Caroline Spalding, Features Correspondent
Interview: Neema Shah
Neema Shah. Image credit Alexander James.
When writing, sometimes the hardest thing is to know where to start. As a debut novelist, what gave Neema Shah the confidence to begin was the exercise of “freewriting” - essentially getting everything down on paper without pausing to reflect on what was being recorded. Without the obstacle of editing on-the-go, she felt liberated to convey the story she was so motivated to share: that of “an overlooked part of British history” – how it might have felt for the Ugandan Asians who were forcibly expelled from their country by Idi Amin in 1972.
will be published this month and is the story of one family who experienced just this. The book is a product of the author’s own extensive research but also draws upon the lives and experiences of her extended family which she has uncovered through numerous conversations with them. Her own family are East African Asian; her grandparents left India during World War Two and settled in Kenya and Tanzania. Although Neema had heard stories told by her grandmothers of their lives in India and East Africa, on beginning the novel she realised how little she truly knew of her own parents’ upbringings. In writing the book, she feels she has been able to honour her own heritage as well as to discover more of what, ultimately, is her history too.
Neema wanted to understand how it might have felt to be “torn from the so-called ‘Pearl of Africa’” when Amin declared that Asians must leave Uganda, within ninety days, leaving behind homes, businesses and life as they knew it. However, she found there were a lot of Asians who had come to Britain who simply did not want to revisit the past. Travelling to Uganda on a research trip also helped consolidate her understanding, making up for the relative lack of archived stories from the time.
Neema describes the novel as one that is about “home and belonging” and how people can find hope and the courage to rebuild their lives when their worlds are turned upside down. She purposely centred the novel on the experience of a very ordinary family, but this does not ignore the wider perspective – the point of view of the ethnic Ugandans, for example, or the mixed reaction the British had to the Asians who came to the UK. And she wanted to explore peoples’ motivations, wondering why and how some would want to return to Uganda even after the horror of expulsion.
Most people perhaps don’t appreciate how many iterations a novel goes through before a final draft is printed. Neema says she found it somewhat tedious reading and re-reading her own work – Kololo Hill
was finalised after about the seventeenth draft. But, seeing the book in print more than makes up for it, and hasn’t put her off writing a second. At this point the new venture remains quite hush-hush; all we are told is that it will be historical and will feature characters and contexts rarely seen in fiction. Meanwhile, however, Neema fully intends to continue her work in marketing alongside her writing, because she feels the two careers “complement each other well.” Marketing provides a variety of experiences and encounters which help her writing, encouraging inspiration and fuelling creativity - “it’s important”, she says, “to observe life in its different guises.”
Travel is a passion of Neema’s, allowing her to encounter a breadth of cultures and customs, but in the current climate she is limited to travelling vicariously - with literature. She likes escaping to other countries through prose; recently she has enjoyed Catherine Menon’s Fragile Monsters
, set in Malaysia, and Boys Don’t Cry
by Fiona Scarlett – “a heart-breaking yet moving novel set on a Dublin estate.” She also adores the combination of “fascinating historical detail and women’s social history” in the novels by Sarah Waters; the novel Fingersmith
, she notes, has some “truly awe-inspiring twists.”
Another passion for Neema is food; it is a key element to her writing which is clearly evident in Kololo Hill
– one can almost smell the spices emanating from the dishes the family share in the book. Her prose is delicate and evocative, the landscape vividly conveyed and we understand why she feels that food “brings people together and evokes memories of places long left behind.”
Great fiction, she says, “moves, entertains, questions and inspires” and Neema hopes that Kololo Hill
does just that for its readers.
is published February 18th and is available to pre-order now: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Kololo-Hill-Neema