/ 23 March 2024

Writer Khan didn’t wait 100 years

Shubnum Khan Author Photo Nurjahaan Fakey 2 (1)
Spreading her wings: Durban-born Shubnum Khan is about to depart for New York for the launch of her second novel, which is titled The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years in the US. Photo: Nurjahaan Fakey

‘It’s rich and swoony, tilting for the ecstasy of Sufi poets like Rumi, with a wink to those epic Indian romance movies Pinky adores.”

This is how The New York Times described South African author Shubnum Khan’s latest book The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years (in South Africa it is titled The Lost Love of Akbar Manzil). It’s her American debut and comes 13 years after her first novel Onion Tears. 

The story is set in a haunted mansion in Durban, where a restless soul, who is over 100 years old, roams the halls. 

When a young girl and her dad enter this world, she begins unearthing a tragedy in the mansion’s past. 

An enthralling page-turner, the novel adds a Gothic spin to a love story with curious details that keep the reader seeking more. 

Khan’s book has caused a buzz across South Africa, New York and India. It has been on the lips of book reviewers and on the pages of renowned titles. 

She is off to New York for her first US book event next month. It is out in the UK and it will be coming out in Italian and Ukrainian later this year. 

In 2021, Khan published an essay in The New York Times’ weekly Modern Love column about relationships. It was about being a young, brown woman being pressured to marry before she turns 25 and her journey to understanding that love is not only found in marriage but also in the embrace of your parents. 

Onion Tears revolves around three Indian Muslim women and how they navigate life’s curve balls. 

The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years is also influenced by South African Muslim life.

The Durban-born author uses her words to reflect the cultural intricacies of being a South African Indian woman and, in these expressions, she carves out a path where more South African stories, realities and experiences are told.

I spoke to Khan about her latest book and her life as a writer.

The Djinn Waits A Hundred Years is your debut American novel and your second published novel. It is being well received across the world and you are about to have your first book event in New York. Talk me through the journey of writing the book and how it’s led you to where you are now. 

Final Cover The Lost Love Of Akbar Manzil 300dpi With Shouts (1)

The novel took about eight years to write and about three years to publish. 

It was a pretty long journey after my first novel Onion Tears was published in 2011 when I was 25, but I knew I wanted to have the book out internationally, and so I worked toward that over the years. 

I feel like a different person since my last novel and I think my writing shows that — they are such different novels! I put in patience and work, and I feel like it paid off, and it is a good feeling.

Ranging from your recent book, to the New York Times essay and your memoir How I Accidentally Became a Global Stock Photo, how have the layers of your own identity as a South African Muslim brought up in an Indian community influence the themes you tackle in your writing? 

It has greatly influenced my writing, particularly my early work. 

Onion Tears was about domestic life for Indian women in suburban South Africa. 

I tend to write about Indian women because I have been surrounded by women all my life — I have three sisters and my mother had seven sisters. 

Many women in Indian communities in South Africa are taught that their only role is wife and mother and since I became neither, I am compelled to write about how life can be bigger than we are taught to imagine. 

I try to write into life the ordinary of communities that are not always written about or are misunderstood. 

In a similar way, I also see how my community has taught me about the bonds of family, love through food and how culture and religion create a community that can nurture, which I also highlight in my writing. 

A good writer can reflect the complexity of a community and I strive to do that, not just when I’m writing about the community of my background, but about people in general.

South African literature is broadening, with stories that represent different facets of culture and heritage. Do you think this is also the case with South African Indians or do you think more needs to be done to include these stories?  

I think there’s a move, thankfully, to get more stories from different cultures and minorities into the mainstream, globally. It’s the only way I can think a story about Indian Muslims in South Africa would be bought by a big-five traditional publisher in the US. 

I think more can always be done locally and internationally to capture the true diversity but it is changing slowly and that is encouraging. 

You speak candidly about prevalent issues in the Indian community, such as the pressure to get married and over-protectiveness, but you also give a different perspective on it. What is your core message? 

It comes back to the complexity I mentioned earlier — I can be critical about how brown girls are pressured to get married or how they have more social pressures on them than boys or how hard it feels to be a creative or a dreamer in a society where marriage or money can be the main aim, but I’m also aware that the generations above us had hard lives.

Most of them were children of immigrants imposed with their own pressures and challenges and a lot of how I look at things now has to do with empathy and seeing how we can work together as different generations to make things work. 

A path is being carved out for more South African Indian women to write and tell stories, building on the work of writers such as Fatima Meer and Farida Karodia. What role do you play in widening this path through your experiences as a modern brown woman in South Africa? 

We’re always following in the footsteps of the ones who took the first steps to tell their stories and I’ll always remember that. 

I want to remind young people, especially girls, the only life that will make you happy is one where you are true to yourself — and being true to yourself is a hard thing to do. It often means going off the path led out for you, but when you find your own way, life expands in incredible ways. 

I want my stories to show people they can dream, and they can be themselves and it’s all possible with time and effort.

The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years is published by Pan Macmillan.