Sultan Somjee: I think of my novel as an ethnographic fiction

SultanSomjeeKenya-born Sultan Somjee is a Canada-based ethnographer and writer. He studied product design but soon his interest shifted from designing products to what stories were told in products – about people’s lives and how they reflected on the individuals, their families, ethnic and faith groups and in general on the human society. He pursued his interests through his MA and PhD,  studying art and material culture.

Bead Bai is his first novel (read excerpts here).  The novel is about Sakina, an embroidery artist growing up in the shanty town of Indian Nairobi, a railroad settlement in British East Africa in the early 1900s. In her tormented married life, while becoming a woman, Sakina finds comfort in the art of the beadwork of the Maasai. Bead Bai is one woman’s story inspired by lives of Asian African women who sorted out, arranged and generally looked after huge quantities of ethnic beads in urban and isolated rural parts of the British East African Empire.

In this interview with Kitaab’s editor Zafar Anjum, Somjee talks about his life as an ethnographer and writer and what led him to write Bead Bai.

You are an ethnographer by training. What set you on the road to being a writer? 

Ethnography is about writing narratives. These narratives come from listening to stories and through observations not only of rituals and daily happenings in a community but also through keeping your senses like of touch and smell, open to what could inform you about the families, events and locations. Human conditions in general.  Listening and observation inform the ethnographer about how people speak and what they see how they see. There is juxtapositioning of facts and perceptions. Myths and realities are the same. What the ethnography subjects say and how they speak is called dialogue in a novel. Then there are observations often in situations where the ethnographer is an active participant. That’s research for the writer and every writer needs that. Observations of let’s say gestures inform the unsaid.

One important methodology in ethnography is called participant observation. One early father of ethnography called Geertz said ethnography is ‘thick descriptions’ or descriptions on descriptions. Descriptions paint situations and community make up. They can also give insights through multiple angles written in words. In a novel descriptions situate complex individual characters, and people are complex, and their interactions are complex. Also cultural artefacts or material culture is an important and telling facet of ethnography because these objects act as symbols and often are metaphors in people’s lives. I use ethnographic methods to unearth stories from underneath layers of our complex lives and character types, and circumstances that manipulate them. Ethnography also shapes my writing style, I think. Sometimes I think of my novel as an ethnographic fiction, it’s also a historical fiction which is a better known category. So you see, it has not been a complete change from writing ethnography to writing a novel. In Bead Bai stories evolve from artefacts and from storytellers very much like if I were writing ethnography. Oral literature is a big part in ethnography as well. But I must confess I had to do a lot of working on emotions and imagining, plot and other formulaic points on writing a novel. One reason I went into creative writing was that it gave me more freedom than writing annotated scholastic papers. I could be personal and give my insights because fictions don’t have to be substantiated like academic articles or books I have freedom to imagine and to create yet I can borrow research methods and certain writing skills from ethnography that I enjoyed working with as tools in the past.

Tell us a little about your background. You were born in Kenya and now you live in Canada. Did your Indian roots inform your writing? 

Yes, I was born in Kenya and so was my father. My great grandfather arrived in Mombasa from India in 1902 and while sitting on a mat under a tree, he sold beads to the neighbouring ethnic people. Socially as Indians we lived in exclusive religious communities as Hindus, Muslims, Parsees, Goans, Jains, Sikhs, Ismailis and others in our own rigid enclaves of religions and castes. Thus certainly my writing is informed by my Indian roots. But the Indian roots were nourished by the African environment, African history and African people all around us. We breathed African air and saw the African sky for three and more generations, some from 1850s. There was little person to person social interaction between races under the apartheid British colonial system during my childhood. But after independences in 1960s schools and social clubs were open to all races. That was my youth. However, the presence of our sense of our roots as Asians – Indians are called Asians in East Africa, was always there. The sense came with our beliefs, foods, dressing styles and languages. Visibly we were different yet part of a larger society and that stayed in me. I talk about this unique Diaspora double life experience being Asian and African in Bead Bai. Hence I consider my heritage and cultural make up as Asian African, the term that is increasingly used to refer to Asians (Indians, Pakistanis, Bangla Desi, Sinhalese, Baluchis, Afghans, Malays, Chinese and Indonesians) who came as slaves, coolies, merchants, tradesmen and professionals to East and South Africa, and the islands of the Indian Ocean. Asian African as an identity is also wonderfully inclusive of a large number of mixed Asian and African families, a heritage. I immigrated to Canada with my family in 2013. I live in Burnaby in British Columbia and write from there.

Why did you choose the story of a bead-maker as the subject of your first novel? Was there something larger than the story that inspired you?

BeadBaiYes there was. Indian merchants explored markets for bead preferences and then they introduced the bead trade on a large scale, and carried it out in Eastern Africa for almost a century. They were not bead makers but bead traders. But this story goes largely unknown by history yet beads today provide significant aesthetic material for an expression of indigenous African art. Much less acknowledged are the Indian women called the Bais, who looked after the stock of beads. Hence Bead Bai the title of my book. It was tedious work for men folk to sort out, arrange and display bead samples for the ethnic people who came to the bead shop and needed not just to see but also to know the beads with their own fingers. So they pushed it on to the women. The Bais understood the sense of the visual was as important as the tactile to the ethnic Africans. I was inspired by the lives of these women. Our forefathers returned to their ancestral villages in India to get married and they usually returned with girls from the age of nine to thirteen as their wives. I always wondered how these Indian girls from rural Kutch and Gujarat grew up among the tribal people in the African geography that I roamed while on research trips from 1970s. Often the bais lived isolated in remote one store once a week market centre. There they become women, mothers and died as grandmothers. That was in the first half of the 20th Century. They raised families in the interior and often they had many children in the ‘bush’ from six to fifteen that I know of. I think the role of the Indian woman in the East African art history inspired me especially when I recall seeing them sitting on the verandah of the stores meticulously working with beads. What also inspired me is how little understanding we have of African bead art and ethnic artists who are often women.

