Hafsa Zayyan: Using family history in fiction


28 January 2022
The author drew on her husband's family history to create her prize-winning debut about refugees
Hafsa Zayyan: Using family history in fiction Images

The winner of MerkyBooks's inaugural New Writers' Prize explains how she used her husband's family history to create a work of fiction to tell a tale that hadn't been told:

In 2019, MerkyBooks launched its inaugural New Writer’s Prize. The tagline for the competition was 'tell a tale that hasn’t been told'.

I had been really impacted by the stories I’d been reading in the news about the migrant crisis and I wanted to write about refugees. More particularly, I wanted to understand what drove people to risk everything – not just their lives but the lives of their families – to come to Great Britain. There was a reason, common to these strangers, that bound them together as they squeezed into rubber dinghies or tolerated being sealed into the back of a lorry. These were stories we knew about but we did not really know about.

But I had limited time and resources. When I told my husband I wanted to write about refugees, he said: “Why don’t you write about my family’s history? My family were refugees.” Which indeed they were.  Here, I had primary sources for my historical research right at my fingertips. My husband’s family, who had lived in East Africa for generations, had been expelled from Uganda in 1972 on account of their ethnicity by the then-president Idi Amin. For some time after Amin’s decree, it was unclear where they would go – despite having British passports as a result of their Indian heritage, Britain initially refused to take them. When Britain eventually caved to international pressure, the eligible South Asian Ugandans arrived here penniless, as Amin had requisitioned almost the entirety of their property and belongings.

This was an important part of British history that I had known little to nothing about before I met my husband, and I thought: what better way to try to educate others like me than through literature. I set out to learn as much as I could about the history in order to create a story of a family that had lived through it.

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Beyond discussions with my in laws, there was a wealth of material available online and in libraries. One of the first places I went to was Carleton University’s Ugandan Asian oral history project, where the transcripts of over 30 Ugandan Asians’ personal stories are available to download. It was incredibly helpful context to have so many different families’ stories, together with my own family’s story, as it allowed me to draw common threads as a base for the fictional family that I was going to create. Through these oral histories, I was able to visualise and build the world – based on historical facts – in which the fictional characters were going to play out

When it comes to historical fiction, the way that worked best for me was to separate initially the setting from the characters and their stories. First and foremost the setting, the place, the world must be formed. That is based on research and facts. The characters and their stories are built outside of this world, from imagination but drawing upon learning acquired through the fact-finding process in order to create realistic, believable characters that really could have existed in that space at that time. Ultimately my goal in creating the fictional characters was to make them representative of the time, but unique and interesting enough for someone to want to read a story about!

A final tip - while writing, I never stopped reading and researching the history. There was always more to learn, and even if certain aspects of my research did not expressly make it into the manuscript, almost everything I learned was helpful context within which I was aware the story was bound.

Hafsa Zayyan is the author of We Are All Birds of Uganda, published by #Merky Books in paperback, 27 Jan, £8.99


Read more about turning history into fiction as Heather Morris describes  the emotional challenges of writing The Tattooist of Auschwitz.