Nikesh Shukla interviews Neema Shah about her moving debut novel Kololo Hill
Neema Shah’s heartbreaking novel Kololo Hill is an astonishing debut set during Idi Amin’s expulsion of Ugandan Asians from Uganda. Here she talks to Nikesh Shukla, author of Brown Baby, about her first book.
Neema Shah’s devastating debut novel tells the story of Asha and Pran who, along with Pran’s mother Jaya, must flee Uganda following Idi Amin’s decree that all Ugandan Asians must leave the country in ninety days. Nikesh Shukla, author of the heartwarming memoir Brown Baby and editor of The Good Immigrant, called Kololo Hill ‘an impressive, confident debut about family and survival, against the backdrop of a history that is not written about often enough.’ Here, Nikesh talks to Neema about her writing process, the research that went into her novel and her parents’ experience of being immigrants in the UK.
Nikesh: Before we delve into Kololo Hill, I'm keen to know more about your writing journey. Do you remember the first thing you wrote that you wish to share with the world? What was it?
Neema: When I took up creative writing again in my late thirties, I’d convinced myself that although I loved English at school, I wasn’t a particularly prolific writer as a child. But my mum recently dug out some storybooks that I’d written, various stories about a mischievous best friend who got her other friend in trouble – highly original I’m sure you’ll agree! I don’t remember writing them but it goes to show how our adult lives can muffle our early passions. As the late Sir Ken Robinson said, ‘we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it.’
Nikesh: The novel has such an incredible scope: you have huge political tensions, a family under a huge amount of pressure and also the trauma that follows them through the streets of their new home. How did you balance these modes when you were writing? What was the trickiest to pull off?
Neema: It was a challenge, no doubt. I’ve taken a historical event which not many people know about and I needed to clearly explain that context while also ensuring the story was focused on the personal stories of the family. Early drafts were a little too heavy on the historical explanations and so I spent time in my later drafts ensuring that these events were primarily being told through the characters’ experiences, rather than imposing a heavy authorial ‘hand’. While my main characters Jaya, Asha and Vijay do face a lot of trauma, I was keen to balance the darkness with some light. There was kindness for the refugees, both in Uganda and in the UK, for example.
Nikesh: Asha, Pran and Jaya are such beautifully drawn, complex and interesting characters, more importantly, ones I've not encountered on the page before. Can you talk me through the techniques you used to build them up as characters?
Neema: Thank you so much. Asha and her mother-in-law Jaya are loosely based on my mum and my maternal grandmother, in terms of their spirit and tenacity. I also enjoyed showing the way they contrast – and indeed sometimes clash – because of their different personalities and life experiences. Pran was borne out of my desire to show someone who is laser-focused on what he wants and the devastating ways that this impacts on his life and others’. I also wanted to explore what a huge event like the expulsion would have on someone who is single-minded and inflexible in his beliefs. The most interesting fiction comes, I think, from the ways in which distinct characters interact with each other so while the protagonists in my novel are organic products from my own imagination, in later drafts I looked at the ways I could dial up the differences between the characters to create more tension and conflict.
Nikesh: Hilary Mantel in her Reith Lecture on writing historical fiction talked about it being 'what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it . . .' Given that this is very recent history you're writing about, and a refugee story we've not seen covered, can you talk me through your research, where it took you and what you found out? I know there's a personal connection here so also, if you could talk me through conversations with your own family.
Neema: In some ways, I wonder whether my research was just as challenging, if not more so, than Hilary Mantel’s research of the 16th century. There are few written records and books of the first-hand experiences of the Ugandan Asians. There is an understandable reticence from those who lived through it to talk about such a harrowing period. To understand what it might have been like to live in and leave the country, I spent a week in Uganda, where I observed how in ‘the late afternoon sun, the mosquitoes glowed gold like embers from a fire.’
Beyond this, I did indeed speak at length to my parents. My mum was born and brought up in Kenya, my dad in Tanzania but we also have extended family from Uganda. The cultures of the three countries are similar. I’ve learnt so much about my parents and their early lives through writing this book. I had no idea, for example, that they had colonial education – they learnt about Dickens and Austen just like I did in London.
