Sabah Carrim has authored two novels, namely Humeirah and Semi-Apes, both set in Mauritius where she was born. Her short stories have been shortlisted and published in various competitions organised internationally by Commonwealth Writers (Plaine Verte), Goethe Institute South Africa (Tara’s Hair), Odd Voice Out Press (Size of Rice), and recently by the Bristol Short Story Prize (The Evil in Me). One of her nonfiction works (Dismantling Life) was also a semi-finalist in the Gabriele Rico Challenge for Creative Nonfiction, and was published in Reed Magazine in 2020.
Sabah was invited to be a judge of the African Short Story Award, as well as to deliver the keynote speech on Cultural Stereotypes in African Literature at the African Writers Festival held in Nairobi in 2019. Sabah is a law lecturer, and holds a PhD in Genocide Studies and Prevention with a focus on the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge era. She was recently awarded a scholarship to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing in the US. Her upcoming collection of poetry, Flowers of Silence, is scheduled for publication in 2021.
BY EDITH KNIGHT MAGAK
This conversation takes place via email and WhatsApp chats in the Green city in the sun, Nairobi, where Sabah Carrim is currently stranded after being locked down in Kenya.
Edith: Hi Sabah, congratulations on being a semi-finalist in the Gabriel Rico Challenge for Creative Nonfiction. The story has recently been published in Issue 153 of California’s Reed Magazine. Take me back to the day you found out you were on the shortlist. What did that mean to you?
Sabah: Thank you, Edith. That happened some time in 2019. I was happy of course. It was a phenomenal year to be honest. I was shortlisted for many prizes that year, but all in the fiction category. This was the first in the nonfiction one so it was quite something.
Edith: That’s great to hear. It must have been a good ‘writing’ year. Personally, when it comes to writing nonfiction, I always have a fear of revealing and sharing my personal life with the world. How was the process for you? What compelled you to write about this experience?
Sabah: You are right. I have this fear too. All the time. Because even when we’re writing fiction, people who are close to us can find out what bits are based on our real lives.
But it’s a risk we take as writers. I feel it’s always been reassuring to read from writers, from seniors and predecessors who express the same fears, and go on to talk about how they overcame them.
I now recall the words of the poet Czeslaw Milosz that tickled me in particular: ‘When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.’
Edith: (laughs). I agree. I recently wrote a short nonfiction story about my childhood and it was published. I haven’t even shared it anywhere because I feel that if any member of my family reads it, they would feel exposed.
Sabah: I know what you mean.
Edith: And I like that you say that talking helps in overcoming things. I am reminded of something Virginia Woolf said: ‘Nothing has really happened until it has been described’. I mention this because the below paragraph from the story was something I’ve heard many times before, but its description in the story gave it life, and the response was a breath of fresh air:
His father was similar, his mother once told me. ‘How did you cope?’ I asked. ‘Men are like children,’ she replied, ‘it’s our job to control them.’ Then she added: ‘I thought you were intelligent. I thought you could have changed him.’
‘No,’ I told her, ‘the men in my life, my father, my uncles are definitely not like children. They are the ones who taught me that to live a life in good measure, one needs a jug of necessities, a cup of comforts, and a teaspoon of luxuries.’
This account that some women have about men being children, and that women should control them and change them. Why do you think this narrative is so readily embraced by both women and men? and why should it be changed?
Sabah: Why is this narrative so readily embraced by both women and men? Well, men can be immature.
But let’s face it: women can be too. All in all, even if it’s easy for our lot, us women, to say this about the other gender, especially in their absence, the truth is that generalizations—or “Grand Explanatory Theories”—are dangerous.
But I haven’t truly answered your question. What is the origin of this narrative about how we should control our men? I think first of all it comes from our inherent need to create ‘the other’ in our attempt to understand and figure out our environment. It’s a self-defense mechanism ingrained in us. Once we have identified ‘the other’, we need to find labels to describe why ‘the other’ is an enemy of ours, or a threat. That’s how we end up with all these labels about men, just as they do about us. We must remember that just as men have so much to say about women, about how we nag, how demanding, emotional, and sensitive we are, we shouldn’t forget that we too have our fair share of prejudices about them. Them being like children who we need to control is one.
