Hafsa Zayyan’s We Are All Birds of Uganda joint-won the inaugural #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize in 2019. Merky Books is a new imprint within Penguin Random House UK, curated by Stormzy.
The prize is aimed at giving publishing opportunities to young, unpublished writers from under-represented communities.
We Are All Birds of Uganda flits between modern day London and 1960s Kampala, Uganda. The novel follows the stories of Sameer, a 20-something lawyer, and his grandfather, Hassan, whom Sameer has never met.
The book tackles some pretty mammoth themes of generational divides, dislocation, exile, belonging, racial tensions and the legacy of empire. Rather than seeming to bite off more than it can chew, Zayyan’s novel weaves them all together, showing the way such themes are closely tied.
‘If you don’t understand where you’ve come from, you’ll never really understand who you are or where you’re going’
Hafsa Zayyan managed to write her debut novel in six months, while working full time as a lawyer. Zayyan explains that she wrote one of the letters in the book for her competition entry. After she was shortlisted, she was asked by Merky to submit the rest of her manuscript within seven days: ‘I had absolutely nothing. It was like, 20,000 words – definitely not the real novel. And that’s what they judged it on.’
After winning, Zayyan was asked if she could submit the full manuscript by December. ‘At this point, it was June. So I was like, “I guess, I’ll try?”’ Although that is impressive, I do question the value of attempting to complete the work so quickly. There are moments of the novel that feel clumsy, or over-explained – potentially the result of rushing.
Zayyan is a 29 year old dispute resolution lawyer based in London. This is perhaps the inspiration and source for Sameer’s job in London. Sameer initially appears cliche: the hometown success story with a fancy London flat, working long hours and with no free time. With a big promotion round the corner, he has everything he wanted, but he clearly isn’t completely happy. At first I thought ‘yeah, I’ve heard this story before’.
‘You can’t stop birds from flying, can you, Sameer? They go where they will’
The ‘Hassan chapters’ of We Are All Birds of Uganda are written as letters, from Hassan to his deceased first wife. To begin with the letters feel like a subplot, disjointed and forced, but they slowly become integrated into the novel. They are also the location of much of the historical aspect of the novel, and Zayyan writes: ‘l was quite disciplined about researching […] I wanted the historical elements of it to be as accurate as possible’.
I have to admit I knew nothing of the South Asian expulsion in Uganda, and I was shocked that I didn’t. One of the aims of #Merky Books’ is to ‘tell the stories that aren’t being heard’, and Zayyan really hit this target. The unique experience of Sameer’s family is complicated, nuanced and not taught in schools.
Zayyan also accurately depicts the reality of young people’s relationships with their phones – something that is so often written dreadfully. When Sameer sticks his home Whatsapp groups on mute, he is shocked by the isolation he feels when his phone is stolen, and he closely awaits the blue double tick of a read receipt. His relationship to modern forms of communication felt real and close to home.
‘We have all been affected by British colonialism’
Sameer remains just on the edge of likeable. At times he is a bad friend, a selfish boyfriend, an angry son, and an unsympathetic brother. He is obsessed, like his father and his grandfather, about money. He often makes questionable decisions and is bad at explaining them to the people he loves. Yet, there is something compelling in his vividity and passion that saves him from being unpleasant.
For me, the women in the novel remain disappointingly weak. They often appear as half-formed characters which are stereotyped and flat. Sameer has no female friends, there were no women at his place of work (aside from in HR) and he is dismissive of the women he dates. The powerful female absence in Sameer’s life is perhaps important in understanding his character, but I think the women who do appear in the text deserve to be three dimensional.
Despite all this, slowly and surely Zayyan’s novel won me over, until I was gripped. I became enamoured with Kampala, just as Sameer was, and became caught up in his many dilemmas. There are repeated parallels and mirrors in the text, that reveal and reflect the way so little has really changed, especially in regards to the ongoing impacts of colonialism.
Without revealing too much, the final lines of the book are frustrating and startlingly unfinished. The effect, of disappointment, of shock and of disjunction, is clearly intentional. Even so, it felt somewhat clumsy and lacked subtlety, and I felt frustrated for the wrong reasons.
We Are All Birds of Uganda felt so close to being perfect and unforgettable, but, like Sameer himself, it very closely toed the line. Perhaps another six months on the production line would have done it.