‘The everyday haunting of inherited trauma’: Sabba Khan on her graphic memoir The Roles We Play
Shortlisted for the Myriad First Graphic Novel Competition in 2018, Sabba Khan’s The Roles We Play joins the canon of graphic memoirs by female artists of colour, including Mira Jacob’s Good Talk, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Manjit Thapp’s Feelings: A Story in Seasons. In this moving and mighty coming-of-age graphic memoir, the artist and architect explores big ‘isms’ – feminism, colonialism, and racism – alongside questions of identity, memory, family, H/history, Partition, and Islamophobia. And yet, it’s the small objects and memories – chocolate bars and sewing machines – that make her work so special and vulnerable.
Two-thirds of today’s British-Pakistani diaspora trace their origins back to Mirpur in Azad Kashmir – a district that saw mass displacement and migration when it was submerged by the waters of Mangla Dam. Khan’s work asks: ‘Where is home, Mum?’ Through beautiful sketches and illustrations, she bares her soul, slices through stereotypes, and forges new spaces as a woman of colour whose story and history has been erased or eternally corrupted.
Over email, Khan talks to Wasafiri Associate Editor Sana Goyal about the good and bad days, moving between scales, and flipping things on their head, and her ‘continuous battle to not fall into the representation game’.
Sana Goyal: Why did you want to tell this story, and where did you begin?
Sabba Khan: It was in the first year of being married to my partner that the book came to me in the way you see it. I started working on a six-page piece for an anthology titled ‘Identity’ for One Beat Zines. The literary and visual language took six months to develop, so a page a month. By the end of it, I knew I had the makings of a full-length graphic novel in there. It was also the first time I sincerely started putting my experiences down on paper. A couple of years later I managed to get a publishing deal. Of course, the importance of the story itself would not have been deemed valuable by the publishing industry and the white institutions had it not been for the generations of work done by racial justice activists across the world. My work stands on their shoulders.
I’ve had quite a traditional upbringing. I only left my family home upon marriage, and so suddenly finding all this physical and mental space to myself was quite overwhelming. I also felt like I needed to carve space to make sense of my life up to that point, as both a way to explain to my partner my experiences (we’re in an inter-faith, and inter-cultural relationship) but also for me to formalise my own sense of self, and forge how I wanted to move forward.
All the experiences of being a working-class female Muslim from a traditional conservative family, in architecture and construction, were just itching to explode onto the page.
There’s so much vulnerability and fragility on display in these pages. How did it feel to pen and ink this graphic memoir? Can you talk about the good days and the bad days?
The entire book felt like a massive therapy session. There’s a lot of stuff that I had to edit out because it was too raw, too exposing, and too sensitive, but I still had to move through it to find the bits that I could share. In some chapters I spent longer on the writing, and that’s where my experiences sit. In other chapters, it’s in the drawings. And with drawing comes a relief; it is a lot more interpretive and gestural, not as literal as words that have specific definitions. And so, both writing and drawing ended up working together to help guide me.
On the good days, I have my music in the background, my cat on the desk, and my papers and pens in front of me. I know what I’m drawing, where I’m heading; I can see how this particular chapter will feel and I lean into that and embody it as I work. It feels beautiful. Perhaps my mum comes to visit me, looks over my shoulder, and tells me she loves it. On the bad days, everything is thrown out the window. I no longer have any skills, I can’t think straight, I have no idea why I am doing this to myself. I question everything, I doubt, I self-flagellate. I fall into a shame hole, guilt hole, inadequacies hole. It’s huge and consumptive. It was a delicate space — and yet it felt completely wholesome and aligned, and it felt like my calling.
You bust several myths and slice through stereotypes of the ‘monstrous feminine’, and the ‘good Muslim’. Why are these corrective, alternative depictions of inherited histories and stories important to you?
We become the stories we tell each other. We have a heady mix of ancient Hindu influences, combined with Islamic Sufi Persian customs, adding in 200 years of British rule, migration, and post-war racism in the sixties and seventies.
I needed to put my finger on it, breathe into it, and say yes, here it is: this is where the obedient, subservient daughter comes from. My submission, my co-dependency – the stuff that has somehow become my life’s work to understand and make sense of – is not just mine, it has been passed down through the matrilineal line. My urge to understand, unpack, and deconstruct it is not just my own, but my mother’s, my hala’s, my sister’s, my nani and dadi’s, my par-nani, and par-dadi’s urge.