In other words, we seem to be always pitting ourselves against ‘the other’, and by this I don’t just mean the other gender, but anything or anyone different from us.
Now in terms of control, I used to think that it was part and parcel of the Muslim or Indian narrative (in as far as I am concerned) to hear women say we have to guide and educate our men.
I figured this was because we don’t have muscles, money, and power like they do, and so we want to think we have some other form of weapon in our hands. These weapons are our intelligence, our maturity, our manipulative techniques.
Truth be told, they seem to be a weapon of last resort.
Quite pathetic if you ask me.
But as I travelled the world and met different people, and heard them speak about their own lives, I began to feel that this narrative about controlling men was not just ours, not just an Indian/Muslim narrative, as many of us tended to believe.
Now it seems to be everyone else’s, and sometimes I’ve seen it being expressed subconsciously.
You asked whether this narrative should be changed. I think it should, because it seems we women have accepted that we are weak, can’t have the muscles, money, and power that men can have, and are therefore forced to be manipulative and scheming in order to ‘change our men’ – which itself presupposes that we are stuck to partners we aren’t happy with.
We can’t change people, no. We should let them be. If we aren’t happy with our men, and nothing can be done about it, and we’re dead sure we aren’t idealizing marriage or relationships, and have concrete reasons to walk out, well then let’s leave.
I do believe that women become manipulative as a last resort because they feel they’re stuck in unsatisfactory relationships.
I can’t imagine being in a sincere relationship with my partner if I were to be planning my next moves, and predicting his, and finding ways to circumvent their consequences on my well-being.
“What I am saying is that while ‘Dismantling Life’ was focused on the justification for separation/divorce, I also wanted it to be a piece about the merits and comforts of marriage.“
Edith: Wow! What great thoughts here, I mean this is revolutionary information. And yes, our society is bent on the war of genders. That at the end of the day one has to prevail. And in societies where, like you’ve rightly said, women don’t have power, money or muscle, then manipulation works. I have, unfortunately, witnessed this a lot. It’s one of the things we don’t talk about as society.
But we also see in the story that this is going to be the fourth time of leaving the marriage. ‘The final one’. Do you think the 3 previous times of leaving and coming back were because of the notion that one should be ‘stuck’ in their marriages or is it as you say later that ‘Call me traditional, Mauritian, but I loved being married’?
This fascinates me, the idea of ‘loving being married’ and now that this life has been dismantled, will the feeling of being protected and being treated respectfully diminish? Why do you think society treats married women better than unmarried women as you mention in the story?
Sabah: Well, now that we are wired, especially in the era we women live in, to look at relationships in terms of gender oppression, we often jump to the conclusion that if a woman is holding on to a marriage, it’s inevitably because she is weak, oppressed.
What if it’s because she is still in love, still finds goodness in her partner, or she wants to try harder and fix things?
While I may have condoned separation and divorce in my previous answer in this interview, I also wish to speak about the virtues of marriage. (Often, the problem is that in becoming advocates of a cause, we tend to grow radical in our view, and lose sight of a more reasonable, balanced one.)
When we’re married, we have someone to go back to. We have someone in our reach to care for us, to tend to us and to our daily frustrations. Therefore, we feel more ‘protected’— as is mentioned in the piece. There’s someone who listens to our story in a continuous seamless fashion. It’s a boost in self-esteem. There’s someone to act as a buffer to what we go through every day. And yes, let’s face the truth: this person may not do it all the time. He may show insensitivity, indifference, even do the opposite of all that I mentioned in terms of providing comfort. There may even be periods where he would be less attentive to us.
At least that’s the story everyone recounts about it.
But if he was carefully chosen, hopefully he will tend to do it more often than not. That’s all. And that’s the comfort and solace the narrative of my piece ‘Dismantling Life’ details.
What I am saying is that while ‘Dismantling Life’ was focused on the justification for separation/divorce, I also wanted it to be a piece about the merits and comforts of marriage.
Yes, in the end we’d rather be on our own if we can’t find this person, but I think I know many more people who wish to be attached than not.
This was the other ’truth’ I wished to put out in the story, that regardless of the traditional or conservative narrative about the importance of marriage that we’ve been wired to hold on to, even if we did live far away from such fetters, many of us just love being married for very simple human reasons.
