Zaheera Jina Asvat

Jatinder Padda, editor with Read African Books, interviews Zaheera Jina Asvat about her new short story collection, The Tears of the Weaver (Modjaji Books).

Jatinder Padda: Congratulations on the collection!

Zaheera Jina Asvat: Thank you so very much. 

To begin, how did you come to writing? Could you let the readers know when and why you began to write?

I started writing as a child, composing poetry and submitting it to competitions, winning a few but losing many. I vividly remember reciting one of my poems to the renowned poet Dr. Don Mattera at the age of 12. I also wrote short stories about friendship, inspired by Sweet Valley High (US teen fiction series), and even created a cartoon strip. Despite receiving numerous rejections from publishing houses, they always encouraged me by saying that if I continued honing my craft, I could produce good writing as I grew older.

Reflecting on this, I realize that if they had been overly critical, Tears of the Weaver might never have come to be. In 2012, while pursuing a PhD, I explored my various identities as a Muslim woman, mother, and student. This led me to collect personal narratives from Muslim women focusing on themes of marriage and identity. The collection, Riding the Samoosa Express: Personal Narratives of Marriage and Beyond, was published by Modjaji Books in 2014. Following this, I curated a similar collection called Saffron: A Collection of Personal Narratives by Muslim Women. In 2016, I wrote and illustrated a children's book called Surprise! which was published in the USA. In 2017, I began crafting the stories for Tears of the Weaver. A common thread throughout my work is my desire to express my thoughts on issues affecting my community. I write to express myself and to inspire change, believing that stories, like fresh wounds, heal only after they bleed. We can only address injustices once we become aware of them.

The characters in The Tears of the Weaver stories, all set in and around South Africa’s Lenasia, are vividly brought to life. Before we go any further, could you give the readers a bit of background on Lenasia?

Although the stories are set in Lenasia, the characters could easily be from other communities shaped by apartheid laws. Lenasia, also known as Lenz, is a suburb south of Soweto in Gauteng province, South Africa, established in 1958 to house Indian residents. Named after Captain Lenz, the original landowner, Lenasia grew as apartheid-era planners designated it for Johannesburg's Indian population, relocating many from areas like Pageview and Vrededorp. Lenasia has 13 unplanned extensions, mostly gated communities with private security funded by resident associations. The residents are mainly from middle to lower-income groups. These associations, typically run by men, are patriarchal, with women seen primarily as nurturers and child bearers. Surrounding informal settlements face significant issues with service delivery and sanitation. Rising property prices and traffic congestion are prompting younger residents to seek more multicultural environments outside the suburb.

In the Foreword, the writer Nedine Moonsamy describes it as somewhere people were able “to spin a palace out of a jail”. There is a melancholia that runs through the stories, varied though they are. How do you know Lenasia so intimately and what do you think of that description?

The stories are rooted in Lenasia's context but could easily connect with residents of similar communities. I grew up in such a community, experiencing firsthand the unique mix of resilience and adversity that defines it. Nedine Moonsamy's depiction of Lenasia as a place where people could "spin a palace out of a jail" deeply resonates with me. It encapsulates the essence of the suburb's spirit—turning a space shaped by apartheid's oppressive laws into a lively, though imperfect, community. The melancholy woven throughout the stories reflects the enduring impact of those challenging times, while also showcasing the resilience and ingenuity of its inhabitants.

The characters’ lives are intimately woven together, while at the same time the imagery shows the barriers that exist everywhere: from the windows separating Juleikha from Nomawethu, to the gates of Suhail’s informal settlement and obstacles to his citizenship, to the literal and figurative wall between the siblings in The Tears of the Weaver. These elements are held together delicately. Was it a challenge to hold these aspects in balance?

Yes, balancing these themes was indeed a challenge. Addressing the intricacies of real-life relationships and societal dynamics is challenging, especially when you're writing about a community to which you personally relate. These themes took on added significance, serving as a means to confront my own critical inner voice. Crafting the stories and assembling the collection required careful planning, involving hours of thinking and crafting.

Were the stories written with a view to a cohesive collection at the outset or were they written over a period of time and selected here for their thematic connections?

The stories were planned together as one cohesive collection, with themes running through each story and connecting them all.

Were you influenced by any particular authors as you came to write the stories?

Absolutely. I love reading stories rich in depth and vivid descriptions. Authors who have shaped my writing include Arundhati Roy, especially her novel The God of Small Things, as well as Rachel Joyce. Additionally, South African writers like Achmat Dangor and Fred Khumalo have been influential for me.

How have you found publishing a short story collection? Was it more challenging than if you had published a novel?

I initially started working on a novel, but I encountered significant challenges, particularly with the writing process. Despite knowing what I wanted to convey, I struggled to piece together the words effectively. As a result, I decided to explore short stories and discovered that they were more manageable and flowed more easily for me.

Do you have any advice for other short story writers in South Africa?

My advice for fellow short story writers in South Africa is to stay committed to your craft. Write every day, even if it's just a few hundred words. This consistency will help you improve and keep your creative momentum going. Embrace feedback, no matter how difficult it might be, as it’s essential for growth. Engage with others and seek out beta readers to gain different perspectives on your work. Lastly, don't be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and tackle challenging themes—it's often where the most powerful stories are found. Keep believing in your voice and the unique stories you have to tell.

Thanks so much for your time. Congratulations again!

Zaheera's book, The Tales of the Weaver, is available via African Books Collective

 To find out more about Modjaji Books, publisher of many award winners and shortlisted titles, take a look at their site.

Keep Informed With The Latest Updates

Newsletter Signup Newsletter Signup