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A Q&A with Mishka Hoosen, winner of the 2017 Short.Sharp.Stories Award’s ‘Best Story’

Mishka Hoosen was born in Johannesburg. She graduated from Interlochen Arts Academy and later from Rhodes University with an MA in Creative Writing. Her debut novel, Call it a difficult night, was published by Deep South Books in 2016.

Mishka Hoosen‘s ‘Wedding Henna’, which won the R20 000 prize for BEST STORY, is a powerful exploration of the erotic taboo behind the hijab. Hoosen’s tender and sensual writing explores the delicate process of painting lacy floral patterns, in henna, on the bride’s hands on the morning of her wedding. Behind this technical artistry, the author weaves another, more haunting tale, as she explores the past relationship between her protagonist, Aisha, and the bride to be. Mishka and Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Award, recently discussed her winning entry:

Congratulations on winning this year’s Short.Sharp.Stories Award for BEST STORY. What does this ‘win’ mean to you?

It’s incredibly difficult to explain really, and deeply, deeply moving and humbling. It’s difficult, when it’s a story that is, for me at least, centered in so much pain, so much internal and external struggle, and so many unresolved things. This contest means so much in terms of setting the tone of the literary landscape in this country, the conversations we’re having, the stories we’re bringing to light. I’m utterly humbled and awed to be counted among the writers included in this anthology, who are producing such startling, necessary, brilliant work. I’m just deeply grateful, to everyone who enjoyed the story, to the judges, the organizers who have done such exemplary work, and to my husband, who is my biggest supporter and helped give me the space and love to tell this story.

I think one of the biggest and most powerful things about this whole experience is the passion and attention of the Short.Sharp.Stories team who by doing this, are making space for voices and stories that are so often erased, vilified, ignored, to be heard. In recent years, I’ve been trying with all my heart to follow Toni Morrison’s advice, to write the stories I want to read, and more than that, to write the stories I need to hear, the stories younger me needed like air, but didn’t get to hear. If there’s solace that comes from this story, for one person, if there’s a hand reaching in the dark, or a little more empathy and kindness kindled in the world because of it, that’s everything, that’s enough.

“…love demands truth from us, the fullness of truth, and the fullness of acknowledgement, of honoring it.”

 
‘Wedding Henna’ reads in one sense like a coming of age story, as Aisha reconnects with her school friend and the memories are ignited, of being school children together, as Zahra takes this next step into marriage. Would you agree with this?

Yes, I definitely think so. It’s meant as a kind of laying to rest, a necessary addressing and honoring of something before the next stage of life can begin.

The story has such an authentic right to it, one wonders about the inspiration and how close is the story to your own experience?

My story is inspired by some of the people, places, and things I have loved, and what love does. I’m not sure how else to put it. There are aspects of people I’ve known and loved in here, and things that belong entirely to the story. Above all it’s the experience of love I wanted to capture, love that is beset on all sides, love that sears, and is forced to transcend so much in order to remain whole. There’s a great deal of my feelings about love and the sacred in here. About how love lifts us out of ourselves, brings us closer to the sacred, the transcendent. And when you’re dealing with such ignorance and harm and prejudice, the only solace, often, is in the sacred. I wanted to capture that feeling I’ve experienced, and I think many others have. I think art comes from compulsion, and our experiences are what compel us.

Love is not always easy… your protagonist, Aisha, has to subjugate her love for her schoolfriend Zahra… it seems as if instinctively she knows she must do this, yet she tells her aunt. The aunt in turn is revolted by the disclosure: ‘I told her, Auntie Sohair, I love somebody. I’m in love with somebody. With a girl….’ Wasn’t this a big risk for Aisha to take? Why did she do it?

It was a terrifying, horrible risk, yes. But I find, for better or worse, that love demands truth from us, the fullness of truth, and the fullness of acknowledgement, of honoring it. And also, what we love, and who we love, is so often a part of ourselves, a part of what makes us ourselves, and we want to share ourselves with the people we love, with our family and friends, especially. I think that if we have to keep that part of ourselves in the dark, out of sight, then we’re not wholly ourselves with the people we have to keep that from.