I think many of us are afraid to say these things anymore, because we are caught up with the mainstream narrative of us women being so independent that we don’t need men. Well, we are not weak. We can be very strong if we wish to be. I would use the word “need” even with respect to men. They need us too. They too want to get married more often than not. They too seek the comfort, the solace, the companionship that we seek.
In the context of the piece ‘Dismantling Life’, the narrator is not stuck in the marriage. No. She enjoys a great measure of freedom. At least that’s what I wanted to show. This is not a story about a woman suffering oppression. Look at the way she leads her life, surrounded by books, by paintings, living her life as an atheist, all unlike him. These differences didn’t really pose a problem in the relationship. Also, I pointed at the sense of the narrator’s justified rebellion at hackneyed ideas, her rejection of manipulative techniques. She doesn’t want to be her mother-in-law, or like the women of that generation. She wants a more sincere connection with her husband.
At the personal level, in the story, whatever that goes on is rather equal and balanced. Both partners need each other.
At the societal level, it’s a completely different ball game. I think regardless of the cultural Indian/Muslim narrative, there’s something ingrained in our psyches, regardless of who we are, and where we’re from, that makes us give some authority and respect to the institution of marriage, or even a partnership. That’s why the narrator recognizes in the story that she earned respect from her friends and family for being married.
Yes, it’s been my experience that a married woman is treated with more respect than one who is not. Generally. Other factors also matter: how much money she has, how successful she is, whose daughter she is, what socioeconomic background she is from. But for one second, let’s take all these additions or variables away. Let’s take two women, one married, the other not, all other things being equal. One has conformed to what is expected of her, the other is considered to be incomplete, in a state of need, still looking, still searching. And to many eyes, she is therefore still weak and vulnerable. And that’s what I meant when I wrote that it was a big deal to have a husband, even more, one from England. Completely politically incorrect, but completely a social reality even to this day.
Edith: You know, just recently I was reading this book called All About Love by bell hooks, and in it she says that as a society we are embarrassed by love. That we are embarrassed to admit that we want to nurture and be nurtured in return. And I agree with you, both men and women have that need, only that women have been portrayed to ‘need’ it more. And I will be the first to admit that to be wanted, to feel wanted is a good thing. And losing that, whether it’s for a good reason or not, hurts just the same.
Sabah: Yes, I can relate to that.
Edith: Something that I greatly identified with in the story was how the narrator related with the little things. When I look back at my past relationships, it’s always the little things that come back to me. A broken comb, that chipped drinking glass, a picture on the wall that just couldn’t stand straight… I call them the ‘little losses’.
And here in the story the first thing that the narrator is concerned about is the spices (and their freshness) And it’s so profound how each spice means something for her, and the life that is being dismantled. And later the corn cob holders, the moisturizing cream, the embroidered tablecloth from Madagascar, I could go on. I have always wondered why it’s the ‘little things’ that seemingly unravel us in the end. Why do you think this is so?
Sabah: Yes, and imagine that if we feel that way (our little losses as you say) about our relationships, how many of those memories a marriage could entail. Let me reply to your question with a poem I wrote at that time called…Dismantling Life:
The Maid the Movers
have invaded our sanctuary
everything we owned together
Baby, stop them!
My spices lie on the floor
and that mug from Starbucks – your favorite
the one that hung on the stand
that lay in the sink
that stood on your work table
that gave you solace in the cold
that we quickly hid when strangers arrived
the one that added pauses to our conversations
the mug that we shared
I won’t let them take it away
I’ll keep it
I’ll wrap it in my
scarves my clothes my bandages in plastic
in paper in aluminum
foil in anything
but I won’t let them take it away.
I see you’ve packed the
teddy bear I gave you
not the naughty soap dispenser
I bought from the sex shop in
Are there things that can be
held on to
from our past
and others not?
I don’t know Baby
I don’t understand these things
so forgive me if
after we’re dismantled
that I should go out there and
tell the world
what we were all about
Edith: Sabah, this poem is so profound. I dare say, even more provoking than the story. Poems amaze me in this way, how so much can be said and portrayed in such few words. In just 48 lines you have aptly captured the disintegration of life. The dismantling is so vivid in such a heartbreaking way and yet you even lace it with humor (hiding the mug from strangers). I just recently started writing poems and I find that even with the economy of words, I’m able to express myself more clearly and succinctly.
