Co-winner of the first ever #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize, Hafsa Zayyan’s highly anticipated debut novel We Are All Birds of Uganda is a tale of love, loss and what it means to find home, and should definitely be at the top of your 2021 TBR!
And to celebrate the publication of her debut, we had the chance to ask the wonderful Hafsa Zayyan some questions — you can find her incredibly insightful answers below!
What inspired you to start writing We Are All Birds of Uganda?
The New Writer’s Prize launched by MerkyBooks. The tagline for the competition was that they wanted to hear stories that weren’t being told. The story of the South Asian expulsion from Uganda in the early 70s was a story I myself had only recently become familiar with, and was aware that many of my generation hadn’t heard much about – despite it being a major part of British history.
What’s one thing you would like readers to take away from We Are All Birds of Uganda?
Ultimately the book is about issues faced by immigrants, and the parallels between issues faced by immigrants today, compared with 50 years ago. Things have moved on, of course, but to what extent are we still affected by intergenerational trauma, and how has our understanding of racism changed? How much have we really changed? I’d encourage readers to critically analyse their own experiences and to talk as much as possible about the book’s themes.
Name one book you wish you could read again for the first time…
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. Loved it.
What is one book that you cannot wait to read in 2021?
So much good stuff coming out in 2021! White Ivy by Susie Yang sounds very interesting – it’s also a story about the immigrant experience (Chinese American).
What is one essential you need when writing? e.g. a snack, music/soothing sounds, a cosy setup…
A pen and paper. Sounds random or maybe even obvious, but I don’t use it for writing – I use it for doodling while I write! I’m a very visual person – I like to sketch out in a graphic form my character’s arcs, timelines, family trees, plot themes… the list goes on.
How did you juggle a full-time job as a lawyer and writing your first novel?
With difficulty and sacrifice! As a lawyer, I work well to deadlines, and so having a deadline in place to submit the first draft of the manuscript helped – I dedicated every spare minute I had after work on weekdays, and full weekends to writing the novel. It meant a lot of cancelled social engagements and holidays that became writing holidays – but it was only for a short while, as I produced the first draft in the space of six months.
What was one of the most surprising or interesting things you learned in creating your books?
That I could write a book at all! It was such a delight seeing it go from an idea to a full manuscript and I will never forget the day I received the first bound, proof copies. I still have to pinch myself to make sure they are real!
I learned a lot about the South Asian expulsion and the history of Uganda while writing – the historical narrative in particular required quite a lot of research. The 20th century is one of the most fascinating periods of history – so much seems to have happened in the space of a century. One of the more surprising things I learned, for example, was about the world’s fluctuating approaches to immigration during this time – from the idea of total freedom of movement in the earlier part of the century, to the creation of the concept of a worldwide passport after WWI, to the restriction of immigration and the consequent concept of “statelessness” of the latter parts of the century. So many changes in the space of 100 years!
Can you share anything about your next project/anything you would like to work on in the future?
I’m very excited to announce I’m teaming up with a bunch of incredibly talented Nigerian writers including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Abi Daré, Inua Ellams and Yomi Adegoke among others to contribute to “Of this our country”, a non-fiction collection exploring Nigeria through its writers. The collection is available to pre-order now and is scheduled to publish in September this year.
Hafsa Zayyan is a writer and dispute resolution lawyer based in London. She won the inaugural #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize in 2019. We Are All Birds of Uganda is her debut novel, inspired by the mixed background from which she hails. She studied Law at the University of Cambridge and holds a masters’ degree from the University of Oxford.
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