Review by Pete Freeth
As the British publishing industry continues to strive for greater diversity and cultural representation, initiatives like the #Merky Books New Writer’s Prize are incredibly valuable steps towards the achievement of these goals. The annual prize offers young, underrepresented, and unpublished writers the opportunity to win a publishing contract with Stormzy and Penguin Random House’s imprint #Merky Books – a significant opportunity to further diversify British literature with new and exciting voices. Hafsa Zayyan’s We Are All Birds of Uganda was the winning novel of the inaugural prize and this challenging, yet joyous debut indicates a bright future ahead for both her and the #Merky Book’s prize.
Zayyan’s debut novel focuses on two generations of the same family, Sameer and Hasan, whose stories span 75 years and two continents. Sameer, the younger of the two, is a successful lawyer in present-day London whose high-earning, high-flying career stems from the hard work and sacrifices of a grammar school education in Leicester and a law degree from Cambridge University. Comparatively, his grandfather Hasan’s story begins in 1945, where his business acumen and expertise has granted him much success as a second-generation Indian migrant in Uganda. As the novel progresses, however, we see the shine of both men’s success turn dull as the political and cultural landscapes in which they thrive begin to turn against them.
The novel has an interesting structure, with almost every new chapter bringing a change in perspective between Sameer and Hasan. In Part 1, Sameer’s chapters are pacey reads with a focus on his actions and decisions, rather than descriptions of his emotional responses. So, it is through the glances Sameer gives; the responses (or lack thereof) given to his family, friends and colleagues; and the choices he makes that we come closer to his character. Conversely, Hasan’s chapters are epistolary letters to his deceased wife in which he reveals his innermost thoughts and feelings. Here we gain insight into both Hasan’s responses to the political events unfolding around him and the painful recollection of the life, and wife, he has lost. Notably, though, as the lives of both men become more complicated, and the two drift both towards and away from Uganda, the styles begin to reverse. In tying this stylistic distinction to the structure of the two narratives, Zayyan ensures that the very fabric of the novel is woven into the development of its characters – a truly masterful choice.
Zayyan is similarly adept at handling the complex cultural and racial tensions that underscore both Sameer and Hasan’s stories, as We Are All Birds of Uganda is unafraid to ask big, challenging questions. The novel begins with a smattering of racially charged and Islamophobic micro-aggressions, before giving way to larger acts of racist violence. The pedestrian narration of these occurrences is shocking in-and-of itself, but the ease with which racism slips out of the mouths of many of the novel’s characters is particularly heart breaking. As a white reader it would be all too easy to write these off as fictionalised or exaggerated cases, but the everyday delivery of racism within Zayyan’s prose demonstrates just how deeply such prejudices and privileges are ingrained into our culture. So in laying these issues bare to British readers, Zayyan and #Merky Books continue to position racism as a vital conversation within British society.
Notably though, racism occurs as frequently within the Asian and African communities depicted in We Are All Birds of Uganda as it does in London and Leicester. In particular, Hasan’s story covers the political expulsion of Asians from Uganda following a military coup lead by Idi Amin, a time in which economic tensions between the migrant Asian and native African communities are manifested in racial slurs, boycotts and eventually violence. As you read Hasan’s letters describing these events, you can sense the great deal of care that Zayyan has put into depicting this tumultuous period, and the now-problematic viewpoints and language expressed within. This feeling is justified by the exceptionally detailed “Further Reading” section at the back of the novel, which includes a variety of texts spanning fiction and non-fiction books, academic journals, archives and online resources. So, We Are All Birds of Uganda not only starts several important conversations, but also carefully guides readers through a history many may find unfamiliar and gestures towards the continued work we can do to educate ourselves – an impressive and admirable achievement.
However, this is not to say that We Are All Birds of Uganda is a purely sombre or serious read. Indeed, as Sameer explores his family’s roots in the novel’s second act, Zayyan paints a beautifully luscious image of Uganda filled with pink Bougainvillea, vibrant city markets and diverse wildlife. At a time when summer holidays feel like a distant memory and snow drifts continue to require a thick hat and scarf, exploring Kampala and rural Uganda with both members of the Saeed family brings a joyous warmth that I can only hope to replicate in person in the near future. In many ways, Sameer and Hasan play second fiddle to the real star of the novel: Uganda itself. There are also countless moments of tenderness, vulnerability and spirituality between the novel’s many characters which cannot help but bring a smile to even the most stoic reader’s face, ensuring that no matter how much the ghosts of our past may us weigh down, we will always find hope in love and faith.
So, We Are All Birds of Uganda is a difficult book to summarise. Zayyan’s debut takes bold steps in its difficult subject matter, intricate structure and balance between darkness and light. It is, at times, a difficult read. But it is also a joyous and necessary one. And that, perhaps, is its greatest achievement. I look forward to seeing what exciting new writers the #Merky Books New Writer’s Prize gives voice to next.
Pete Freeth blogs at Meanings are found and loves translated literature so much he’s doing a PhD about it.
Hafsa Zayyan, We Are All Birds of Uganda (#Merky Books, 2021). 978-1529118643, 400pp., hardback.
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