Shenaaz Nanji's novel, Child of Dandelions, was on the short list for a Governor-General's award.
Children’s author Shenaaz Nanji mined the stories of more than 70 families – including her own – who fled from Uganda in 1972 to write her first novel, 10 years in the making. The wait was worth it.
When a novel takes 10 years to finish, the writer has one question in mind: “What if I die before this book is done?” says Shenaaz Nanji with a laugh. That Child of Dandelions, a young adult novel nominated for a 2008 Governor-General’s Literary Award, is on bookstore shelves now is prize enough. “It’s like a dream come true that the story is being published.”
Set in Kampala during the three months dictator Idi Amin gave Asians to get out of Uganda in 1972, Nanji’s book skillfully recreates the mounting anxieties and fears that faced the wealthy community of 80,000 through her heroine, 15-year-old Sabine, who must help manoeuvre her family through this newly dangerous, upside down world.
It’s a story close to Nanji’s heart. Born and raised in neighbouring Kenya, she saw her relatives in Uganda at a loss to understand what was happening to them. Like the characters in the book, they thought that Amin’s order only applied to Indian citizens, not to the Ugandanborn, even if he called them all “cockroaches.” But a week before deadline, Nanji’s own uncle, who had been imprisoned on a charge of dealing foreign currency, was found dead in a car.
Now living in Calgary for more than 25 years with her husband (her adult children live in Toronto), Nanji began her writing career as a way to provide stories that would resonate with her son and daughter. Her first children’s books were for TSAR, the Toronto-based publishing firm belonging to M.G. Vassanji and Nurjehan Aziz, and were published in 1993. More stories followed, including Treasure for Lunch (about a young girl bringing kebabs and samosas for her school lunch) and An Alien in My House. Last year Indian Tales, a collection of eight folk tales, came out to critical acclaim.
In the meantime, Nanji was continuously reworking her Uganda novel, which she first submitted to a contest in 1998. She sent the manuscript, written from the point-of-view of a 20-year-old, to a couple of Canadian publishers.
“I got two good rejections,” remembers Nanji. The copious notes she received gave her the confidence to continue, eventually completing an MFA in children’s literature from Vermont College where she met her mentor, Newbery Award honoree Carolyn Coman.
Coman’s advice changed everything. She told the first-time novelist to write in the third person. Although Nanji did not initially agree, the suggestion opened her eyes to what was missing in the book.
“I had no objectivity,” she says. “I was writing as an Indian. I had no idea there were deeper causes (for the expulsion). I had thought it was greed and a lust for power. Slowly I realized it was about class distinctions and poverty.”
As Nanji explains it, Uganda was a cauldron of competing interests, the result of British colonialism. Not only were there three classes – the British rulers, the Indian business owners and then the Africans – the British also played tribal politics, dividing jobs in the army, government and agriculture according to ethnic affiliation.
However, Nanji is quick to add that the Asian population was complicit in this system. “We were no angels,” she says, referring to how Indians poorly treated the Africans after the British left. In Child of Dandelions, an Indian shop owner ignores Sabine’s best friend, who is African, while Sabine herself realizes that the African servants in her home are treated like untouchables in India, given their own set of utensils to use.
“We had a colonial attitude and saw the Africans as inferior,” says Nanji, while the Africans saw the Indians as one big community with skin the colour of nutmeg.
Rewriting Child of Dandelions led to Nanji questioning her own upbringing as an Ismaili, her family going back two generations in Africa. “My grandparents came to Africa in little dhows, such a small thing in the stormy Indian ocean,” she says. “I was born in the Aga Khan hospital, lived in the Aga Khan flats and went to the Aga Khan school,” she says.
Her own story was proof of the limited integration of the religious and ethnic communities and castes that originally came from India – there were Bohras, Goans, Khoja-Ismailis, Ithnashri, Parsis, Punjabis, Sikhs, Shahs and Patels.
“If we couldn’t marry within ourselves, how could we integrate with them?” asks Nanji, who only made friends with Africans when she changed schools at the age of 16 in Mombasa and later attended the University of Nairobi. Eventually, her own immediate family also began to leave Kenya, afraid the same contagion would spread from Uganda.
These insights propel Child of Dandelions into a fascinating coming-of-age story for Sabine as her uncle suddenly disappears and she learns the extent of the dangers facing her family.
Mining her own family’s story, Nanji made Sabine younger, close to the age she was when these events took place. She interviewed almost 70 families who had experienced the countdown, now living in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver as well as in Texas, New York, London and Nairobi, to build a realistic portrait of the refugees-to-be – from the nightmarish task of obtaining acceptable travel documents and visas to the dash to the airport past armed checkpoints with soldiers keen on humiliating the frightened departees.
Nanji does not end the book as a tragedy, but with a feeling of hope. As Sabine and her younger brother sit on a plane on their way to Canada, Sabine makes a plan: “The best way to avenge the injustice, she decided, would be to live well and be happy.”
“The refugees came with just their shirts on their backs,” Nanji points out. “Hey, we are resilient.”
Piali Roy is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Email: email@example.com