Hafsa Zayyan might not be a name you recognise just yet, but expect that to change in 2021. With the release of her debut novel We Are All Birds of Uganda set for this month, hot on the heels of her #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize win, Zayyan’s star is swiftly rising.
Hailed as ‘a remarkably accomplished, polished debut’ by literary icon Malorie Blackman, We Are All Birds of Uganda is a moving exploration of what it means to feel like you’re searching for a place to belong. Written between two continents and over several generations, Zayyan’s novel is emotive, multi-layered and makes for necessary reading. Most impressively, she wrote it while juggling the long, often-demanding hours of her job as a dispute resolution lawyer.
Here, she shares with us her inspirations for the novel, what it was like to work with #Merky Books, and finding a sense of belonging…
On discovering her love of writing...
“When I was young, my parents were quite strict – I was never even allowed to watch Eastenders, for example – but they were never strict about reading. My mum’s an avid reader herself, and I would raid her enormous book collection. I wanted to mimic my favourite authors, so I started doing a little bit of writing here and there.
“For a while at university, I lost interest in books; after spending eight hours a day wading through academic texts, reading and writing for pleasure kind of fell off my radar. Two or three years after graduating I fell back into it, thanks to a copy of George Saunders’ Lincoln In The Bardo that my mum lent to me.
“Reading and writing are very much connected for me: when I read great work, I’m inspired to write something myself. Equally – when I read something I don’t like, I’m inspired to create something better!”
On winning the #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize…
“The process of writing the book wasn’t a traditional one: I submitted a 2500 ‘extract’ for the New Writers’ Prize, after seeing Stormzy speak at the launch of [his autobiography] Rise Up.
“I never thought I’d be shortlisted, let alone win, so I didn’t have an idea of where the story should go. After being shortlisted, I was asked to submit a full manuscript within seven days… which of course I didn’t have! I ended up writing five chapters over the course of a bank holiday weekend and submitting that. I was so shocked when I won, I kept asking them to double check it was really me that had won. What followed was an intense six months of writing to complete the book – working weekends, after my hours in the office finished… whenever I could squeeze in some time. I’m lucky that I’m naturally very disciplined!”
On exploring belonging and identity…
“I dot around through history throughout the novel using a dual narrative structure because I wanted to explore how certain issues that affect migrants or immigrants in one generation can still be affecting their family two or three generations down the line. I wanted to explore the concepts of home and identity, and what it feels like to have that sense that you don’t belong anywhere.
“I drew a lot from my own experience; I’ve often felt quite ‘stateless’ – both literally and figuratively. I’m mixed race, an unusual mix of Pakistani-Nigerian. I’m English, and was born in the UK, but I’ve also lived all over the world, from Saudi to the United States, and went to 12 different schools growing up.
“I know what it feels like when you feel like you don’t quite belong anywhere, and the potential identity crisis that that can cause for a person. That’s what inspired me to write this story.”
On shining a light on Indian-Ugandan history through the novel...
“The #Merky Books ethos is to publish stories that aren’t being told anywhere else. I hardly knew anything about Indian-Ugandan history – particularly the mass expulsion of South Asians from Uganda in 1972 – until I met my husband, who is Indian-Ugandan himself. It’s something my generation aren’t familiar with at all, despite the fact it’s a major part of British history from the past 50 years.
“I did endless research, reading academic texts, watching interviews online, speaking to my in-laws about their experiences. I wanted to really capture what it was like to be a South Asian in Uganda during the 20th century, and what it was like for those South Asians thrown out of the country arriving in the UK as refugees in the 1970s.
“I wrote the chapters set in modern day Uganda while visiting the country itself, and I totally fell in love with the country, culture and people while I was there. I think that really comes through in my writing.”
We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan is published on 21 January by #MerkyBooks/Penguin Random House (£14.99)