I think Aisha would feel that her love of her aunt demands that she be wholly herself with her, around her, and so she can’t deny or hide her love of Zahra. She wants to celebrate it, and share it, because what feeling human being wouldn’t want to do that? If she had been in love with a boy she could have confided in her aunt, she could have sought her advice, it could have been something that brought them together, and if one day she wanted to get married to him, it would have been a source of joy, of closeness, between them. It is inhumane to deny her that, and I think on some level she knows that.

Aisha is one of the most sincere characters I’ve ever written, honestly, and she’s sincere to the point of naivety, in a way. But she’s a Muslim, and we’re taught to speak truth no matter what, even unto our own parents, not to be underhanded, to be sincere in our intentions and our actions, and so if she believes in that, then she will be truthful and forthright. She will speak the truth even if it harms her. She will honor the goodness she finds in her life sincerely and in the open, if she can. It’s perplexing to me why we say one thing and do another, particularly in religion. I wanted Aisha to be a stand against that, this virulent hypocrisy that so many people enact, and most especially when they use religion to justify their own hate, their own dismissal and arrogance and lack of empathy.

Not only are questions of love and sexual identity placed in the spot light, but very gently, and subtly, questions of God are raised too, as Aisha comments: ‘What we were brought up with was so finite… God confined to black and white lines…’ Can you comment on this?

There’s almost too much I have to say about this, and I don’t think I can do my feelings justice. I think I poured a lot of my feelings about it into the story, to be completely honest, and so that will have to say the bulk of how I feel, and even that doesn’t do it very well, in my opinion. I have a reverence and love of the sacred, of God, of faith, that goes beyond anything I could say. It is my driving force and my deepest love and the impetus behind everything I attempt. I have also had the most sacred and sincere and noble parts of myself attacked, and harmed, horrifically, by people who claim the same, and who use religion as their justification for a kind of unkindness, a lack of empathy, of mercy, of love, a virulent and cruel hatred, a cruel dismissiveness and mockery, towards people based on their gender or sexual identity. I find it completely antithetical to what I believe God is – which is all-encompassing, all-understanding, most merciful, most gracious and beneficent and kind. I still struggle with that, with what to do with that.

The themes I address in the story are definitely shaped by and influenced by my own Muslim background, people I’ve known, things I’ve witnessed, and so on.

And so the story unfolds as Aisha tenderly executes the wedding patterns on Zahra’s hands. Apart from being an excellent fictional device to carry the story along, what is the particular significance of the ritual?

It’s generally a celebratory kind of act, and often that’s when a lot of laughter and secrets and advice will be shared. There’s a big aspect of womanhood and camaraderie to it, at least in my experience attending Mehndi nights and doing Mehndi patterns for brides and so on. But there’s also a profound and gentle intimacy to it that is very poignant when there’s erotic love between the two people involved.

In this story, I was actually inspired by a painting called The meeting on the turret stairs by Frederic William Burton, which captures this utterly poignant moment between two lovers whose relationship is forbidden. It’s a perfect depiction of so much of the medieval ideas surrounding courtly love – silence and restraint, sincerity and reverence and longing. The woman turns away while her lover is only able to kiss her sleeve in passing. It’s so charged with erotic tension but executed with such restraint that the moment is held taut, and it’s that aspect, the restraint of ritual and etiquette, the longing and erotic charge of touch, of the hand brushed in passing, that inspired me.

How did you research the ‘trade’ of painting Mehndi?

I’m actually a practitioner myself. I’ve done henna and Mehndi painting since I was twelve.

To get to the style, the writing has a lyrical quality which makes for fluid reading. Are you aware of ‘rhythm’ as you write? Or is the writing style determined by the character?

I’m not sure, I think it depends. I think often, when you get into the kind of ‘flow’ of writing, when you’re receptive and open and things are moving and happening, it kind of happens organically, and when you tap into a character’s voice, it takes on a life of its own.

What writing Trade Secret would you like to share?

There’s not much of a secret except to remember that it’s work. And as Khalil Gibran said, and my dearest mentors always reminded me, ‘Work is love made visible’. You must honor the work. Keep showing up. Keep paying attention. Keep your love as sincere as you can.

Click here to visit Mishka’s author’s page.

Trade Secrets

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