By Shameelah Khan
No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are not more than starting-points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind.
-Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism
Sundays are a traditional routine. My grandmother prepares the food, always a few types of dishes. Today she is preparing fish-curry with homemade roti and a side of kababs with fresh lemon and sweet yellow-rice. She is also preparing a sweet almond, sago and cinnamon drink called “boeber”- a Cape Malay delicacy. Her father owned an Indian restaurant in Johannesburg during Apartheid where her mother spent endless hours preparing the Indian cuisine. They are long gone, but their stories fill the four walls of the warm fading-mustard coloured kitchen of my grandmother’s home. A home we travel to from the suburbs every Sunday for traditional food. Our traditional food. On this particular Sunday, I realise that I had never before seen my great grandfather. My grandparents are overly excited to show me my heritage, to dictate to me their lineage. My lineage. The photographs are splattered on the red-stained floor and I am surrounded by memories. I am surrounded by my mother as a young girl swimming in the ocean for the first time, by the meals served in the restaurant, by my grandmother on her wedding day and then there it was. I reach out and hold in my hand the only picture my grandfather has of his parents.
This image resurfaced last year whilst I was on a trip in Spain and at first, I didn’t make much sense of things, until well, you’re on a 12-hour flight back home and you have the “ohh that’s what that was” moment. I was standing near the lemon-tree and some family members of a friend I was visiting were over for lunch, except I couldn’t understand much. Here and there, words would make sense, except in this particular moment (and many moments similar to it) that followed.
“What are you?”
And- I begin the polite journey of unpacking the trauma of race in South Africa. For example, “green eyes, wow- that’s beautiful.” My first reaction is always “Thank you, my great grandmother was raped by a white man for them.” But it’s always a polite “Thank you.” Isn’t it- just-always-so- polite?
So here I was, listening to the way in which my lineage was being described to someone else looking in and wondering what I was made up of. Surely- this is not what someone from Africa looked like. Translated- this is what the conversation was like:
“she’s a mix of things. She has Chinese, Indonesian, Indian, White and Black… and yeah some other mixes.”
The cousin smiled. “wow, nice.”
My friend looked at me and smiled, “yeah, you should go to South Africa, there are all types of mixes there. You can find all sorts of mixed people and the women are so beautiful- you can find someone there for you.”
I remember that I had done an advert for a heritage campaign for Edgars where I had to speak about my lineage. I mentioned that I had Zulu Ancestors, Sotho Ancestors, Xhosa Ancestors, Indonesian Ancestors, Chinese Ancestors, Indian Ancestors…
Later on, my aunty had commented on the advert, “that’s amazing. How mixed we are. But you never mentioned that we have White people in our lineage too.”
“Yeah, I didn’t want to. Didn’t Ma tell us that her mother’s mother was shunned by her family for having a baby with a white man?”
“Yeah, she was from a Royal Sotho family.”
“So why did she have a baby with him?”
“She didn’t want to have a baby with him.”
This image is unsettling- for many reasons. Until I had discovered it, I did not know much about myself. It is a memory that follows me around now whenever I think about that jarring question,
“What are you?”
“I don’t remember.”
In this issue:
a how-to one of infinity – Jack C. Buck
read your poem the other day – Jack C. Buck
Colorado to Idaho – Jack C. Buck
I REMEMBER A BLACK MAN WAS MURDERED TODAY – Wade Nathan
Beside Nizar Qabbani – Sara Bint Moneer Khan
Touch – Shameelah Khan
This too, shall pass – Mehdi Bagheri
love’s immortal – Nkateko Masinga
Memory bites the tongue – Kgabo Mohlamme
Nostalgia’s Tides – Miriam Gayize
How To Write A Dirge for Liberia – Edwin Olu Bestman
Winter – Lindiwe Ndlovu