Interview by Nicole Melanson ~
Sumayya Lee was born in South Africa and has worked as an Islamic Studies Teacher, Montessori Directress, and English as a Foreign Language Instructor. Her debut, The Story of Maha, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Best First Book—Africa) and she has since published the sequel: Maha, Ever After. She has written for O Magazine, and Woman&Home (SA), and has a website where she blogs occasionally.
Sumayya is a judge for the Young Muslim Writers Awards—a British literary event that is the brainchild of the charity Muslim Hands—and conducts writing workshops at primary and secondary schools. She served as a Mentor for Writivism 2014 and edited the anthology of longlisted writers: Fire in the Night and Other Stories. She is currently editing her third novel, daydreaming about books four and five, and looking forward to Writivism 2015.
Sumayya loves reading and eating (preferably on a Durban beach) and hates injustice, Islamophobia, misogyny, and February in England.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?
I dreamt about being a writer from the age of 14, though I was totally clueless as to what this entailed and how books got published. In my naivety, I believed that writers wrote and publishers published and that was that. Over a decade ago, with all the changes in my life (marriage/moving country) I suddenly found myself with time to write and it was a now-or-never moment for The Story of Maha, which I couldn’t have done without my family’s support and the encouragement of friends.
WHAT IS YOUR LATEST BOOK OR CURRENT PROJECT?
My most recently published work is Maha, Ever After—the sequel to The Story of Maha.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK ENVIRONMENT LIKE?
I wrote The Story of Maha at the kitchen table—that way neither of my children could accuse me of being too far away to fulfill his/her needs. By the time I got to the sequel, I had promoted myself to working at a desk. Now I’m truly grateful to have some space set aside—desk, shelves, and a whiteboard—where I am able to shut the door on my work mess.
WHEN DO YOU WRITE?
It was great when my kids were at school with regular routines—both Maha books were written during the “school day”. It took a long time for me to adjust to a non-routine (and reduced mothering); now I try and get some writing done in the morning. When I’m on a roll (what Ellen Potter refers to as Planet Depp) I can work day and night.
WHAT IS YOUR WRITING PROCESS?
I came to writing without any formal training and it was only afterwards that I learned that I am someone who writes without editing, allowing the story to emerge in one large, voluminous gloop. The downside of this is that it takes many, many drafts before the gloop transforms into a coherent, cohesive story. I am dabbling with different styles but at heart, I love the freedom of getting the words out without dwelling on how bad it all is—usually followed by weeks of panic as I attempt to make sense of it all.
WHY DO YOU WRITE?
I grew up on a diet of foreign fiction and I loved reading about the different folk all over the world, living lives so removed from my reality (apartheid South Africa). I also grew up enthralled by the real stories all around me—horrific, sad, hilarious—and realised that we, as South Africans of Indian origin, also had great stories to share with the world. I’ve always been motivated by the urge to share our stories and allow the world a glimpse of something different.
WHO OR WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
Life. People. History—and especially our human resistance to learning from it.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART OF BEING A WRITER?
Getting started. The fear of the blank page is paralyzing, quickly followed by the fear that the story will never survive the trip from brain to page. And then for good measure, the fear of not finishing.
I keep reminding myself that many, many writers feel that fear and just keep stabbing at the keyboard.
WHAT IS YOUR VISION AS A WORD ARTIST OR BOOK INDUSTRY PROFESSIONAL?
Essentially, I just want to tell a good story, but with my Maha series, I do take what’s routine and regular and hold it up to scrutiny. Maha gives voice to only some of the horrors of Apartheid, yet in spite of the odds stacked against her, she finds a way to laugh, have hope, and survive. Amy Tan said: “What makes people resilient is the ability to find humour and irony in situations that would otherwise overpower you.”
WHICH VOICES WOULD YOU LIKE TO HEAR MORE OF IN GENERAL?
It has become crucial to have diverse books available. Children naturally love stories and we need to ensure they have access to stories that are different as well as ones they can identify with. So, I would like to hear diverse voices untainted by marketing departments—categorized by genre only. In place of travel, reading each other’s stories is the only other way to truly humanize each other.
WHICH FEMALE AUTHORS WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE FEATURED ON WORDMOTHERS NEXT?
Thank you, Sumayya Lee!
— Nicole Melanson
* Author photo by Simone Scholtz
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