Ashti Juggath

Jatinder Padda, editor with Read African Books, interviews award-winning author, Ashti Juggath, on her debut novel, Peaches and Smeets (Modjaji Books). 

Jatinder Padda: First of all, congratulations on the book. It is beautifully evocative, of place, time, and what being a young girl can be like. And second, congratulations on the NIHSS (National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences) 2024 award for Best Fiction Emerging Winner! How are you finding this recognition for your writing?

Ashti Juggath: Initially it was unbelievable that I actually won an award for my debut novel. For me to have the novel published was a dream come true, and when my name was announced at the awards ceremony, it was quite surreal. It is a great honour to be recognised by such an esteemed body. Many of the NIHSS judges were academics, so the award is almost a validation of my writing. 

The appreciation and increased focus on the book from the public and the media has been fantastic. It is always great to be acknowledged, and there has also been some increased interest in purchasing the book.

The novel follows a young Smita Maharaj and her family, of Indian descent, from 1954 to 1968, with a brief epilogue decades later, in apartheid South Africa. Why did you choose this period and why in this way, that is, closely following the perspective of a girl into early adulthood and the familial relationships?

The South Africa that the current generation lives in is a far cry from the past. Many young people today live in a world that is mostly free of discrimination, in an integrated society, so they do not realise what it was like to grow up with so many constraints and restrictions. I wanted to highlight the struggles of our past and the difficult journey that women and people of colour had to traverse in order to receive basic rights like education, freedom of movement, and the prerogative to make their own choices in life.

It was also very disturbing to me that during and prior to the 1950s and 1960s, women, particularly Indian woman, were denied the opportunity to pursue tertiary education, despite their level of intelligence, because getting married and learning culinary and housekeeping skills was considered more important. In my own family, my paternal grandmother achieved excellent results, but had to leave school, while her brothers were allowed to continue studying and become teachers.

My parents used to share their experiences from this era with me and my siblings as these are the years that they grew up in, so I had some stories to tell about this time in history. 

The inclusion of wider political/historical episodes—from indentured Indian rail workers in Kenya to Gandhi’s politicisation—was done with brevity and a lightness of touch. Always contextualised within the wider story. Was this integration of the personal and the wider political a challenge?

Yes, it was. I wanted to tell a story, but also wanted to highlight the history of the time without focussing too much on this, so there had to be a balance. For me, historical fiction novels that I enjoy have this format—if the historical emphasis is too intense, I feel that boredom will set in for the reader, which is something that had to be avoided.

The cultural details of how race was used within society, such as hair ‘passing the pencil test’, were fascinating. How much did you know of these already or did this come through your research?

As mentioned above, some of the incidents were based on stories that were told by family and friends that lived through these as well as reading some of the literature available where South Africans suffered from the injustices of apartheid and were discriminated against due to race. However, I had to do a considerable amount of independent research for some of the detail.  

How did you research the novel? It is full of intimate details about the lives of the Indian community—from food to noting the position of outsiders like Kanamma. Did you find these through oral interviews as well as searching through archives?

I think being of Indian origin did help here, as some of the details are quite universal to the South African community. My mother provided some of the context and I spent a fair amount of time in Springs, the setting of the novel as my grandparents lived there. There was also a  fair amount of embellishment and imagination on my part, but research was necessary throughout the book as I needed to reference some of the factual content.

Have you had any responses from the generation you represent in the novel?

Yes, many of the people from that generation loved the book and could identify with the characters and events described. What was surprising though is how the book seemed to have resonated with people of my generation and people across the different race groups in South Africa.

How have you found the publishing process for your first novel (with independent, feminist South African publisher, Modjaji Books)? And are you working on a new book? 

The publishing process was both fun and tedious. Initially it was very exciting, but then the editing was painstaking and laborious. In retrospect, I am glad that the editing was rigorous and produced a polished version of the manuscript. It was incredible to finally hold and see the actual hard copy of the book.

I am working on a new book, which I hope will attract sufficient interest from a publisher, and if published, will be as well received as Peaches and Smeets.

Do you have any advice for other emerging writers?

Writers need to believe in themselves and pursue their dreams. Everyone has a story to tell, so if a person has an urge or feels that they have a flair for writing, they should try and create something from that passion. This is best expressed by Sylvia Plath:

And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” — Sylvia PlathThe Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath.

Thanks so much for your time. Congratulations again

Ashti's book, Peaches and Smeets, is available via African Books Collective
And if you want to hear more from Ashti, here is an interview she did with South Africa's Espresso Show.
To find out more about Modjaji Books, publisher of many award winners and shortlisted titles, take a look at their site.

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