I wanted to preserve the ‘sounds’ of my childhood in my novels – Sumayya Lee

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South African novelist Sumayya Lee’s debut novel, The Story of Maha, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book Prize in 2008. The Sequel, Maha Ever After was also popular among readers. Both books provide a unique insight into the lives of the Indian community of South Africa. In this interview, she talks about writing the novels, race and discrimination and a possible third Maha novel.


The Story of Maha gives us a rare glimpse into the Indo-African community of South Africa. Was this a sort of response to an absence of this community in mainstream literature out of SA?

Not an absence, but a severe shortage in a community that is still working to integrate itself fully.

I grew up on a diet of foreign literature, stories from places I had never visited, about cultures that were completely alien to my experience. I was equally enthralled by the stories around me – ordinary people with extraordinary stories – and I’ve always wanted to capture some of that and share it with the world.

Durbanese, if I may use that word, runs throughout the book. The book is heavily garnished with Durban slang. How important was the thought of grounding this story in Durban to you while you wrote it?

It was crucial to ground The Story of Maha in Durban. My children were quite young when I was writing The Story of Maha and in retrospect I believe I wanted to preserve the ‘sounds’ of my childhood for them.

I have always been fascinated by language and its use – and local slang, thanks to apartheid and its Group Areas Act is uniquely delightful with its influences from multiple languages. I wanted to capture the period in which the novel is set, with all of its linguistic specificity.

As localised as the story is, it was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize Best First Book for Africa. What was that experience like? Was it a vindication that local stories can have global ramifications in some ways?

Page 36 (9)I don’t know about ramifications, but I do think all stories have global reach – because no matter how ‘local’ our stories, our shared human experiences shine through them.

I was pleased that The Story of Maha found a space as an African story. Shortlisted also means the national libraries of the Commonwealth all have copies of The Story of Maha – which is rewarding.

For many people, this book will be the first glimpse into the Indian community of South Africa and I dare say it is an unflattering image we encounter because of your treatment of issues of race, religion and caste. What has been the reaction from the Indian community back home?

I hope that The Story of Maha has conveyed the complexity of the political consciousness of the Indo-African community.

Mixed reactions – many enjoyed the Maha books and then there are those who actively discourage reading them and wish to burn copies.

Apartheid and race relations are a strong motif in The Story of Maha and bigotry and prejudice also make an appearance in the sequel, Maha Ever After. How important was it for you to address these issues in these books?

It was an important part of the story – Maha is mixed-race and experiences the day-to-day implications of Apartheid – but it’s also a reminder of how far we need to go to develop good race relations. The fact that Maha’s socio-cultural background involves a strong patriarchal system implies that this would also make up part of her struggle

Did you find it ironic, as I did, that the Indians who are being discriminated against are in turn being discriminatory against others, especially looking at the background of Maha’s mixed race and the reactions to it?

Sadly ironic but I think it is part of the human condition to be capable of oppression while being oppressed. I have always found discrimination deeply disturbing. I understand that previous generations went through years of colonial rule followed by apartheid, so this is still something we need to work on. The new SA is only 21 so this is true for most people scarred by Apartheid.

When the character of Maha occurred to you, in what form did she come? And what has been the attraction that has kept you growing with her, because I understand there is a third book in the works?

I always knew I was going to write about growing up in Durban, during Apartheid – in that regard, on some level, Maha was always brewing.  So when I sat down to write, Maha’s voice was the loud and unsurprisingly sassy voice of a teenager.

I did not think I would write a third Maha novel, however she decided to give voice about a year ago – and even then, I dismissed it as a one off. But she persisted and so I’ve been forced to give her some attention – even though I’m not sure where she’s going.

Considering that Maha’s early life was structured around marrying a ‘suitable boy’ and the consequences of this in the second book, and looking at your personal story, is there any intersection between your story and Maha’s?

Apparently only female writers get asked this question. I’ve been divorced, so yes I understand the issues around such matters within the community. But Maha is a fictitious creation – and while our stories are to some extent shaped by our values, her life’s path is unfettered by my personal experiences.

Men too have been asked that question, myself included. But was writing something you have  always wanted to do?Page 36 (5) Page 36 (4)

At some point during adolescence I was struck with the conviction that our stories are also worth telling and sharing with the world and I decided that I would tell them – although it took two more decades before I actually did.

