Sunshine noir: Michael Sears interviews Shubnum Khan

"I wanted to write about Durban, and I’m really interested in love and mystery and magic realism. The gothic genre is an amalgamation of many of these elements."

01 March 2024 - 11:07 By Michael Sears
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Shubnum Khan.
Shubnum Khan.
Image: Nurjahaan Fakey

Originally published in the Big Thrill (22/02/2024)

Shubnum Khan is an author and artist who lives in Durban. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, McSweeney’s, HuffPost, O, the Oprah Magazine, the Sunday Times, Marie Claire and others. Her first novel, Onion Tears, was shortlisted for several prizes.

The Lost Love of Akbar Manzil has received very strong reviews.

In a starred review Kirkus said: “Khan’s prose is lush and lovely, her pacing skilful, and she successfully weaves a complex plot. A ghost story, a love story, a mystery— this seductive novel has it all.”

The story is set near Durban at a mansion, Akbar Manzil, that has fallen on hard times. It is now owned by a man known as Doctor who lets out rooms to other people — two ladies who appear to dislike each other intensely, a third who is a pianist and gives lessons, and recently to a widowed man and his 15-year-old daughter, Sana. It is Sana who discovers the story of the house and the murder that took place there a century before.

Start by telling us what led you to write The Lost Love of Akbar Manzil ?

I wanted to write about Durban, and I’m really interested in love and mystery and magic realism. The gothic genre is an amalgamation of many of these elements, so I found the best way I could tell a love story, a ghost story, a mystery, a tragedy, in one book was to group them together at a specific location in Durban. It took time for all these ideas to come together, quite a few years.

I was also interested in the curiosity of a young girl. She’s 15 and doesn’t know what the future holds. She’s carrying all this trauma, but she’s hopeful for the future. I think many young people are like that — they’re excited about the future, but also anxious about it. I wanted to capture that in a novel.

The house is a character in its own right. It’s not haunted in the usual ghost sense, but there’s an invisible djinn who lives there, pining for a woman who lived there many years before. What is the importance of the djinn’s role in the story?

The djinn is important as a plot device because it bridges the gap between the past and the present. It’s able to tell the reader, and Sana, what happened, or at least to give clues to what happened in the past. But beyond that the djinn is important because it adds to the sense of magic realism in the story. It adds to the sense of surrealism of the house, the unreality of the house, the mysticism of the house. It also adds to the sense of the house being alive because the djinn is the only thing alive in the house for so many years after the house was abandoned.

'The Lost Love of Akbar Manzil' by Shubnum Khan.
'The Lost Love of Akbar Manzil' by Shubnum Khan.
Image: Supplied

Sana is an introverted teenager trying to make sense of life. She attempts to understand love by reading about it, and by asking people about it and writing down their responses. However, she’s intuitively able to recognise a deep relationship in a visual way, observing that a couple seem to blend together in a photograph, for example. Is this why she becomes fixated on finding out the story of the house and the people who lived there in the past?

Yes, I think seeing the photograph of two people in love does encourage Sana to start exploring the house, and she becomes fixated on the story of the house. Also, she’s so much younger than the other characters in the house, and with youth comes curiosity. She’s at the point of her life where she wonders what the future holds for her and she’s curious about everything, and she wants to know the story about everything. She recognises as soon as she sees the house that it has a story waiting to be told and she wants to know that story. Then the photograph spurs on her exploration of the house.

I think her curiosity shows she’s a hopeful person though she may see herself as depressed. Despite the tragedies of her mother and her sister she wants to find excitement, to find adventure. She wants to find the light.

In parallel with the present day story, we learn the story of how the house came to be built. Akbar is an adventurer who falls in love with South Africa and settles there with his wife. Unfortunately, his arranged marriage is a hopeless mismatch. His wife is a traditional Indian Muslim woman who admires everything British and hates Africa. Their marriage is further unbalanced by his mother, who takes over the running of the house and makes all the domestic decisions. Does this triangle reflect the upper class Indian culture of that period?

Yes, I think it does. The novel does explore the interclass interactions between Indians — how Indians with lighter skins thought they were better than Indians with darker skins, that the northerners thought they were superior to the southerners, those who had money, or history or land, regarded themselves as better than those without. Even today, some Indian people aspire to be more like the British. These prejudices were firmly established at that time. I try to exploit this by looking at the relationships around the different marriages between characters.

In the midst of this, the husband falls for and takes as a second wife, Meena, a woman regarded by everyone (including herself) as entirely unsuitable. However, this is the couple Sana sees in the photograph truly loving each other. Is it inevitable this arrangement will end in tragedy?

Certainly true love doesn’t mean it will end in tragedy, though sooner or later it must end in sadness when one loses the other. In a novel, however, it’s clearly a setting in which a tragedy can take place.

Is the crux of the story a murder that takes place in the house, a murder the djinn is unable to prevent, but perpetually torments it?

Yes. This is the pivot for the story. The djinn loves the woman and is unable to prevent the murder, so after that it is trapped in endless misery.

The tragedy destroys the family who built the house, while a modern tragedy at the house brings the occupants together. Did you see this as providing a type of balance?

I wasn’t conscious of doing that, but I think sometimes there is a rhythm in your writing which balances darkness in some places with light in others. I think it does provide a balance, but it wasn’t planned that way.

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