First Published at hikayaat.com on 15 Jul 2020.
As we talk about Dr. Sairish Hussain’s debut novel ‘The Family Tree’, we learn how much of the themes of the book are woven into issues and experiences that are at the heart of Sairish and Bradford itself. This interview was refreshing, full of laughter and lots of “yes I agree with yous”. It ended up being a chat on some pretty hot topics that are entwined with Sairish’s laidback character; intelligence; love; humour; and authenticity.
Tell us who “Sairish Hussain” is in a few lines?
Shall I do like my little autobiography thing? [both laugh]
So, I’m born and brought up in Bradford, went to University of Huddersfield to study English language and literature. I got a first in my degree, so that meant I got a scholarship to pursue a masters and that’s when I started my creative writing, it wasn’t a taught degree, it was a research degree. That’s when I started writing ‘The Family Tree’ – the first 20,000 words. So then I got a distinction and I progressed on to PhD study with a scholarship and yes, I actually wrote my book as part of my PhD. [laughs] I kind of killed two birds with one stone. [both laugh]
What was that pivotal moment in you getting published?
I met Lisa Milton [executive publisher of HQstories and Harper Collins] at the Bradford Literature Festival, she’s one of the few big publishers that comes up to Bradford. And we clicked. We ended up spending the whole day together.
I waited for her at the end of her panel like a lot of people and everyone kind of like pitched their ideas. I waited till the end. And then I spoke to her and told her about my book. She said, “should we just go get a coffee?” Then we ended up having lunch and walking around Bradford for the whole day. But then she said, “look, you know, I have to say, I have to love a book. I know we’ve clicked but I have to love your book. And not just me. My whole team has to love the book.”
I honestly thought I’ll just get a little bit of feedback from her. And then she sends me this email, oh my god, a few weeks later, saying that she absolutely loved it. And it was outstanding.
That was the best moment of my whole life.
Publishing was the end goal, but where did it all start, from a young age?
I was obsessed with reading and I did like writing too – you know Roald Dahl and the Harry Potter generation. I was that cool at school, I was known for how good I was at English. I’d like help people with their essays etc. My school wasn’t like the best school, it had its problems it was in special measures at times, and it was 90% Asian.
So I don’t know whether I was just super good at English or I was just better, right? But my teacher’s kind of picked up on it and really encouraged me. I did really well at GCSE and everyone in the family expected me you know to go do pharmacy. No actually I’m going to go do English Literature! I’ve had people say, not family, but others have said “What are you going to do with that? Where’s that going to get you?”.
Your novel describes a community that is often perceived as negative and perhaps even “Othered”. What were your motivations?
Growing up, there was a constant bombardment of negativity when it comes to Muslims like in the media and film, literature, TV – there is just constant negativity, constant stereotypes that were just doing my head in. The focus is always on “Oh, well, this person became radicalised – so what happened?” Let’s follow their journey. Well, no. What about the people that stayed at home and went to work? Or had to watch TV, watch the news and then go into work the next day and worry about what people are going to be saying about those people. You obviously don’t find those people interesting or feel like they deserve any time or a voice or anything.
In the media, it’s basically like you’re either a cultural victim or you’re a liberated cultural escapee and you’ve become anglicised. You’ve got the White guy and you’ve started drinking and you’re like, completely in order to become liberated. You have to lose your family, and your culture and your heritage, or you’re the other way around and you’re completely trapped by your family and your culture and your heritage. Sick of it and wanted to show a real image of a British Pakistani Muslim family.
It was surprising that a novel set in Bradford didn’t have more than the odd racist slur in it?
I think I just wanted to focus more on those kind of micro aggressions, you know, and because people can very easily condemn “P**i” – “oh that’s bad, oh that’s awful”. They wouldn’t do that, but yet they would make their colleagues and friends feel totally totally uncomfortable without realising that they’re doing anything wrong. Usually, you know, they’ll say things and make comments. I always felt that hurts more.
