains so much play on words; the way some sentences are repeated and joined together without spaces. I’m pretty sure it had to do with the voice telling the story – a child. But can you comment on this technique? Why did you choose to tell the story from that POV?
I started this novel well over ten years ago. And it has always been a first person narrative. I tried other ways, mind you, but nothing worked. So I think this is how this story wanted to be written. With regards play on words, yes, this is how I believe little kids speak. I’m hoping I ‘nailed it’ since I relied heavily on my observations of my five kids as they grew. The entire novel doesn’t see our protagonist aged 5, mind you. We see her through to adulthood where she uses proper punctuation and nice meaty words.
It’s beautiful how you told this story of abuse through the eyes of a child. What was the process like, fitting into your child character as an adult?
If you’ve read the earlier posts on my blog, you’d know that I am quite open about the fact that I faced childhood abuse. So while this story isn’t autobiographical in any way, I did draw from my own experiences when it came to how she felt. In a sense, I had to visit my five-year-old self while telling this tale. This chapter was very unsettling for me when I wrote it. I suspect this is why I chose this particular one to submit.
How did you decide which part of the story would come first and which would come after?
It was all just natural progression. She grew. I followed her. I went where she led me. I’m not much of a planner when it comes to writing. If you read what comes before and what follows, you’d understand why this particular ‘story’ needed to develop the way it did.
And at the end, it dawns on the readers that ‘Fairies’ is quite a sad story. But this sadness doesn’t get dumped on us. It’s gradual. Sinking in bit by bit, it only hits the readers after we’re done reading. How were you able to engage the readers psychologically so? Did you find the story naturally taking that bend also?
As I’ve said before, I go where the story takes me. So this wasn’t deliberate. It would be great if I could own the ways in which this story engages readers psychologically, but if there’s anything I’ve learnt in all my years of trying to write, it’s that every person takes what they will from your work. Because people filter your words through the prism of their lived experiences.
Would it be okay to assume that the narrator’s parents were a bit careless towards their daughter? Judging by the number of times she tried to engage them but they hardly had any time for her. Makes me wonder too, how careful or protective can parents be to save their children from being preyed on?
Asma’s parents are busy. Typical 70s parents. Hard-working-empire-building father. Her mother was an anomaly for a Muslim family in the 70s in that she worked while many of her peers were ‘housewives’. But as we read the story, we begin to understand that her mother too carries certain scars that render her unable to show the love she feels for her daughter. With regards how protective parents can be, as a mother I know how easily things can go wrong. How easily control can slip from your hands. We do what we can and hope that we have the kinds of relationships with our kids that would allow them to come to us should anything happen to them.
So the story is set in the 70s? Why was it important to set it in that year?
That’s because the climax of our story centres around political events that transpired in 1976.
You mean the climax of the story?
Yeah, the novel from which the story was written.
It’s also ironic too that the narrator gets hurt at a spot she considers her haven. Is this your own way of saying that there’s hardly any safety for women and young girls in the world?
I didn’t overthink where things were happening. They all just happened where they were meant to. I remember reading some years ago that 1 in 5 girls has dealt with sexual abuse. And that more times than not, the abuser is someone they know well. This is a scary statistic when you think about it but I wouldn’t say that there is hardly any safety for women and young girls in the world because I believe there are more of adults in the world interested in making it the safer place for our children than there are those who would harm them. But we do have a long way to go in making this world a haven for females.
At some point though, the narrator tries to get her father to answer a question she’s asked him and he replies with, “Muisdrop uit die peper uit.” What does it mean?
I shall have to look at that phrase again. It’s actually meant to read “Muisdrol uit die peper uit.” This was something my own mother often said to me when I spoke while the adults were speaking. The 70’s were a time when ‘Children should be seen and not heard’ was very much a parenting rule. So to translate the phrase literally, it means, mouse dropping among the peppercorns. A reminder to ‘zip it’ and know your place.
I have many so many questions, I can’t wait for the novel to be out! Did she speak up eventually? What happened to the uncle after that? Etc. But it worries me, this prevalence of sexual abuse. What are the ways in which you think it can be curbed?
I honestly don’t know whether anyone would be happy to take on my novel. I don’t think my confidence has been restored to the point where I have faith that some publisher, somewhere, would want to publish it so maybe you will have to resort to my sending the manuscript to you so that you can read it in order to have your questions answered. Maybe that’s where my novel will end. An unpublished manuscript occasionally visiting inboxes. Let’s see. I honestly don’t know how we can curb sexual abuse in our world. I hope that maybe when abusers can come for help, when they feel that there is hope for them to be rehabilitated, then maybe the cycle will break. My greatest fear as someone who experienced abuse was that I would someday become an abuser. That my children wouldn’t be safe around me. I thank God every day that that didn’t happen.
But then there’s a group of people who still believe that stories of abuse, especially sexual, should be talked about in hushed tones. I strongly disagree with this. Are you worried about how your book would be perceived by your immediate audience when it’s out? (I’m positive the right publisher will come around) Generally, what’s it like writing or speaking about such topics, especially as a Muslim South African woman?
I have long been viewed as something of a maverick because of my blog. I’ve annoyed the powers that be in the Muslim community often enough through things that I have written. So if my book ever sees the light of day, I’m not worried about how it will be perceived. I didn’t write with any agenda in mind. I told a story. I wrote because I needed to. And people always have a choice to not read something they dislike.
It is often assumed that writers are generally influenced by their environments. Is it possible that you ever feel restrained from writing about certain things because of your(religious/cultural) background?
In the earliest years of writing fiction, I restrained myself, especially since the very first things I ever wrote were Islamic articles for Muslim publications. So I wrote stories with morals. If the protagonist messed up, he redeemed himself. I was part of a Muslim writers alliance which sought to provide the Muslim World with quality Islamic fiction. But this was stifling for me. Over time, I tested the waters more frequently with subjects that good Muslim wives ought not write about. Like my Writivism entry from two years ago. Now I write what I want. The book deals with themes that may annoy some. Like patriarchy. Like feminism. But that’s okay. I cannot be true to myself if I cannot write what I believe.