Books

“The biggest challenge is doing justice to personal histories that are within living memory”: Neema Shah

Author Neema Shah on her debut novel 'Kololo Hill', a family drama set against an important episode in Ugandan history when Asians were ordered to leave the country within 90 days

By Neha Kirpal

“For decades, the Europeans had lived at the top of Kololo Hill, looking down on the city from their villas and mansions. The scent of jasmine and frangipani wafting in between the houses hidden by mango trees and rose bushes, papaya and hibiscus. After Independence, most of them went home, back to the colder climes of Britain, Ireland, Germany and France. The wealthiest Asians had swiftly moved in to take their place.”

Kololo Hill (Pan Macmillan) is a family drama set against the backdrop of an important episode in African history. It’s the story of a Gujarati family that has to suddenly leave behind their home and business in Uganda in the early 1970s, when Idi Amin issues a decree ordering all Ugandan Asians to leave the country within a span of 90 days. Jaya and her two sons, Pran and Vijay as well as Pran’s wife, Asha, are forced to make the tough decision to flee to England.

The debut book of author Neema Shah, Kololo Hill was shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award and the DGA First Novel Prize. In a sense, it is a personal story since Shah’s parents and grandparents left India to make their homes in East Africa and later in London, where Neema was born and lives.

In this interview, the author talks to us among other things about the sources she used to research the book, her family’s personal experiences that helped shape the book’s story and the challenges of writing something historically important and emotionally dense.

Tell us about the various sources you used to research your book Kololo Hill.

While some periods of history have extensive resources, such as World War II, this particular series of events was a little trickier to research. There aren’t many books or documentaries in English about the period, although I found some from the BBC. And there are relatively few interviews or accounts, perhaps because many people wanted to get on with their lives and not look back.

However, I was lucky to come across many hours of interview featuring first-hand accounts of the expulsion, both in English and Gujarati, via the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). These gave me an excellent feel for what it was like to be involved in the expulsion. I also spoke to my own family members about life in East Africa. 

What were your family’s personal experiences that helped shape the book’s story and its central characters?

My parents were born in Kenya and Tanzania, and I’ve spent many family holidays in Kenya in particular. This backdrop was helpful when it came to chronicling everyday life in East Africa, from eating roasted mogo or cassava, to the life of the dukanwalla, the Indian shopkeepers, who feature in the book.

Two of the key characters, Asha and Jaya, are loosely based on my own mother and grandmother. I have extended family who were also caught up in the expulsion too. 

What are the challenges of writing something personal that is also historically important and emotionally dense?

For me, the biggest challenge is doing justice to personal histories that are within living memory. I’m well aware that people greatly suffered during the expulsion and beyond – it wasn’t just the Ugandan Asians who struggled of course – the ethnic Ugandans were severely persecuted too. I wanted to make sure my writing does justice to those stories. 

Neema Shah (Photo credit: Alexander James)

What are some of your biggest literary inspirations?

For Kololo Hill, I was inspired by the ambition of Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun in telling a highly personal story against a political backdrop. Growing up, there were very few writers who were from backgrounds like mine, so I often looked to the Indian Subcontinent for inspiration, such as Salman Rushdie.

I also loved The Settler’s Cookbook by Yasmin Alibhai Brown, part cookery book, part memoir about growing up as a Ugandan Asian.

My favourite books include Midnight’s Children and My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier. One of my favourite writers is Sarah Waters; I love the way she intertwines women’s social history into her novels. Her book Fingersmith also has the best twist I’ve ever seen in any novel.

How does being a writer and marketer tend to split one’s creative energies, and how do you manage both?

I still work full-time in marketing, so it can be a challenge finding time to write. Before the pandemic, I wrote during my commute, straight into my smartphone. Nowadays, as I work from home a lot more, I use the time before and after work to write instead. Writing is a passion though, so it’s not quite the struggle some might imagine! 

What are you working on next?

I’m currently working on a novel set in the mid-20th century, exploring themes of identity and survival.

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