Alhambra Women’s Network interviews author – Sabera Ahsan
Alhambra Women’s Network interviews author – Sabera Ahsan
“Laila, Salma, and Aliya navigate their way through parental expectations and matters of the heart. Set in 1990s London, Mothballs and Coconut is a story of love, friendship and betrayal across two generations.”
AWN: What inspired you to write the novel?
Ever since I was a child, I loved to write stories. When I was 17, my first play was performed at the Contact Theatre in Manchester. It was about second-generation experiences of growing up in the UK. When I think of my 20s, I could see around me many of the young people I’d grown up with struggling with the issue of finding the person that they were going to spend the rest of their life with. Being a second-generation Asian born in the UK, I realised finding love came with rules, social norms, the hierarchy of rule makers, takers and breakers. I wasn’t that impressed with the fact that happiness could lie in the hands of others and so I decided I wanted to be master of my destiny, but also, I wanted to document what was going on around me and the experiences of family and friends.
AWN: Summarise the novel in a few words for our readers.
The novel Mothballs and Coconut is about three very different South Asian girls who live together in a house in London and the struggles they experience in their quest to find love, settle down, and build their careers. Many of the second-generation South Asians who grew up experiencing their first taste of adulthood in the 1980s and 1990s will know what it was like navigating between what parents expected of us and our heart’s desire. As grandchildren of the empire, we were the first generation to experience independence and security that our parents did not enjoy when they first came to live in the UK in the 1960s as immigrants. The novel is also about experiences of parents and how this influences how the three protagonists Aliya, Salma and Laila behave as grown-ups within their community and broader society.
I wanted to take the story outside just one community and explore the girl’s experiences within wider Asian and British society. I was also keen to show that parents’ values, behaviours and beliefs are shaped by their experiences not only of growing up in their own native countries but also of the traumatic experiences many of them faced when they first came to live in the UK in the 1960s. Many of our parents witnessed partition and civil war, and so it’s not surprising that they would do anything to make sure their children are happy and secure. Decisions our parents make, and the rules they lay down for their children are often about trying to ensure not only that the community carries on and survives in the host society but also that their children are in the best financial, spiritual and social situation.
AWN: Why Mothballs and Coconut as a title?
When I think of Bangladesh (the country that inspired this story) I remember in the 1970s first visiting my relatives particularly my mum’s sisters. I remember how visually rich and colourful my surroundings were, the noise, the chaos outside in the streets, the poverty was incredibly shocking for me and I often found it difficult to adjust to food, the heat and many other aspects of life in Dhaka and the countryside. However, there is one image I still have imprinted in my mind, and that is of my aunties in the quietness of their rooms, their long hair down to their waists soaked in coconut oil. The wardrobes smelt of mothballs where they would often hide their most treasured trinkets and possessions from the west. That is the memory that inspired the story. I don’t mention the name of the country, and that’s because I wanted to keep the story this generic as possible, so a wider south Asian audience could identify with the experiences of the characters without preconceptions and labels.
AWN: What inspired you to write about this topic?
I started the book when I was in my 20s. I think we were the first generation of young people in the UK struggling and navigating with the issue of love, relationships, career and our future place in society and in many ways, we were pioneers just like our parents. We were placed in a position where we had to make big life decisions that would ultimately have an impact on us for years to come. I witnessed experiences of my peers who decided to do their own thing and marry someone of their choice whether from within or outside the community or those who gave over that decision to their parents. Others on the other hand with all the faith in the world also sat on the sidelines and waited for love and the community to do its thing and are still waiting.
I felt that if you decided to marry within the community, then it was the decision-makers like the aunties who would have the final say on your future life partner and that is one of the topics in the story I wanted to explore. It was also essential to document experiences of many of the girls and boys around me so that in decades to come we were able to revisit the struggles that many of us went through finding love and a long-lasting relationship. The stories although inspired by real people around me from many different South Asian backgrounds are at the end of the day fictitious, but I hope the readers can identify with the characters I created.
AWN: Who is your favourite character in the novel?
I don’t have one favourite character I have several. I like Salma she represents a part of me who felt quite alienated from her community, I like Laila because she is free-spirited and although she struggles at first, she manages to do her own thing and follow her path. Although Kamal is an anti-hero and a bit of an arrogant rogue, I also like his character because at the end of the day he tries to find who he is and become a better version of himself because his relationship with Salma represents his innocence before the meanness of adult life gets to him. I also like the character of Francisco as he represents the wider world and how we should not just look within but beyond our own culture and how we can still share so much based on values rather than a rigid belief system, cultural or ethnic identity.
AWN: Were any of the characters based on real people or events?