Sabah: Yes, exactly my thoughts.
Edith: I think it’s what you mention in the story about ‘how abstract words and sentences eventually fatigue’ and because of their ambiguity, can be interpreted in so many ways. Poems don’t give us a lot of room for that. They shoot straight. No guesses, no misses.
Sabah: Yes, but I also feel that this thought about ‘no guesses, no misses’ applies more than ever to contemporary forms of poetry that are more direct in their message, and don’t require the decorations that more traditional poetry lovers still hold on to.
To be honest, in my more naïve days, I too thought that if poetry wasn’t written in the pastoral or Shakespearean ways I’d learned at school, it didn’t count as poetry. I found contemporary styles of poetry to be despicable, until I began writing them, and found them to be empowering, both in how I felt in terms of the impact on me and on my readers.
Edith: Now I’ve had the pleasure of reading some of your poems and they are as beautifully written as your prose. Do you find it easier to write poems or prose? Do you find some topics easier to write in poetic form and others as long prose? How did you feel writing ‘Dismantling Life’ as creative nonfiction in so many words and writing the poem in so few words?
Sabah: I would not say easier. They’re both different forms of expression, and happen at different times. I feel poetry is an excellent medium for wandering and passing thoughts. I deem myself to be just a medium for conveying or capturing those thoughts in writing, and that’s why I call the little notebook I carry with me everywhere my ‘Poetry catcher’. If you don’t jot down the thought in time, it fizzles off.
I wrote the poem ‘Dismantling Life’ much after the prose. I have only recently started writing poems by the way. Since October 2019, to be precise. It just seemed right to adopt that vehicle of expression back then. I must have written the prose piece in April 2019, so I can’t really compare the experiences.
Edith: The ‘Poetry catcher’ that’s interesting. I like the idea of freezing/catching moments as they happen. Because you are right, life is a series of happenings, and once a moment has passed, we cannot trust our memories to recreate it 100% as it was.
And speaking about wandering and passing thoughts, this story is a wanderer! If I can call it that.
Sabah: Interesting. I remember consciously thinking of how I pieced together all my experiences of traveling to so many places, and the memories and memorabilia I brought back from those places which became part of the story.
Edith: Because it’s not just the characters who are globetrotters, but ‘whole’ story is a cocktail of nations. We have the insipid cherry tomatoes from Cameroon highlands, Adeshnee’s mother-in-law is a Durban culinary expert, Lanie’s grandchildren are in the Philippines, there’s the corn cob holders from a one-dollar shop in Canada. There’s reference to China Town, Lagos, Oxford, Nashville, Monaco, Lebanon, Mauritius, Malaysia, and so on. And they are not just passing mentions, but representations of memories. They are important in the telling of this story.
Sabah: They certainly are. The story wouldn’t mean what it does to me, if I were to omit those memories.
Edith: Would you say that your travels have influenced the way you tell stories? I am looking at it from a place of exposure and mindset change. Or does it not change anything? And even looking back to your novels, Humeirah and Semi-Apes, even though they are both set in Mauritius, were they at any point, influenced by your travels?
Sabah: Oh yes. I think that the manner I chose to go on my travels influenced what I took back with me in terms of memories. I don’t know if you have had this experience, but I feel I can’t write about another country unless there was a special connection that I managed to make with a person, a place, or an object. Otherwise it feels fake or like a show off to even mention it in writing. For a long time, I felt that I couldn’t write prose about Malaysia, the last country I lived in (which was for almost 18 years!)
That’s why I stuck to setting my stories in Mauritius. And then when I discovered poetry, it was different.
When I went back to Malaysia a few months ago, I ended up writing at least a few poems every day, because I suddenly realized I had so much to say about my experiences there, and poetry was the perfect vehicle for expressing them—a new form of ‘power’ that was suddenly at my disposal.
I think the experiences of travelling gave me more confidence in approaching people, connecting with them, because at the base you realize with time that there’s no need to have that initial anxiety we all have when we meet strangers. You realize that all in all, we are all just the same.
Today, I feel I carry those worlds I have seen in me, and it’s a very empowering thought.
