Books

Jamil F Khan: ‘We deserve every chance to be remembered’

2020-03-20 11:22

As a writer of scholarly and popular resources for social justice, I have never found it difficult to find the right words.

I may sometimes take more time to phrase my statements in the best way possible, but I have never experienced what many call writer’s block.

I have been grateful for the ease with which words have responded when called.

Upon signing the publishing contract for Khamr: The Makings of a Waterslams, I was optimistic that I would be able to produce a manuscript in less than the required time demarcated by the staggered deadlines handed to me.

I was ecstatic, not only to be writing a book, but also to tell a story that has been heavy to carry.

To write a personal history as a queer, Coloured South African is to take power. It is the power of white supremacy, the bedrock of South African society to this day, that distorted and misrepresented our histories.

To set the record straight in our own voices is to invert some of that power. The task ahead of me proved to be more difficult than I had imagined.

Learning the ropes of book writing proved simple enough when I finally got a feel for what every chapter should look like, but negotiating the content with myself became the most pertinent challenge. The story is in no way pretty.

Though Khamr is my way of ending a lifetime of shame and uncertainty, I hope it is but the beginning of a collective healing for so many who do not fit into the binaries we so confidently abide by as a nation

A barrage of questions often arrested me at the start of each chapter: What do I include? Who do I name? What is the story? These negotiations often led me to the question of purpose.

What did I want to achieve by sharing what was mostly the ugly side of my upbringing as influenced by race, religion, class and sexuality?

It was not simply to write myself into a triumphant survival, while dragging my abusers through the mud.

To record the harm caused by the people around me was always important, since excusing or concealing it would have been dishonest.

But, as I looked back, I could not help but see them in the grips of the very same systems I write against today.

I could not help but see the impact of their actions on me as a result of the systems that constrained them, too.

I set out to write down our collective trauma with compassion instead of accusation. There is a way to relate events of a personal history truthfully, without simply leaving behind an identity parade.

As the main antagonist, my father was ripe for casting as an absolute monster who only manufactured misery, but my memories proved to be more complicated.

My memories refused to succumb to the dangerous allure of a single story. On navigating this process, I write:

“The arrogance of youth allows very little awareness of the struggles of those around you. To balance understanding for my parents’ struggles and acknowledgement of how that hurt me in the process is difficult.

"To learn how to speak about their lives in the context of the times while not excusing the harm they caused is a journey of empathetic self-discovery. To dismiss my own experiences of despair would be to betray myself, but to narrate my parents’ experiences outside of the structures they had to submit to would be dishonest.

Author Jamil F Khan lays bare the experience of living in a so-called middle class Coloured home in his memoir, Khamr: The Makings of a Waterslams

“The subjects of generational trauma have to learn to be healers. We have to learn to understand minds, and blood, and connective tissue. We have to become the people we hate to honour the people we love. We are sailors adrift at sea, balancing on 1 000m swells while still advising those on the shore how to assemble the life rafts needed to save us. The burden of navigating generational trauma while trying to end it weighs heavily on one’s existence.”

With this responsibility accepted, writing the story was much more cumbersome and painful than I had anticipated.

There were times when I would stare at my computer screen for an hour, with only the chapter number written down.

It was not that I did not know what to write, but that what I had to write down had seized my abilities. In some ways, the release of trauma can be just as annihilating as the experience of it.

While writing, I was also experiencing a repetition of some of the trauma I describe in the book.

If it is possible that our journeys to healing lie in the power of words, then I hope that my chosen language fuels one such journey.

Subjected to the same kind of power I was unpacking, I started realising that my circumstances dictated the language I used. The vocabulary I chose to describe certain events was heavily influenced by the emotions I experienced at the time of writing.

The emotions I experienced were not only inspired by memory, but also by my prevailing reality. The past I was writing down was also the present I travelled through.

Though difficult, I am grateful for the richness and specificity my writing process enabled for this offering. In a word, writing this book has been freedom.

Though Khamr is my way of ending a lifetime of shame and uncertainty, I hope it is but the beginning of a collective healing for so many who do not fit into the binaries we so confidently abide by as a nation.

May it be a start for the many overdue conversations shut out by denial and dishonesty.

I am both elated and terrified of what we can do with the words I have laid out. If it is possible that our journeys to healing lie in the power of words, then I hope that my chosen language fuels one such journey.

Khan is a Cape Town-born, Johannesburg-based critical diversity studies PhD candidate, researcher, author, columnist and poet. His research focuses on the politics of creolisation and Coloured identities in SA, while exploring the interrelationships of power in race, ethnicity, gender (identity) and sexuality. Khamr: The Makings of a Waterslams will be released on April 10. Preorder the book for a discounted price of R179 from loot.co.za


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March 29 2020