While the characters are not based on real people or events, they are inspired by hundreds of stories and experiences that I witnessed while growing up, not from just my community but beyond. I threw them all into a pot mixed them and then created characters and a new fictitious world based on a mishmash of experiences of second-generation South Asians growing up in the UK. I tried to explore universal themes across many South Asian communities without labelling one community or another. I think whether we are Sikh, Hindu, Muslim or any other faith many of the experiences we have lived through while growing up in the UK as second-generation children of immigrants are very similar.
I do think many of our communities particularly in the middle classes are matriarchal, but there are still pressures on those mothers and aunties that shape how they behave with their sons and their daughters. Even today I think there are rules for boys and other standards set for girls. We live in a society where if we are strong enough as daughters, we do not need to be pushed into a path that we are not happy with but follow our own hearts desires and find a balance ultimately that both our parents and we can live with. Community pressure still plays a significant role in terms of how mothers and aunties shape the rules and policies of matchmaking within our South Asian societies.
AWN: What kind of story is Mothballs and Coconut, love story or a social comment?
Love is a crucial element within the story, and it’s a driver, but the social comment is high on the agenda within Mothballs and Coconut. Parents made sacrifices and created amazing lives for many of us, even though they had so little when they arrived in the UK in the 1960s. The struggle to make our lives safe and comfortable came at a price, and there were casualties along the way. I think it’s essential that the third generation understand the struggles that we went through in the 1980s and 1990s and I genuinely believe that we have made things easier for the third-generation.
However, there are other political and social issues that the third-generation must face that we didn’t have to live through. Due to 1970s racism, I was a very politically driven child even at nine years old and well into my teens and often felt angry at dismayed at British society, but no one was around to groom or radicalise, or bully me on social media. In the early 1990s when I was trying to date even at university every letter I received via post, was intercepted by my father and now digital privacy is so tight with the third-generation, parents have little clue what their children do or say online.
I think it’s important to leave a legacy and footprint for future generations especially while we are still so poorly represented on the big screen and TV, by our broadcasters, drama commissioners and production companies. I think it’s essential that we document experiences of South Asians from the 1960s to present day so that young people know who they are and are aware of where they came from. I also think that the barriers and racism many of us now in our 40s and 50s experienced in the UK seems to have diminished, but with the rise of the far right, we can never be complacent.
One of the significant challenges of the third and fourth generation is that of online grooming, mental health, sexual exploitation, extremism and radicalisation. I never imagined in my wildest dreams or even nightmares that we would be in the situation that we are in now where young people are at risk of so many dangers. It’s hard to protect our children from broader society when they can access anything online and anywhere. There’s also the rise of the far right, and in my story, in the 1990s and 2000s that’s no longer an issue, yet 30 years on, society should have evolved and changed, and yet the same demons are rearing their ugly heads again. I fear we may have learned very little from our past mistakes.
AWN: What feedback have you had about your novel?
My biggest critics my sisters who loved the book and identified with the stories. Friends that have read the book have also given me great feedback.
“Relationships are at the heart of this loving novel. A beautifully captured insight into the lives of complicated women shown in an atmospheric and culturally rich narrative voice.”
“The book has been very lovingly written with attention to details of the author’s childhood and experiences of growing up in the South Asian community in the UK.”
“I enjoyed the autobiographical/memoir style in which the work is written and the author’s gentle sense of humour.”
*Reader reviews from Amazon
AWN: Are you self-published and why?
I am self-published and one of the main reasons why is because BME writers and their stories and experiences are so poorly represented not only on TV and cinema but also within the world of fiction. About ten years ago I decided to study a Masters in screenwriting for TV and cinema because I felt that might be the way forward in terms of getting my stories out there. What I discovered along the journey is you have so little control in the world of TV and cinema because it’s all about who commissions you, whether you’re a known writer and the humongous costs of even commissioning a feature or TV pilot. No one will invest in a new writer if you’re not known and if you’re developing as a writer, then you’re swimming in a sea of thousands of other writers who are also trying to make it. Stories with a diversity element are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to commissioning. The scripts that make it are often due to their commercial worth. Our stories deserve to be documented because of their historical cultural and moral value.
After taking some time off my career as a police and government policy adviser, I decided to sit down and finish as many of my TV and cinema scripts as possible but also finish what I had started so many years ago which is my novel Mothballs and Coconut. I also joined a writing group in 2012. Although it was a group of Spaniards, so many of the short stories, poems and story ideas that I wrote I had to explain them in a language that was neither English or Bengali. It gave me drive, and passion and it made me sit down and finish as many of my writing projects as possible.
