And so, to Hay-on-Wye: the furthest I have travelled, and the longest I have waited to travel, since the country was locked down – and that to a sleepy little town seemingly in the middle of nowhere. A place which to enter you must pay a token to cross a bridge – lest you disturb the troll that lies under, of course. We are only at the fringes of the town and already it has begun – telling the weary (and no doubt literary) traveller that stories await, for it is stories that put Hay on the international map.
I grew up in towns not unlike Hay, places littered across England and the US, in the Midwest and New England – but none of these mellow stopping grounds had any claim to fame. Just a smattering of a population which included me smarting like a sore thumb.
I’ve lived in London now for the past decade and I’d almost forgotten what these places were like. London, with its cacophony of colours, where it is almost impossible to be noticed let alone observed, has the intoxicating effect of making you forget whatever came before it.
Many greats have stood before me in this town; their ghosts swarm the narrow streets, reminding us of What Could Have Been in a no-pandemic world. I never imagined as a young black girl living in a small rural town that one day I might have a place in these towns, that I too might belong.
My debut novel, We Are All Birds of Uganda, which I spoke about with Sameer Rahim at the Hay Festival 2021, is a story about belonging in the context of the South Asian expulsion from Uganda in 1972. An extract of it is below.
Abdullah does not know how lucky he is, to belong without effort. We were divided in the house when independence came. Shabnam wanted – of course – to remain British. How beauteous it was at that time to have the luxury of choosing – we had everything we could have wanted, and we had a choice of who we wanted to be! To tell you the truth, prior to independence, I had never given much thought to the matter.
My Indian ancestors had sailed, unhindered, across land and sea to arrive in Africa many decades ago. There was nothing to stop them from aligning themselves with this country – to the contrary, everything about this country appealed to them, it begged them to come. Who knew then that the creation of passports would allow one to question the very existence of oneself?
Shahzeb helped me to prepare the papers. I was to apply for Ugandan citizenship, and Shabnam would remain British – once I obtained my citizenship, she would be my dependent, as would our young children. It is far better to have a British passport, Shabnam warned me. ‘What else do you need a passport for other than to travel? It will be easier to travel on a British passport than a Ugandan one. The world respects the British.’ But she was wrong in thinking that the only function of a passport is to facilitate travel. It is much more than that; it is a mark of identity: for the first time in its history, we would be able to identify ourselves as citizens of Uganda. An independent Uganda, birthed from the departure of the British with very little blood. An allegiance of a kingdom and political party, a democratic election: each concept, new to Uganda – but anything to get the British out.
Hafsa Zayyan is the inaugural winner of the #MerkyBooks New Writers Prize and her debut novel, We Are All Birds of Uganda was published in 2021 by #MerkyBooks.