On reclaiming the collective narrative: An interview with Themesha Khan
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On reclaiming the collective narrative: An interview with Themesha Khan

In Themesha Khan’s Un/Beloved, a husband’s love for his wife blinds her to the inevitable; it is only after a shocking discovery that she combs her old memories in search of that which she never took notice of, hoping her rosy past will help explain an unspeakable present. Un/Beloved has been longlisted for The Short Story is Dead, Long Live the Short Story! (2018)

What was the germination of your story?

I feel strongly about my Islamic beliefs and I feel hurt and deeply concerned about the violent acts perpetrated in the name of the religion. To compound the matter, these acts are becoming the norm by which the world is defining what Islam is. I wrote this story because I wanted to present my understanding and share my experiences of the religion. Extremist acts are becoming the face of Islam but this is not my religion. If we don’t take action and reclaim our identity we become complicit in this narrative and the consequence will start hitting us personally as a community. Individual action is needed to reclaim the collective narrative.

In what way would you say your writing is political?

My intent is that I stand up, through my writing, and reject indiscriminate violence in the name of Islam and Muslims of the world. #NotInMyName. My hope is that the beauty of the religion starts being seen as the defining attribute of Islam as opposed to terror attacks. I also hope that it encourages other Muslims to be more vocal about Islam as a religion of gentleness, moderation and balance.

Themesha Khan

The other point I hope to draw attention to in my writing, is that people of faith should not be ashamed or afraid of being religious. It appears to have become the norm that if one is religious then they are not modern, not cool.

What are your opinions on religion, especially regarding how it is talked about in African literature?

When Islam was in its infancy Muslims sought protection from Africa. Idris (Upon him be peace) came to Africa. Our Beloved Hajrah whose actions are revered during the pilgrimage of Haj in Mecca is African and Bilkis, Queen of Sheba and wife of Sulaiman (Upon him be peace) is African. Africa is praised and exalted in Islam to the extent that our Beloved Messenger Mohamed (Peace be upon him) glorified the status of Africa. These are teachings of Islam that celebrate Africa and yet are not sufficiently referenced in the literature, both fiction and non-fiction. Africa has a large Muslim population and these themes of identity build our connection with the religion.

Secondly, due to colonialism and extremism, religion has become a front or a mask for human aspirations. This often ties religion with extreme acts of violence on the African continent and this comes through in African literature. Extremism is the reality and should be a part of our narratives, but it should not be the only voice on this topic as the majority of Africans are faithful and moderate practitioners of Islam. But because their voices are not sensational, are therefore drowned.

A third point I would like to raise is regarding the challenge that Africa as a continent is divided by language; local languages, English, Portuguese, Arabic in the North, French in the West. This makes it difficult to have a shared narrative. Yet the need exists to share our stories and reclaim our history. This is not because we are late awakeners to this narrative but our voices have been suppressed in the past. As African citizens we need to embrace this heritage and we all need to be responsible in this endeavour, not only in the themes of religion, but in a variety of ideas.

… the action starts with me and the consequence ends with me.

Themesha Khan

The voice of African writers has been, in the past, mainly published by non-African publishing houses, but with the rise of African publishers we now have an opportunity to tell our own stories on our own terms. Hence African publishing houses give us a channel to address the above mentioned points.

What lesson are you hoping readers will take from your story?

While as a nation we celebrate the concept of Ubuntu as a buzzword, we have to question whether we really act in a way that is selfless and in the interests of our community as a whole. This concept of honest self-examination is difficult for all of us yet critical to our success as a society. We have to examine our lives in a broader context and determine how our actions are supporting or inhibiting this wider landscape. We can’t wait for someone else to make a change in the world. We have to have the perspective that “the action starts with me and the consequence ends with me”.

What advice would you give to beginning writers?

Firstly, I must admit, I am very much a beginner writer when it comes to prose. But my advice within the bounds of my limited experience is to write about what you know. It is easier to write about what you can relate to. Write from your inner self and write truthfully. I believe that people will respond well to a heartfelt and honest approach.