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Monday, 15 February 2010 02:00

Q and A

Zinaid Meeran's debut novel Saracen at the Gates, winner of the EU Literary Award, was published in 2009 by Jacana. It is "a revolutionary tale that is as raucously hilarious as it is poignant, with a satirical edge"; it is also a story a love affair and a coming-of-age, a political piss-take, a thesis in post-modern identity politics, a buzzing portrait of a crazy city, Johannesburg. Read an extract of Saracen at the Gates here.

Zinaid agreed to field some questions from ITCH Editor, Mehita Iqani.  

Mehita Iqani: How long did you work on the novel?
Zinaid Meeran: I worked on it sporadically for two years.

MI: Why did you write it?
ZM: I have an Afrikaner cop grandfather, a Cape Coloured-atheist-exiled mother of Madagascan/Khoisan/Indonesian/Afrikaans/Portuguese descent; an apostate-Lay-Z-Boy-armchair revolutionary father of Muslim Junglee Canecutter origins, and an agnostic-exiled stepfather of Swiss/English/Godbevok Christian Missionaries-doing the Lords' work in Lebanon origins. I had no male role models as my pops was strapped into his lay-Z-Boy chowing peanuts and slangetjies for the duration. I grew up surrounded by crazy hyperfeminine curry mafia aunties and my Islam Dizzy stepmother. So I grew up wondering why on earth people kept calling me Indian and just as bad - a man. Being boxed in like this traumatised me finished, so I had to write the novel to make sense of why people are so obsessed with forcing racial, gender and sexual identities on others. The book is a war cry in support of all those people who don't have a class, gender, country or race. There are many people out there who are thoroughly puzzled at having these identities foisted on them and they need a voice. This is a voice that mutters/stutters/whispers/roars that some people see their sense of self as fragmented and fluid and not those old school stiff, concrete identities. Seeing as I had time to write the book in between struggling to make feature films about the same vilified themes, well, I ended up being one of those voices.      

MI: How did you feel about having it published, and winning the award?
ZM: I was in the forests, on a Chingachook hiking trip when I finally got around to checking my SMSes. It was my twin brother and partner in gunpowder, treason and plot, Jean, saying that I been nominated for the award and might win. I was not at all surprised as for some delusional reason I always think I will get whatever I want, but I was also stunned as after ten years of Team Tarbaby's feature films on the same themes tanking - Saracen at the Gates had also been mired in development hell with the SABC - that I strongly believed the bigshots had put the kibosh on what I had to say. I understand too, why they would do this.

MI: Are you working on any future novels?
ZM: I have been thinking about it, but it's a little hazy at the moment. In the meantime, read my brother Jean's novel. It's very racy.

MI: Any advice for aspiring writers (many of whom publish work on ITCH?)
ZM: I would say, simply write about what hurts you the most and makes you feel the most exposed. Don't be afraid that people will misread your work. The more they misread it the better. That means your work is an exploration rather than a lecture, and that makes beautiful writing. You see with Saracen at the Gates when I had finished I realised with a horrible bang that most people would see it as the story of a cloistered Muslim girl when, for me, it is nothing of the kind. But then I thought, well I'm happy, as that means the story is wide open for interpretation.

MI: The narrative seems to suggest that, to start with at least, Zakira is simply a product of her environment. To what extent do you think someone's identity is defined by nature and nurture, and to what extent is it a choice to be something?
ZM: Well it's all of the above. That we are products of our environment and nature makes it all the more exciting to fiddle with or even overturn our sense of self. It's a wild ride and makes life worth it.

MI: Would you agree with a reading of Zakira's journey as one of enlightenment? We know she starts out as a 'curry mafia princess', what does she become?
ZM: I think she comes to the brink of shedding her camouflage. She comes to the point of realising that the exploration of a fragmented and fluid sense of self might be more exciting than a life of ducking and diving. However, it's a cusp and who knows where she might go. I suspect she might have a relapse when Sofie and Zakira move to mosquito-ridden Hazyview on the outskirts of the Kruger National Park. In a fit of princess pique Zakira may bunt Sofie into the hippo-infested river that rings the golf course.

MI: The character of Zakir, the protaganist's twin brother, ricochets between a series of (hilarious) spoofs. Did you intend him to be a chameleon/clown, or simply place his seemingly petty identity struggles in the background so that we would focus on the real existential woes of Zakira?
ZM: I like that he comes across as a funny chameleon but I saw his identity struggles as pretty grave. What I think I was on about is that even the prince of the curry mafia, the heir to all the largesse and perks of his status, struggles to find his own sense of self. I wanted to show that even seemingly patriarchal, rich jollers are also pummelled by patriarchy, are both the masters and the slaves of a camouflage they are trapped in. Zakir takes all the sanctioned markers of curry mafia princedom to such extremes that they become a kind of rebellion. He is the most reckless driver, the most fanatical pro-Palestine raghead sympathiser, the most tycoon-like, the most pious, and eventually the most renegade, and distant. For him to break out, considering the weight of his privilege he must run all the way to Iceland to farm potatoes with his Ethiopian Jewish girlfriend.