How has living in the Diaspora affected how you look at issues back home, especially through the eyes of a writer?

Living in the diaspora has given me some critical distance from the issues. Perhaps more a case of forgetting about some and each time I go back I am always startled when some things don’t appear to have changed much, while others have… giving rise to new issues.

How soon before we have the next instalment of Maha?

It’s certainly in the works, but I really couldn’t say. Ideally I would like everyone to meet this version on the anniversary of The Story of Maha…so do hold thumbs.


There is so much more that films can do – Stephanie Okereke-Linus


Stephanie Linus

Stephanie Linus

Nollywood star actress, Stephanie Okereke-Linus just premiered her heart-wrenching movie DRY in Abuja, which tells a powerful story about vesico Vaginal Fistula. In this interview, the director and lead actress in the movie talks about her cause, the joy of producing the movie and her pregnancy.

(First published in Daily Trust of August 30, 2015)




You just premiered your latest movie, Dry, in Abuja. It is a powerful movie. Why did you want to make this movie?


I made the movie because I just had to. There is this strong desire in everyone to use his or her talents and resources to drive forward a strong passion. And that’s what happened with DRY. The plight of women living with Vesico Vaginal Fistula is something I’ve been drawn to for several years. Since I first heard about the condition while studying at the university, I’ve had a yearning to raise awareness about this condition and educate as many people as possible on how it can be prevented. I’ve also been passionate about informing those who are ignorant that repair surgeries can be used to correct this while offering as many free surgeries as I can through my charity foundation. Making the movie is one of the many ways I’ve used to lend my voice to this cause.


A lot of people in the audience shed a tear or two. Was this something you aimed for with the movie?


DRY has a deep message and I’m glad that it resonated deeply within the audience. The characters in the movie expressed different emotions. Sometimes they made you laugh, sometimes they made you cry. I guess most people were shocked to see themselves cry, especially the men. They weren’t expecting it. I wanted the message to hit home and hit hard, and if people had to shed tears for this to happen, then I’d say my work is done.


You spoke passionately about the plight of women with VVF and you have set up a foundation to help. At what point did you realise it was important for you to do something about this situation rather than just lament about it?


Nothing gets solved by just talking about it. I realised this a long time ago. When I first started doing some research about VVF, I met and interacted with lots of girls and women who had this condition and there was one thing I saw clearly in their eyes – a strong desire to be DRY again. They had been shamed, ridiculed, separated from the society and wanted to feel whole again. You don’t achieve this by just lamenting; you achieve this by carrying out the repair surgeries that would fix the condition. I knew early enough that I had to do something to help as many women as I could, and thankfully, some corporate organisations (like SNEPCO & Diamond Bank) that I approached for support shared my passion and donated towards our medical pool efforts at the Extended Hands Foundation.


You also used the movie premiere to launch an appeal for donations to the Extended Hands foundation. How do you intend to use these donations to reach people with this condition?

At the Extended Hands Foundation, we have a robust plan to cover the six geo-political zones in the country with our awareness programs and free repair surgeries for women with VVF in the coming year. Already, we have carried out free repair surgeries for over 80 women in Ibadan, Kwara and Ogoja. We want to do more as there are still hundreds of thousands of girls and women living with VVF in Nigeria. We will partner with VVF Centers and Teaching Hospitals across the country where the surgeries will be carried out. We will also donate medical and surgical equipment to these hospitals for the care of the women.

Another major thing we are going to focus on is education. We want to educate as many people as we can in the rural communities about how people actually get VVF and how they can protect themselves from falling victims.

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What were the challenges of making the movie?

First, I must say that every challenge encountered was a stepping stone to success as nothing good comes easy. From the challenge of getting adequate funding, to finding the right location and then getting the best world-class team to work with. We often had to shoot under harsh weather conditions and in an environment that had some adverse effect on some of our team members from the USA. But at the end of the day, everyone gave it their best shot and we were able to overcome the challenges with kind support from several well-meaning people and organisations.


One of the most interesting things about the movie is that it features Liz Benson-Ameye. How did you convince her to star in the movie and what was the experience of working with her?


While I was writing the script, I was also thinking about people who could play the different roles and make the characters come alive. One person that stood out to me for the role of The Matron was Liz Benson-Ameye. At that time, she had not been on a movie set for several years and I thought it was going to be tough to convince her. But thankfully, the strong message of the script and her role did the convincing. Coincidentally, she had been thinking of returning to acting but hadn’t come across the right kind of script. When she read DRY, she knew this was the script she had been looking for.


