Interview With an Author: Shubnum Khan

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Shubnum Khan and her debut novel, The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years
Author Shubnum Khan and her debut novel, The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years. Photo of author: Nurjahaan Fakey

Shubnum Khan is a South African author and artist. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times; McSweeney’s Quarterly; HuffPost; O, The Oprah Magazine; The Sunday Times (London); Marie Claire; and others. The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years is her debut novel in the US and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years?

I always wanted to try to tell a love story, but as I was writing, I realised you can’t tell a love story without telling a life story. And I had been collecting so many things I wanted to write about for a while: Durban, forgotten people, heartache, djinns, and somehow, all the ideas I collected over the years gathered in this house and grew into a story.

Are Sana, Meena Begum, Akbar Ali Khan, or any of the many other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

They certainly carry bits and pieces of characters I’ve met or read about, but they have not been based on any specific individuals.

Is Akbar Manzil inspired by or based on a specific place?

Durban is full of strange, grand houses along the coast, most of which seem to have grown old or dilapidated with time. It’s a city where the green is always trying to take over everything, including buildings. I wouldn’t say Akbar Manzil is based on a specific house I’ve seen but there are certainly a lot of weird and wonderful places to inspire a story.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

The novel took about 8 years to write, so a lot changed along the way! We cut a lot of excess story and even cut out a character because there were just too many characters in the book! I don’t regret anything that got cut (even some of my favorite lines and scenes) because I can see at the end, it made the story read better, which is ultimately the best thing for the story. I used to say the story was like an abandoned house covered in trees and high grass for years, and only when I cut away and cleaned up all the things that covered it did the house/story begin to emerge.

Do you have a favorite ghost or haunted house story (novel or short story), television show, or movie? A least favorite? (I realize that you may not want to address this one and if that is the case, please don’t. But I also realize it might be so bad that it could be fun to answer.)

I used to love The X Files! I was such a big fan. But in truth, I think I only watched it to see if the lead detectives, Mulder and Scully, would get together each season. So, as you can see, that bled into the themes of my novel: some horror, but mostly, I would say, a kind of complicated love story. I would say I always like a thriller, but there must be a hint of a great romance in it.

Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever had an encounter with something paranormal?

Interesting question! I definitely believe in djinns, which are a kind of ghost. I don’t know if I believe in traditional ghosts (dead spirits trapped on earth), but I think I believe there are other things out there if you don’t think about them too much, they won’t bother you. When I did a writing residency in Sante Fe, I certainly felt (as did all the other writers) a presence in the room at night. It was pretty terrifying.

How would Razia Bibi rate your cooking? How are your rotis and samosas? Do you use enough onions? Would she want to give you lessons? Would you want to take them?

Ha! She would not rate me well—my rotis are not round (a fact my mother can’t stop lamenting, and it’s also probably why I am not married), and I don’t fill samosas well. My dishes, which favor the more far east Asian side of things, would be far too eccentric for her traditional palate. And I would certainly hate taking lessons from her—I’m done with people telling me how to live my life because that’s all I heard from my aunties growing up. I know it’s a warped way of showing love, but I think at this stage, I won’t have the patience for it anymore.

Your bio says that you currently live in Durban, the coastal South African city where your novel is set. What are a few of your favorite places in Durban? A hidden gem that someone visiting should not miss but would only learn about from a resident?

There’s a beautiful old independent bookstore called Ikes on Florida Road, which is just a hidden gem of a place. Swimming on our beaches is a unique experience because we have the warmth of the Indian Ocean and the warm Mozambique current, which even keeps the city warm in winter. There are a lot of beautiful little beaches if you drive north or south on the coast that feel like secrets—there’s a mangrove swamp up in the north and windswept little beaches that feel very special. Also, visit Blue Lagoon on a Saturday night to get a feel of the local Indian culture—people are frying corn and selling fried Indian snacks along the point where the mouth of the Umgeni River meets the Indian Ocean—it’s something to experience.

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

Everything takes a long time to happen! My book took about 8 years to write, and I took about 3 years to get a literary agent and the novel came out two years after the book deal. There’s a lot of uncertainty in everything, but you have to believe in your project and push through even when it feels like you might be failing. It’s like riding a rollercoaster—you just have to clench your teeth, grab tight and hold on.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Too many things! Our Strangers by Lydia Davis (she’s such fun to read!), Babel by RF Kuang, The Storm We Made by Vanessa Chan and a local novel Buried Treasure by Sven Axelrad.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Arundhati Roy
RF Kuang
Lydia Davis
Rebecca Solnit
Neil Gaiman

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I think the BFG by Roald Dahl was really instrumental in shaking open my imagination!

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Flowers in the Attic by VC Andrews when I realised this was probably something my parents wouldn’t want me reading.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

I’m really bad at lying, so I try not to lie, but I’m pretty sure I must have nodded along if someone mentioned a big-name book that I hadn’t made it to yet.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

I don’t think I’ve bought a book for the cover, but oh, the titles! I’ve picked up so many books just because the title sounded so delicious or intriguing.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. I was the perfect age to read this: 23. I was just figuring out who I wanted to be in the world, and it felt like every day, everything I had been taught about the world was breaking down. And then this book just walked into my life and showed me writing, the actual writing could be the story; each sentence could be a world you could swim in, and you could make anything come alive, you could write important things and find your own language to tell a story. It really blew me open in ways I didn’t understand back then. I’m so grateful I read it. It’s still one of those books I go back to just to page through for its energy.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

The God of Small Things obviously but also All The Light We Cannot See (the series adaption was such a letdown, so don’t watch it). God, these books made me so sad but they made me LOVE reading. I feel so lucky we get to be able to do it.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

I think Station Eleven. It made me feel so alone and so full at the same time. It reminded me after a long time how it feels to fall in love with something you’re reading.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, TV, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

(love this question)
I saw the film Past Lives recently, and it filled me up in a way that the best kind of art can. It captured the spirit of life and love in such an incredible, delicate way. I almost hardly ever see a perfect ending in anything, but that was a perfect ending.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

On a perfect day, I would be able to walk alone in a city with my earphones in, just observing and taking life in. Then I would have a delicious lunch catching up with my loved ones, then bid them adieu and spend the rest of the day reading, preferably in a comfy bed alongside a huge window while it rained outside.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked but never have been? What is your answer?

How does it feel to have your dreams come true?
It feels like a window you’ve been looking through has opened, and the world feels full of wonderous possibility.

What are you working on now?

Something nonfiction about love, and that’s all I’ll say for now.