It gets too much; it gets to the point where you have to deconstruct it. If you don’t then what’s the point of all this learning? All this skilling-up and knowledge acquisition? Why did my ancestors all collectively work so hard for me to get here? What will come after me? What will I pass on? I see it in my mum when she looks at me. I understand that I have to fight for my dignity and self-respect and autonomy in a way she was limited from doing. She had her own ways, that were fashioned by her circumstances, and I have mine. There’s such a gulf in our circumstances, but also, it’s such a visceral connection; common anxieties, and fears, shared feelings of seeking love, validation, and companionship. We are human after all. We break out beyond good Muslim girl ideals, and break away from the Churail — the wayward, monstrous, sinful Eve/Hawah, second-rib complex we’re pushed into. The first step is to understand the role those stories have played for us, and then the next is to start to weave new types of stories, connected to the old, but altogether new. It’s a journey.
You write: ‘I think of that old home… All the ways it was our refuge. All the ways it was our prison. All the ways we occupied it. All the ways it occupied us’. You have a background in architecture. The ways in which we carve out spaces – ‘third spaces’, in-between and liminal spaces, gendered and occupied spaces – within and via the book are so radical and revelatory. What kinds of spaces are you, as a woman and artist of colour in white spaces, trying to forge and occupy through your work?
That quote pretty much sums up being a diaspora, doesn’t it? There’s something deeply paradoxical about post-colonial migrant spaces. I write about it gently, softly, because it’s something I find is hard to make space for in our current climate.
I was listening to a podcast that a few friends have put together. It’s called Blasian Circle, and it’s about celebrating South Asian and Black relationships. In one episode, someone says, ‘Being in this country is like Stockholm Syndrome’, and really that made me laugh so hard, because that’s it. It’s a weird unhealthy relationship where you strive to leave, strive to be independent from its systems, structures, and ways of being, but after multiple generations you realise you are stuck, reliant, and dependent. In the aftermath of the war on terror and subsequent waves of Islamophobia, if we can make these spaces for ourselves where we can safely ask what living in Western Europe looks like for us, then seriously we are winning.
My art is about making space to have those conversations and ask those questions, and to not feel the heavy burden to have clever, articulate answers. We don’t need answers just yet. We need to be able to ask vulnerable, raw questions, and not feel like our enquiry will get hijacked, taken out of context, or used to reinforce negative stereotypes. My method has always been to look inward first, then outward. But self is defined by its context, so I allow myself the deep interrogation I usually reserve for myself to also look outward, and to the systems that influence us. I see it as moving between scales, between micro and macro, inner and outer.
You engage with and expose a number of contradictions: the house as refuge and prison; the feeling of fitting in and not belonging; the sense of connectedness and cognitive dissonance. How does your work help you to draw out and detangle such questions and anomalies?
I enjoy flipping things on their head. To see the essence of something, you have to see its polar opposite. Then you realise that both are intimately connected, and you cannot have one without the other. And life is a perpetual pendulum between both those states. You can, one day, feel collective and communal, and then on another feel individual and solitary. Collective action is made up of individuals, and so we need to make space for both. We need to respect and validate both states of being. Of course, there is state responsibility; the role that government and legislation play in our lives is huge, I am not diminishing that at all. What I find useful is to look at the wider structures and draw connections to how they affect our everyday lives. Working with scales to see how the macro affects the micro, the relationship between the two, and how the micro can disrupt the macros.
You can tell I enjoy moving between scales. I think that’s a good way to describe how I think and navigate between things. I think my architectural training has influenced this way of thinking. We’ll draw an urban plan first, then a block of building, then a single building, then a room within the building, then a piece of furniture in the building, then a lock on the furniture, and then the key that fits the lock. You could have one single mind drawing between these huge scales; you can spend hours and hours zooming between these interconnected planes. The same goes with emotions and experiences.
Your work is deeply concerned and intertwined with H/history – personal, political, individual, collective – in the curriculum, ranging from colonialism and Partition, to displacement, diaspora, and the modern-day faces of racism and Islamophobia. How does one begin to talk about such big questions and issues — and arrive at answers, or some semblance of clarity?
For me, the backdrop of my experiences is the displacement the Mirpuri community has faced because of community clearance for the building of Mangla Dam, and the subsequent migration to the UK. All our neuroses and insecurities can be traced back to this history that is now undergoing erasure. My own family do not draw the links between the dam and Partition; they do not recognise their own displacement, because it’s not spoken about in those terms. As a people we have adopted a self-erasure of sorts. Even the very fact that we simply call ourselves ‘Pakistani’, so as not go into the complicated geopolitical history between India and Pakistan, says so much.
What I am seeking is not so much clarity or answers, but love, understanding, and empathy. I want to understand why we do we what we do. Why we hold onto symbolic notions of culture in the fervent ways we do. It was only when doing the graphic novel – reading up on what it means to be displaced, looking at the history of the Mangla Dam – that the penny dropped for me. We are a displaced people. Our notion of home is now imagined. There is no tangible home to return to.
Alongside the importance of these broader Histories, the smallest things – a chocolate bar, a sewing machine – can trigger traumatic memories, or define entire relationships. Can you talk about the material memory and inherited legacy of displacement?