MI: So many of the witty and funny observations in the book entail incisive descriptions of the identities of the many diverse ethnic/cultural/religious/subcultural groups that populate the Jo'burg scene. Sometimes these seem to border on essentialism - but the entire political thrust of the book seems to suggest that identity is fluid, fragmented and ultimately contestable. How do you reconcile these two things?
ZM: Satire, I think, is where the book took me. I wanted to show that ethnic and racial and gender categories are just nonsense. So I portrayed the characters in a deliberately stereotyped way while subverting these stereotypes with savage satire. I take the ethnic and gender stereotypes so far and so perverse that they must shatter into fragments and flow into a lovely goo. Of course those looking for essences of race, gender and ethnicity will happily find them in the book. I think if you have a satirical bent you have to run the risk of being accused of being at best an essentialist and at worst, a patriarch and Ku Klux Klansman.

MI: At times I felt Zakira might fall in love with all sorts of other people - enigmatic Bilkis, post-outed Panty, even the sexy Somali chicken guy. Considering these hints of her voracious erotic appetite, do you imagine that things will work out with Zakira and Sophie - long term, I mean?
ZM: I think after Zakira shoves Sofie into the hippo-infested lake the golf course landscaper busy pruning the Strelizias will dive in and save Sofie. Of course Zakira will have her way with this same landscaper, then the vet who has to take care of the traumatised baby hippo that Sofie falls on, then Bilkis when she drives to Hazyview to comfort the shaken Sofie. Panty will hook up years later with Sofie in Shanghai when he is the head of his own underwear dynasty, and she is doing research for her post-doc by posing as a rogue trader on the Shanghai stock exchange.

MI: The Saracens infiltrated the Hooligans crowd, ostensibly to bring the place down from the inside. Do you think it's really possible to cause a revolution from within a system, without getting distracted and seduced by what that system provides?
ZM: I don't think it is possible, no. But the thrill of our postmodern-to-the-power-of-three lives is that we are all subsumed and co-opted within the monster. Its like we have been swallowed up, pretty much since the revolutionary era ran aground, and we have no option but to tough it out from deep inside the body of a giant marine brachiosauraus. I am not saying that its possible to effect a revolution from inside the intestines of this leviathan, but we sure as hell gonna make the critter giggle by tickling its ribs and maybe tickle so hard it breaks a rib or busts a gut one day. Living inside the beast means dreaming about a better world and doing whatever we can to bring it about, without assuming something so grand, and ultimately self-defeating as a revolution. I think Sofie comes to this realisation herself. To revolt against the monster she flirts with becoming a curry mafia bandit herself, and pulls back in shame. I think she chooses a life of subversion and dissidence instead of one of a totalising revolt.

MI: Is Osama bin Laden really hiding in Fordsburg, do you think?
ZM: I hope so. It will bring the good ol' RSA back into the media limelight. Plus the curry mafia will be the first ones to sell him out and that will bust any stereotyped ideas of Muslims loving Al Qaeda.

MI: Did you model the Cachalia family bakery on a specific place? Those confectionary delights sounded so delicious - I'm just wondering if they are obtainable in real life too.
ZM: Ja, there is a joint on Fordsburg Main Road, Shalimar I think its called. That's the spot.

MI: I struggled to believe that Zakira really willingly abandoned her Bee-Em. She went back to get it later, right? And drove it off into the sunrise?
ZM: You are perceptive! I suspect you have a shade of curry mafia in your background. That is exactly the Bee-em that Sofie and Zakira drive to Hazyview in, though they sell it in Mozambique to fund their LM prawn habit.

MI: If you were to turn this into a film (you are after all, a filmmaker too), who would you cast to play Zakira?
ZM: The film's been in development with the SABC for a good couple of years now, as part of a venture by the broadcaster to make feature films but Team Tarbaby has not heard a word from the execs since July 2009. I fear they might be incarcerated. Anyway, the film is called Gazelle911, but is very recognisably based on Saracen at the Gates. I would cast the girl from Let the Right One In, the Swedish vampire film, as Sofie. She is only twelve but it will take a good ten years for the film to be made so she is the right age. For Zakira any tween gypsy waif will do, the Roma, after all, are the finest curry mafia the world has seen.
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Mehita Iqani

I am a member of the ITCH Editorial Board. I have been involved in ITCH since 2003, when I started the publication. I have a PhD in Media Studies from the London School of Economics and Political Sciences. I am currently a Senior Lecturer in Media Studies in the School of Literature, Language and Media at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Website: www.wits.ac.za/staff/mehita.iqani
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