When did you start working on the novel? How long did it take you to finish it?

I started to plan, make notes, research and to write and delete a few pages at a time in late 2003. Bead Bai was finally released in early 2013. I would say it took me around nine years.

Did you have to do any research on the subject or was it something that you already knew about it?

I had to do a lot of research on stories I had heard in families, in the community and while I curated exhibitions on Asian Africans in East Africa. I had the first hand material from my ethnographies I had previously studied or worked on in the field.  I lived in Maasailand both in an Indian bead merchant’s household and in homesteads. But writing the novel challenged me to seek other aspects of history and the environment, and to look into the intimate lives of people less as subjects of ethnography and more in terms of their psychic make up, human feelings, actions and reactions in their relationships. There was also much research I did to put in historical contexts to the chapters in Bead Bai.

 What kinds of stories are you drawn to?

I am drawn to stories about human hardships and interactions of cultural societies in way of conflicts, compromises and accommodation. Stories of how nature, art and objects inform characters, history and society also interest me.

What books have had the greatest impact on you?

There are many such books. They change from time to time, yet their cumulative effect would be there at the back of my mind. To mention a few. I take note of books by Amitav Ghosh, an ethnographer turned writer. His books such as In an Ancient Land are between ethnography and a novel. I thinks the material largely comes from his PhD work in ethnography. I ponder on the storytelling style of Camilla Gibbs, also an ethnographer turned writer. Her book Sweetness in my Belly is drawn from her PhD thesis in ethnography. Then there is Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden that’s written from a Canadian First Nation’s point of view. Then there is Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, protégé of the great storyteller Chinua Achebe, about an upper middle class family caught up in the Biafra War in Nigeria. The horrendous war because the French wanted the oil in the delta. I was fascinated, and that would have clearly affected me, reading Maximum City by Suketu Mehta and Behind the Beautiful Forever by Katherine Boo. I read them back to back as urban ethnographies. Thick descriptions that they are.

What qualities are necessary to be a writer?

Persistence and constant research which comes from love for observation of details and listening with empathy, both without being judgemental. That comes from habit that the writer could develop in time. It’s much like being a participant observer as in the study of ethnography. I think a writer must also feel a constant need to write a sentence out of his/her thoughts, especially to express emotions and the intoned unknown in conversations. The common word is being insightful. Something that does not go away. But also being sensitive and compassionate  is important both to the feelings of those who feel emotions like humiliation and those who put them on others and there are many ways they are expressed, directly and subtly. The writer would have sensitivities that help to draw deeper meanings from sights and sounds, events and journeys, nature and personalities than just what appears on the surface. He/she would be an artist at heart to write art. I feel the writer also must advocate for a better world, greater understanding and equality among genders, races, classes, ethnicities, religions and for social justice while developing stories and characters.

Your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?

Well, I think what I value is what I learned from writers about editors. That writer-editor relationship is important for it makes or will not make a ‘good novel’.  That’s balancing between yourself and the editor. MG Vassanji once said to me, “Be careful of editors. They can destroy your prose.” I always keep that in mind. It shows how a writer must protect his/her art even when the editors don’t get it. Often editors go by what’s conventional or good English or by the formula of what would fly at the time.  It’s like fashion that come and go or fast food. That can destroy the writer’s confidence and subsume creativity. It can also hamper freedom of writing styles, the art of writing communication from progressing, discovering unexplored regions especially when in the Diaspora we come from more than one language experience. And that’s rich in that we know there are multiple ways to expressing one idea and creative language making drawing from diversity that surround us. Many of us are not text book speakers of two to four languages but community cultural speakers. And English may not be our first language as in my case. It may even be our fourth language and writing in ethnic English as fourth language can also be beautiful in that the rhythm changes, meanings of words change and sentences get constructed differently that what we learn as school English to pass exams. This I feel needs to be explored. Then Anosh Irani once said, “Every writer has a weakness that a good editor can see and correct.” That to me is a writer’s honesty. Few writers would admit that to their readers. And then there was a sentence by a journalist James Grainger in Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper, about David Davinder the writer and editor – I have a habit of jotting down things that concern me at the moment. “Luckily, Davinder is not shy about showing readers that behind every prize winning novel lies a well-beaten trail of infighting, guesswork, compromises, and ego games.” That tells me about skills put in by someone like the writer-editor David Davinder behind a novel both as an editor and as a writer. It’s his professionalism that would also come from his writing world. There is also honesty there because it’s the writer who is promoted and not the team behind him/her. And that’s marketing. Nevertheless, it counsels me in that having done the draft, it would be a team effort to the prize. And a good book will not make it if there is no marketting or connections. How many of us know that or would admit it?

What do you plan to write next?

I am working on the next book and have two more writing projects in tow. I am researching on, gleefully indulging in imagination, brooding over and writing everyday for some hours. I also make copious notes and drafts that I will not always use. The passion is there and more adrelinine comes from reader responses to Bead Bai. But it’s too early to talk more about the next book, I am that sort of a person who believes my ideas will fly away if I speak about them publicly while they are fermented to become good wine.

One comment

  • Many Kenyans have a rich background of multiple languages,rich interactions with people of various cultures and backgrounds. Only a few people like Dr. Sultan Somji can bring all these threads together and weave them into a rich tapestry with beads woven in of many colours and shades.

    Bead Bai shows the sensitivity and patient observation. A must read. To read slowly and savour the rhythmn of this beautiful prose. The writing brings to life the landscape of Kenya and the pulse of the people who live in it.

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