Not many people know about the South African woman who, though shortlisted for the 2015 Writivism Short Story Prize, could not make it to the festival. Meet Saleeha Bhamjee; mother, writer and baker with such an intriguing personality. She insists on remaining faceless in this interview, but is fine to have her cakes displayed instead.
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Mother, baker and writer. Saaleha Bhamjee, how do you do these, really?
If I were to answer really honestly, I’d say, I don’t know. We all do what needs doing? Writing is a compulsion. Baking and the creativity involved in coming up with new and exciting confections makes me happy. And having five kids is something I count as a blessing. They keep me grounded and give me direction (and oodles of stress, sometimes!).
You also have a blog where you write and share your thoughts on issues – Afrocentric Muslimah. As its name suggests, you are very religious, aren’t you?
I used to be very overtly religious; wore the veil from the age of 16, removed it shortly after opening the bakery since I felt working, while veiled, defeated the purpose of the veil – as I understood it. Though, even now, I still wear ‘the garb’ – long dresses and a hijab.
My blog came into being during the time when I wore the veil and wrote for Islamic publications which perhaps, explains my choice of name. Over time, my relationship with religion has evolved. So, the short answer to your question is, yes, I’m religious. But I’ve chosen my way of being so. Often I’ve found myself at the centre of controversy for daring to express an unpopular Muslim view on my blog. But the thing about the blog is that it has always been my own little space where I wrestle with topics that cause me discomfort. Often finding that I am not alone in my angst.
Your being religious doesn’t affect your writing in any way then?
Does being a Christian affect the writing of a Christian writer? Not unless the writer is writing Christian fiction, I think. The same goes for Muslim writers. I started out wanting to write Islamic fiction but found the genre limiting. I was expected to portray Muslims a certain way, I was supposed to show their righteousness. But my truth has always been that Muslims, like everyone else, are perfectly flawed, capable of great good and sometimes, evil too, as the recent child sex scandal in Pakistan has shown. So I gave up any notion of writing for Muslims alone and telling my people lies about them and opted for mainstream fiction instead.
Khaled Husseini’s Kite Runner has been read by millions around the world. His Muslimness added texture to his story, the kind that could be appreciated by a wider audience. The same goes for Leila Aboulela. The Translator is one of my all-time favourite books. Not because she is a Muslim, mind. But because her story resonated with me, as it did with people across the faith spectrum.
What kind of writing do you find more enjoyable?
Fiction. fiction and fiction. I dabble in (dreadful) poetry. I’m a product of the social media age where EVERYONE has an opinion and feels compelled to share it. For this reason, my blog has been useful. It has allowed me the degree of pretend-relevance we all need in order to function. But fiction remains my first love.
Stephen King once said, “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.” I like telling those truths with my lies.
Stephen King is a favourite too?
I’m not much of a King fan, but he has contributed some gems to the quote pool of all things writing related. I incline towards literary fiction when it comes to reading, though Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife and Beukes’ The Shinning Girls have challenged that proclivity.
That’s good to know. In 2014, you were shortlisted for the Writivism Short Story Prize. You wrote a piece in Brittle Papers, recounting how this made you feel and there, you described writing as an “act of faith”. Could you please expatiate on this supposition?
I often wonder about us, writers. Why it is that we push on, keep writing, knowing how slim our chances of success are. Knowing how enormously the odds are stacked against us. Knowing that we, and our words, those precious, precious words will, at some point, face rejection. We will be told that they aren’t good enough. Or that they aren’t what publishers are looking for right now.
I entered Writivism again this year because I just wanted someone to say “yes” to my work. I’d been the recent propitious recipient of rejections from both Granta and New Contrast, so I took the story that these guys had decided was unsuitable for their journals and worked on it some more; added to it and then sent it off to Writivism. I was stunned when it made the shortlist.
Apparently I have too little faith in my ability. But I still write, which implies a faith nonetheless. (
Okay, if this is not too late, congratulations on being on the 2015 Writivism Short Story Prize Shortlist again. How did you feel not winning the prize?
The whole Writivism experience was a non-experience for me this year because I was dealing with a very ill mother at the time; wondering whether she’d survive, wondering what sort of life awaited her if she did. So, I didn’t feel much of anything. That’s kind of tragic, I know. I was sad that I couldn’t make it to the festival, a little relieved that I didn’t win because winning and being unable to receive my prize would have just depressed me more.
Sorry about that, Saaleha.
Thank you, Jennifer.
Reading your shortlisted story, Dream, felt like a dream really. You know, the way dreams display our wishes effortlessly. That’s how I felt reading it. There’s a certain lightness to the unfolding of incidents in the story. You dealt with worrying themes as love and faithfulness with such subtlety, hiding them in attractive elements as food, music and writing that they seem less worrisome. What motivated you to write that story?
Friends have described the story as ‘Dream-like’. This made me happy, since that was what I had aimed for. I wanted to write a story about moments, about how our lives-when we really think about them-are merely a collection of moments. Some; which elevate, some; which annihilate and it is those moments that stay with us. I see this in my mother, who has Alzheimers, how even in her addled state of mind, she clings to the moments in her own life that made her feel most complete.
For me, Dream was about finding pieces of yourself in others. About how, unlikely and sometimes questionable moments make us feel complete. How our humanness causes us to try to replicate those moments. How we can never do so.
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In conversation with his wife upon his return, it is only natural for the protagonist’s wife to probe further with suspicious questions, noticing how he has changed in so many ways, but she seems resilient with trifling statements as “You know sometimes food is not so much about the…well…food. It is about a time. A place.” Is this a case of irrevocable trust? How well does this character portray the typical (African) woman?
I listened to Barbara Kingsolver at an event once where she said that fiction does not tell you what to think. It asks you what you think. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t moralise in the story. I wanted the reader to decide for themselves.
The last thing I wanted was for my protagonist to be a man experiencing a midlife crisis, trapped in an unhappy marriage, seeking an ‘out’ and finding it in infidelity. He’s happy in his marriage. He and his wife have a relationship based on trust.
Is there a typical African woman? I don’t know. I should hope not, though. I like the diversity that is Africa.
And how soon is your book coming out?
Of all the tough questions you’ve asked, this is the hardest. My novel has been written. It has also been rewritten. And it is now being rewritten again. The challenge I face is finding the time to sit with it and finish up, between work demands and the responsibilities of being a wife and mother. Then to work up the courage to send it to someone and then to survive the rejection. And then to revise and send it off again. You get the picture…? So unfortunately I can’t answer that. When the time is ‘write’, perhaps? Or God knows best.
Ha ha. Just before I let you go, Saaleha, I have a request to make. Can you introduce to the readers, your doppelganger?
Saaleha Bamjee, my doppelganger whose surname is minus the H that appears in mine, is proof that God has a sense of humour. And that He works in mysterious ways. I found her when a friend confused her blog for mine and asked me whether the ‘hot chick’ in the picture on the blog was me. Ha ha. Don’t I wish!
She’s an infinitely better writer than I am. Less acerbic. Sweet. Witty. A brilliant photographer, whose services I’ve employed to take food photography for my store. All round, good friend and I am thankful for the emails destined for me, which sometimes found her. Were it not for these quirks of fate, I’d still be oblivious to her existence.
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Thank you, Saaleha!