She did look great in the movie. What roles did donor agencies play in making this movie possible?


I am very grateful to the several organisations that lent their time and resources to making this movie a success. This film was supported by the Office of the Special Adviser to the President on MDGs Nigeria, Aberystwyth University Wales, Diamond Bank, Ford Foundation, Project Act Nollywood, USAID Acquired Fistula Project, Vlisco and more.


Zubaidat Ibrahim Fagge delivered some powerful performances in the movie. Were you surprised by what she brought to the screen considering this was her first role in the big screen?

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Oh, yes I was! She is a very talented girl who is going to go places and it was so beautiful and rewarding to be the one to unveil her to the world. I also have to thank Hauwa Maina, the lady who played the role of her mother in the movie. She was the one that brought her and I knew I could direct and get her into character because it’s her first time acting. Zubaidat is a natural, and she brought life to her character in the movie.


Interestingly, this movie also highlights the collaboration between Nollywood and Kannywood. What was it like working with these actors?


It was very rewarding working with every actor in DRY. I personally don’t like putting a distinction in the names by using Nollywood and Kannywood. We are all actors and everyone played their roles passionately. DRY had a very healthy mix of talented actors from different parts of Nigeria and abroad.


Wasn’t it ironic that in the movie, the mother and the daughter suffered the same fate? Was this something you aimed at?


It is not uncommon to see mother and child suffering from the same medical condition. When barbaric cultural practices and no access to quality maternal health care are suffered by both mother and child, the consequences are very similar. In the movie, both mother and child got pregnant at very young ages and were forced to endure agonizing labour pains at home without access to proper health care. The distinction here is that one got repaired successfully and it was too late for the other. Sadly, this is the true story of thousands of women today.


In a scene in the movie, Dr Zara confronts a government official who assures her that the government is dealing with the situation. To what extent do you think this attitude has contributed to the prevalence of this condition?


There is no doubt about it, the government needs to do more in several ways. From facilitating education and enlightenment programmes to curb the situation as well as providing affordable health care for those already affected, enabling laws – there are loop holes everywhere. But DRY seeks to do much more than just telling the government to do more. It tells everyone in the family unit and the larger society that we all have roles to play. In DRY, we can see the shortcomings of several members of the society; it tells us where the parents, aunties, friends, sisters and others have gone wrong. So it’s not just the government that needs to deal with the situation, everyone has a role to play.


Clearly you want this movie to be seen by as many people as possible. What next after the cinema release? How do you plan to get this movie to the people in the rural areas where these situations are prevalent?


We will be taking our mobile cinemas to several local governments across the country, especially the rural areas where people need more education about the importance of quality maternal health care for pregnant women. We will also be visiting schools and organising enlightening workshops in communities where such information is most needed.


It must be tough promoting this movie considering that you are expecting. How are you coping?


Well, it is quite challenging, especially when I have to be in certain places physically, (Hey! I’m not complaining because I thank God for this amazing gift), but my team is very much active in the promotion. DRY was screened at the Bentonville Film Festival in the USA some months back and the Editor and Co-producer, Jane Lawalata, was there to represent us and pick up an award on my behalf. Also, thanks to technology, I can participate in several conversations without being there physically. I’d definitely do more next year. We will be embarking on an African tour with film next year.


Would you say this is the most meaningful movie you have made to date?


Every movie I have been a part of has had a strong meaning and has helped shaped my career to where it is now. I do not take any project for granted. DRY is very dear to my heart and would always remain so. But people should go to the cinema and see DRY-support this movie.


Nollywood has undergone a lot of changes and we have what some people term the “New Nollywood”. What are your thoughts on these developments?


Change is the only constant thing in life and when that change is positive, it gives room for growth and development. We are seeing better quality movies in the industry because some people have dared to raise the norm. Some years back, we didn’t have our movies showing in the cinemas, but now things are different in a better way. It’s a good development.


Is it right to assume that after this movie, you will take time off for motherhood. How much are you looking forward to it?


I’m so excited about it and I’m very grateful to God for this opportunity. My child and my family Page 36are very dear to me and would always have my full attention. It doesn’t matter where I am or what I’m doing, they will always come first.