But the other thing about Bradford, though we’ve got our problems right, but the idea that no one talks to each other and no one relates to each other and it’s all segregated is not the case. There are problems, yes. When I went to uni, I was with people from all over the UK, some of them didn’t have Asian friends. Even though there’s friction at times, we actually get along a lot better than you think – they know more about us. And we know more about them than others. When I was at school, the White girls put our shalwar kameez on for non-uniform day. They come to our house, ate roti with us.
There seems to be additional pressures on writers of colour to portray specific narratives, is this the case?
No…I went to my supervisor and he asks for my story idea. At first, I was too shy – I was mumbling but he encouraged me. I said, look, I know exactly what I don’t want. And this is what I want. And he was hundred percent behind me. He was just as passionate as me to make this happen and he (Dr Michael Stewart) kept calling it “a counter narrative”.
It was a rollercoaster ride of a story without a marriage in sight, was this intentional?
My supervisor literally said to me that no one fancies anyone in this book. [both laugh]
Yeah, definitely everything was calculated with Zahra! Zahra literally had zero romance – a complete absence of a love story. You know, like with Beyonce’s Lemonade album – all the anger that she was displaying was centred around a man because the man cheated on her. (By the way, not bashing Beyonce here.) Is that the only time female anger is displayed, because of a man? Why? Why can’t there be anger about politics, about the state of the world and all those kinds of things? Why can’t they do that? They can. That’s what Zahra is “angry” about. She’s interested in boys obviously, but that’s just not where her head is entirely.
Zahra uses writing as a way to cope with her identity, religion, the news, politics, questions about her virginity, race, and family life. It is almost like a home for her. How much did you draw on your experiences?
A lot. [both laugh]
I find it easier to communicate through writing, than talking about things unless I feel safe, like now. I’ve been in situations where people have said things. And I’m like, whoa. I’m the only brown person here; should I start a debate and say something or shall eat my sandwich? I’ll tell you, I’ll always choose my sandwich. [more laughs]
So, through Zahra I said a lot of things that I wanted to say and convey what a lot of young women are feeling. Are you not sick of like people asking you about the hijab? I don’t wear a hijab, but my friends do and I’m absolutely fed up of it. And people telling you how oppressed you are – “you’re really oppressed”. I’m telling you, I’m not. Then I have people saying things like “oh, you’re different! You’re not like them.”, which I don’t like because I am them. People feel like they’ve got a free pass to say things to you. Especially at that time, there were so many terrorist attacks going on like the Charlie Hebdo one.
Your novel, no doubt is paving a new wave in British publishing. What advice would you give to aspiring writers of the same genre i.e. British Pakistani Muslim novels?
I would say, don’t feel like you have to write about the things that you think you have to write about. With my university teaching and just interest, I seek out what the Asian kids are writing about. And I just get quite disheartened because a lot of them do the same forced marriage and radicalization stuff. These ideologies – it’s like you’ve been bombarded with it constantly, you think that that’s what you have to write. But break all the rules, do whatever you want to do, like write what you know – that’s a writing tip one on one.
And definitely the other thing is – add complication. Adding complication into characters is what makes them human and stops them from becoming crappy stereotypes. You need to complicate people; people are not black and white whereas we’ve always been presented as black and white. You know, and we are very colourful actually!
Do you have a writing routine?
So, I write 7am-12pm and I have to be strict about it because sometimes I can sleep in. With the book I did write quite quickly, I was like a machine to be honest with you. I had the end goal in mind. I really, really was going to try and get it published. And obviously, that was based on feedback I was getting from my supervisors.
Your next novel?
It’s an unlikely friendship story between a granddad and his granddaughter. So he’s an elderly Asian man and he’s going through some kind of delayed trauma from partition. He ends up with his 16-year-old stroppy teenage granddaughter that he has to look after. It’s just basically a story of how they connect and learn about each other and become friends.
A must read book for women?
I read ‘Expectation’ by Anna Hope recently which I thought was brilliant and the women were all hot messes which I’m totally here for – that’s a contemporary one. I read ‘And Still I rise’ by Maya Angelou at school which is a poetry collection. I was such an empowering read for teenage me. Loved it.
The Roald Dahl books
The most comforting meal?
Mum’s chicken curry and grandma’s parathay
The best coffee shop in Bradford?
Cake’ole and The Waterstones’ coffee shop