It keeps me disconnected from all the pettiness in one environment, in the problems I encounter in my daily life—and by this I don’t mean that I am permanently disconnected. Striving for that result would be rather…idealistic. But yes, carrying those worlds within me means that I can turn off the button that connects me, that ties me to the pettiness more easily than I could have ever done before.
Humeirah and Semi-Apes were also colored by the travels. The exposure I got made me see through the ethnocentric environment I was brought up in, and speak more boldly about the injustices I felt and experienced as a young Mauritian adolescent, and then later a woman.
But I still think ‘Dismantling Life’ represented a novel breakthrough for me. It was the first piece in which I dared to venture outside, out of Mauritius, in terms of choosing a wholly new setting for the story.
Edith: You are a powerhouse of information! I want to freeze everything you say, and just play every sentence over and over in my mind. You are giving words to thoughts I have always had, but never known how to vocalize.
And when you say that travelling keeps one disconnected from all the pettiness in one environment, I actually laughed, because one of my lecturers at the university liked saying that ‘A fisherman who never leaves the beach, will always think the whole world smells like fish’
With time, as I personally grow in my writing, I have come to accept that indeed we carry worlds within us. Some carry small villages, others 2 or 3 cities, others carry tens of nations inside them. And for storytellers/writers it unconsciously and sometimes consciously seeps into our writings, because as you rightly say at the end of Dismantling Life, ‘everything is connected’ and there never was, never will be, a truer statement than that.
Sabah: Yes — it was meant to be a contrast to the idea of ‘Dismantling Life’ – to end by saying that everything was connected.
Edith: And lastly (I can’t believe we are at lastly already!) you say that ‘Dismantling Life’ is the first piece in which you dared to venture outside of Mauritius in a bold way. But apart from the setting, looking at the themes of this story, which stretch all the way from religion, marriage, societal perceptions, migration, to the division of kitchen utensils (laughs) and pronunciations, food and elitism. This story captures so many things. And yet, it still leaves us with the feeling of ‘what happens from here?’ Do you feel you said all that you wanted to say concerning this story? Were there bits and pieces that you thought should I, should I not?
Sabah: I do feel I said everything. I covered the highlights, the essence. One doesn’t need to say everything in any form of writing. I think that’s the advantage of short forms, be they poems or short stories.
Did I hesitate when I wrote certain bits? Yes, but I think the most important hurdle was how to go about saying them, and still manage to overcome the hesitance, the doubts. That’s what we are supposed to be good at doing as writers, aren’t we? Saying the most sensitive things in a way that we don’t feel we are exposing ourselves, or doing the opposite: being too politically correct (a sign of bad writing in my opinion).
It was also about finding ways to talk about things I had never seen being discussed or mentioned before in any kind of writing, and giving it the importance it had in the relationship between the narrator and her husband. Like the scene of having to perform the wifely ‘duty’ of scratching his back.
There were basically many challenges to face while writing that piece—but it was quite stimulating and enjoyable overcoming them.
Edith: Yes, writing allows us that privilege. To write about things that people will generally tend to shy away from. I am glad you wrote ‘Dismantling Life’.
So, tell me, what are you currently working on? any fiction/nonfiction/ poetry to look forward to?
Sabah: I have been completing my collection of poems titled Flowers of Silence. I’ll be writing to publishers soon.
Other than that, I plan to publish a collection of short stories—basically all those that were shortlisted last year, with the addition of a few more to the overarching theme of a young adolescent girl with a curious mind.
Edith: Now that’s an interesting theme! Can’t wait to read it! Sabah, I want to thank you so much. So very much, for taking your time to have this candid conversation with me about this story. It’s been such an honor and a pleasure for me.
Sabah: On the contrary, thank you Edith for this interview. I really enjoyed it!
Edith: When Flowers of Silence come out and even the short story collection, please let me know.
Edith Knight Magak is a Kenyan writer and editor living in Nairobi. She has been an editor at Writers Space Africa Magazine and currently serves on the board of the African Writers Development Trust. A great enthusiast of flash fiction, she served as a judge at the 2018 African Writers Awards – Flash Fiction category. On writing, she has been published in anthologies and magazines including Brittle Paper, Kikwetu Journal, Six Hens, Jalada, Okada books, Urban Ivy, among others. In 2019, she was longlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Award. She believes that creative non-fiction is the future of writing!