Interview with Sumayya Lee author of the ‘Maha series’

credit: Simone Scholtz

Sumayya Lee was born and raised in Durban, South Africa. She has worked as an Islamic Studies teacher, Montessori Directress and Teacher of English as a Foreign Language. Her debut, The Story of Maha (Kwela, 2007) was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book – Africa and Longlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Award. It is currently on the undergraduate Curriculum at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal. Her second novel, Maha, Ever After was published by Kwela in 2009. She has also been a judge for the Young Muslim Writers Awards, for the past five years. Sumayya has been a mentor on the Writivism programme and has judged the annual Writivism Short Story Prize She currently serves as the Writivism Mentoring and Residencies coordinator.

A. Tell our readers five random facts about you.

S.L 1) I’ve been teaching for most of my life.

2) I have four adult children ­ two human, two feline.

3) I was terrible at athletics but won a trophy for my House in swimming.

4) I am terrified of open heights.

5) As a child, in desperation, I once read a car manual.

A. Where did the idea of the ‘Maha series’ emerge?

S.L I always knew I was going to write about growing up in Durban during Apartheid, so on some level, Maha was always brewing. The idea of being a writer first took hold when I was a language and literature obsessed
teenager so when I sat down to write, Maha’s voice was the loud and unsurprisingly sassy voice of a teenager. I didn’t intend to write a series, but after the first novel I felt quite strongly that Maha’s story would continue and was happy to oblige when my publishers asked about a sequel.

A. From your debut novel, The Story of Maha, we are introduced from the first page the vibrant and tumultuous customs of an Indo­African society in South Africa. Was this intentional and why?

S.L It was! My intention was to share OUR stories with the world and back then, reading Adrian Mole was a case of boy, you think you have it hard… we have Apartheid! Writing about really dark human experiences is difficult and seeing the community through Maha’s adolescent eyes created the space for humour. I have always been fascinated by language and its use ­particularly local slang, and so I also wanted to capture the period in which the novel is set, with all of its linguistic specificity. My children were quite young when I was writing The Story of Maha and in retrospect I believe there was a part of me that wanted to preserve the ‘sounds’ of my childhood for them.

credit: Simone Scholtz


A. Aside from writing you are involved in the annual Writivism festival held in Kampala, Uganda – from serving as judge for the festival’s Short Story Prize and the organising team. What has this taught you about the place of literary festivals within the African literary context?

S.L Festivals like Writivism, serve to address the literary disconnect that has existed on the continent since forever. They create a space that allows writers to connect with each other as well as with readers: many of whom are genuinely startled to meet writers they can identify with. These festivals are also the best place to access literature from all over the continent. Sadly, the chances of purchasing a Kenyan book in SA or vice versa are slim unless either have been published in Europe or the USA.

A. As many acknowledge, a writer’s career often includes wearing multiple hats. Would you say this is your case and if so, why do you write?

S.L Writing is a part of my life. If I am not writing to tell a story, I am constantly practicing writing in a variety of ways and not always directly concerned with the production of novels. Sometimes its just writing lame limericks on an old typewriter. Not writing, is never an option. Somethings I’ve learnt about the production part of the writing life so far: There is much more writing and re­writing done and trashed than done and presented to the world.
The more you write, the more you will write and the more you will one day produce. Each story has its own path and unless you’re writing a series that follows a formula, you cannot predict how long a novel is going to take from inception to birth, and then from birth to being the right shape to let go.

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