Kenya-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.