Yes, I think it’s easy to talk about displacement as a word, but what does that feel like? That’s where creating symbolic devices – like the sewing machine, the chocolate bar, a door that leads to ‘back home’ and ‘in London’ simultaneously – are used to represent the everyday haunting of ‘inherited trauma’. The sewing machine is a huge symbol for me. I draw it continuously in different ways across the book. I also have lots of old photos of my mum on the sewing machine, of course coupled with a whole childhood of memories of her working on it. The sewing machine for my mum was like pen and paper to a feminist writer. She used it to emancipate herself from financial dependency on my dad, but every stitch she sewed, every garment she finished, would further enslave her to the machine. I’m not sure where she learnt to sew, but she worked that pedal her entire life. It’s the pressure to move beyond the horrors that our parents have faced that is the inherited trauma of displacement we talk about. It lives in their bones and by God it also lives in ours.
At one point in the book, you say: ‘Eager to connect to our heritage, we ended up becoming representatives of a people and a place beyond us’. How do you cope with the burden of representation?
The Western world really wants people to be representatives. Spokespeople. Symbols for other people. So they can be lazy, so they can base their perceptions on these select few, and they don’t have to work hard and understand the complexities within all of us. Opportunities to write plays and books and art are handed out sparingly, sporadically, and we are all made to feel the scarcity of exposure and thus do everything for it. Those of us that do get the ‘opportunities’ feel the weight of it, and the need to feed the representation cycle. And who becomes a representative? Someone who is deemed acceptable. Someone who has had to go through some kind of filtering device: education, work experience, language, friends. It was an active and continuous battle to not fall into the representation game. My partner, Mark, and friend and creative consultant on the project, Amneet Johal, both helped me keep my compass true. Every time I slipped, they’d call me up on it. I had to continuously tell myself ‘This is my story, these are my experiences, I can only speak for myself’, because that is the only true thing I know.
In a very moving section, you say: ‘So entangled now, in generations of role play, it can be hard to tell if this is who we are, or if it is actually a response to power dynamics’. Can you elaborate on the title of your memoir, but also the ways in which you are attempting to cultivate a self-identity beyond the narrow definitions of the white West?
The Roles We Play looks at how systems and structures shape and mould our behaviours. At all the roles we play – as mothers, daughters, sisters, lovers – and the ways in which legislations, religions, cultures, and histories dictate and define those roles. Between all the intersecting roles we play, can we find the consistent, reliable, and stable self that shifts between them? Can we hold onto her, give her a name, and see her for what she is beyond all the versions of herself that we are familiar with? It is an open, explorative, and curious journey. It asks big questions around belonging and identity, and in the process, finds itself over and over again. It holds not only the individual accountable, but also the state that has upheld generations of racist, xenophobic views, and examines the impact that has had on migrant communities. The Roles We Play understands that these are the roles we have all played in upholding supremacist structures. What do we sign up to when we are silent and complicit? What do we sign up to when we do not honour or give space to our struggles? What can we unlock for ourselves when we do?
Each chapter of the book is accompanied by a soundtrack. What does music mean to you? Who or what else inspires you?
For me, a graphic novel is an experience. It happens to be called a novel, and happens to look like a book, but it can be consumed within a few hours, much like a film or a play. It is immersive and multi-sensory. Adding a playlist was a nod to this thinking. The music is there for the reader to tap into if they wish. It’s both a musical representation of the book, and something that can be put on in the background whilst reading the book. Each chapter has a song that sets the tone, or triggers personal memories that are connected to the themes of the chapter. The music is loose and playful, and it is nostalgic. For those who grew up in the UK in the nineties, you’ll recognise a common theme of old–school Bollywood ghazals back-to-back with neo-soul tracks. This was the sound of my childhood; this is the sound of my memories.
I love the multi-disciplinary work of Otobong Nkanga, the sculptures of Rachel Whiteread, the street art of the late Hyruo, the punk collages of Hannah Höch, Hokusai’s woodblocks, the intricacies of the Singh Twins’ works, the surrealism of René Magritte, the writing of bell hooks, and the poetry of contemporary South Asian poets — Shagufta K Iqbal, Hafsah Aneela Bashir, and Sunnah Khan. The Blasian Circle podcast, George the Poet, Amaliah, the WeTransfer holding pages, the Domestika sponsored ads on Instagram — moments of inspiration are everywhere. It’s hard to contain it and pin it all down.
Sana Goyal is a PhD candidate in literary prize cultures at SOAS, University of London. Previously Digital Editor, she now serves as an Associate Editor at Wasafiri. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including The Guardian, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Brixton Review of Books, Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, Poetry London, Wasafiri, Mint Lounge, India, and Vogue India. She lives between Birmingham and Bombay and tweets @SansyG.