I also learnt how to self-publish from one of my Spanish friends who came to live in the UK in 2012 as a teacher. By 2013 he had written a historical novel and self-published it on several platforms. His immigrant drive drove me to bring Mothballs and Coconut back to life and share the stories of my immigrant past. Self-publishing and social media allow you to be your decision-maker. Maybe you won’t sell as many books or get the backing and the publicity that a publisher can give you, but it does mean that you don’t have to sit waiting for the equivalent of Mr Right to come knocking on your door. You can be the master of your creative destiny and path. Also, everything is a learning experience if I make mistakes during this process I will learn and the next novel I write I will do a better job.
AWN: What do you do to publicise the novel?
I’ve created a website, an independent writer’s platform called Azahara Books. I’ve attended workshops with Enterprise Nation and learned how to make my book covers on platforms such as Canva. I have experimented with Kindle Direct Publishing, and in 2018 I published my first children’s book the Christmas Stocking, based on a non-Christian child’s experiences of celebrating the festive season in the 1970s. Lastly, I am just using platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn to get the word out there that I wrote a book and if anyone’s interested, they are more than welcome to download it and give it a read.
AWN: If you had to imagine a newspaper to review your novel who would it be, and have you had any high-profile interviews?
My late dad loved the Guardian. One of the memories I have is of my late father sitting in his flat cap on the sofa reading the Guardian. A few years before he passed away, he was interviewed by the Guardian, precisely because he’s been reading the newspaper for so many years. The Guardian had its roots in Manchester and was formally known as the Manchester Guardian from (1821–1959). It would be the stuff of dreams to have a book review in the Guardian which would be a fantastic endorsement as a writer.
AWN: Who inspires you as a writer?
There are many books I’ve read over the years that have inspired me particularly books I read as a child which include Harper Lee, Jane Austin, J.D. Salinger, Sylvia Plath, Garcia Marquez. Modern writers would include Helen Fielding, JoJo Moyles, Ildefonso Falcones, Joel Dicker however I’m also currently reading a lot of history books, especially about 15th Century Europe, because I want to know why we are in the current social and political predicament and I think we can find answers in the past to shape a better future.
AWN: Are there enough British Asian writers?
There are not enough British Asian writers in TV and cinema, I think we are better represented in the world of fiction where there is a wealth of talent. That must change if we are to leave any footprint for future generations. Leaving a literary legacy is essential to secure your social and cultural place in any society. Every generation should know about their forefathers. Otherwise, it’s very easy to erase our contributions to this society from history books.
AWN: What’s next for Sabera?
I am completing some screenplays, a series of children’s books. I have two or three novels I would love to finish over the next few years including a 15th Century historical time travel novel, a murder mystery set on a Mediterranean island in the 1990s and a story about extremism and radicalisation through the eyes of three generations of political women which is what I’m working on at the moment.
AWN: Jeffery Archer gets up at 6 am in the morning and is a very disciplined writer. How disciplined are you when you write?
I am not as disciplined as Jeffery Archer; however, I do try and write one or two hours after dinner before I go to bed. I am also continually creating ideas and developing my stories in my head when I have a spare moment.
Interview by Anna Parcerisas
Anna is an award-winning filmmaker, poet and writer born and bred in Barcelona, Spain.
Sabera Ahsan was born in the Midlands in the late 60s and grew up in Manchester in the 1970s. She studied a BA Hons in Spanish and Politics and a Masters in screenwriting. Sabera trained as a primary school teacher and left teaching in 2002 after spending five years in Spain as a primary English specialist for the Spanish Ministry of Education and the British Council.
In 2005 Sabera began a career in policing and the civil service in Westminster, London. After 12 years as an equality crime and Prevent policy officer and advisor, Sabera now dedicates her time to writing, blogging, campaigning and running online magazines for women.
Sabera Ahsan nació y creció en el Reino Unido. En la universidad estudió la carrera de Español y Política Europea. También hizo un máster en Guión de cine. Así mismo, estudió y ejerció como maestra de escuela, trabajando en España por 5 años como especialista en educación primaria en inglés, un proyecto promovido en ese entonces por el Ministerio de Educación de España.
Tras volver al Reino Unido, Sabera continuó su carrera creando y ejecutando programas sociales, tanto en organizaciones policiales como en el Ministerio del Interior, enfocados en la prevención de delitos y diversidad e integración cultural. Luego de 12 años de trabajar como asesora en Igualdad y Diversidad, ahora dedica su tiempo como escritora, blogger y haciendo campañas y revistas para promover la diversidad e integración entre diferentes razas y culturas, igualdad de género y derechos de las mujeres.
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