I also learnt more about their early days in the UK. I had no idea until I spoke to my mum while I wrote the book that she’d faced skinheads in the street calling her ‘Paki’. When I asked her how she coped, my mum just shrugged her shoulders and said she ignored them! All these conversations have helped me not only write Kololo Hill but understand my family and myself better.
Nikesh: What is the one thing you learned about writing novels as you worked on Kololo Hill that you will take into your second book?
Neema: The flippant answer is that it’s bloody difficult! But seriously, I learnt everything about writing through Kololo Hill. It’s the first novel I’ve written and I was very much learning as I went. With my second novel, I at least know what’s coming! What I’ve been particularly mindful of when writing book two is to be even bolder and braver than I was with Kololo Hill, that’s where great stories are truly made. I owe it to myself and my readers.
Nikesh: I really remember the first time I was properly edited. It was Rajeev Balasubramanyam and Courttia Newland on a short story in my first-ever anthology. It taught me so much about my voice, about execution and intention, and about the care we must take once that important first draft is done. What was that relationship like for you with this novel?
Neema: I am totally blessed to work with my wonderful editor Ansa Khan Khattak at Picador. She’s taught me so much about how paring back words can help key ideas shine brighter. I’ve also learnt that a good author-editor relationship is a dialogue, looking at ways to make the novel better together without taking away from the original authorial intent. I had the added challenges that go with writing a novel in English about characters who aren’t always speaking English to each other (they primarily speak Gujarati and Swahili). Ansa has helped me navigate this choppy water in a way that feels authentic and unforced. Her input has made Kololo Hill a far better book.
Nikesh: Were there books, both fiction and non-fiction you read, were there films and documentaries you watched, podcasts you listened to as research for this?
Neema: There’s very little fiction on the Ugandan Asian experience although I did read various books by M.G. Vassanji, a Kenyan-Asian author who has written extensively about East Africa. I also recommend the beautifully written The Gravity of Sunlight by Rosa Shand which is a broader exploration of colonial Uganda. For non-fiction, alongside news articles and so on, Mahmood Mamdani’s From Citizen to Refugee: Uganda Asians Come to Britain, a fascinating first-hand account of the refugee experience and the School of Oriental and Asian Studies’ Exiles: A Ugandan Asian Story, a brilliant video interview project featuring hours of first-hand interviews were invaluable.
For those who’d like different perspectives on Idi Amin and the impact on ordinary lives, I recommend Mira Nair’s film Mississippi Masala starring Sarita Choudhury and Denzel Washington and The Last King of Scotland based on Giles Foden’s book.
Nikesh: Who is the reader you hope to find with the novel?
Neema: I’ve already had lots of wonderful messages from people who knew nothing about the expulsion or the history that followed, including the children and grandchildren of the Ugandan Asian refugees themselves. I hope that Kololo Hill brings these experiences to life for a wider readership and prompts more conversations while the history is still within living memory. It’s a part of Asian history, it’s a part of British history too. The themes of citizenship, belonging and home are all too relevant in the modern world.
Nikesh: What have you read or watched or listened to recently that's really made an impact on your writing?
Neema: Fiona Scarlett’s upcoming Boys Don’t Cry manages to be both utterly heartbreaking and funny at the same time. There is so much humanity in the way she shows moments of light even in the darkest days. I love seeking out stories that feature unusual protagonists that aren’t often featured in literature and thoroughly enjoyed Frances Quinn’s The Smallest Man. I’ve just finished Nikita Gill’s The Girl and The Goddess and Nikesh, if may say, I loved your memoir Brown Baby. Both of these books reminded me of the importance of writing unapologetically and honestly about my culture and experiences. The BBC drama Small Axe managed to be so many things at once: beautiful and raw and uplifting and harrowing. It shed light on parts of British history that should be far better known. For something a bit more lighthearted, I’ve just watched the first couple of series of Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal. It’s a masterclass in genuine plot twists and complex, morally ambiguous characters.
Discover Neema’s debut novel Kololo Hill:
Discover Nikesh Shukla’s memoir Brown Baby: