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Hafsa Zayyan: “I always have to prove I’m half-South Asian because I look Black”
The author on anti-Blackness, liberalising conversations and being 100% of everything
Hi, welcome back to Mixed Messages! This week I’m speaking to author Hafsa Zayyan, who is of Nigerian and Pakistani heritage. Hafsa was one of the inaugural winners of the Merky Books prize with her transporting debut novel, We Are All Birds of Uganda. The story is split between 1960s Uganda, where South Asian Hasan struggles with a new regime, and present-day London, where Sameer is drawn back to his family home by unexpected tragedy. The story draws on both sides of Hafsa’s heritage, so I couldn’t wait to hear her own mixed experience. Read Hafsa’s story below.
Can you tell me a bit about your family background?
I'm half-Nigerian, half-Pakistani. My mum’s family migrated to Nigeria in the ‘60s. I guess I'd call myself mixed-race. I'm British as well. If people ask me, ‘what's your mix?’ I generally tend to say Asian-African or Nigerian-Pakistani which is such an unusual mix. When you’re filling out your ethnicity on those forms there’s so few categories, I just tick ‘other’ because that’s what I am.
When people ask me to describe myself, I don't really lead with my ethnicity. But if I’m asked where I’m from and I’m willing to disclose it, I’ll say half-Nigerian half-Pakistani.
Are there situations when you don’t feel comfortable answering that question?
I feel like it’s such a loaded question when a white person asks it, whereas if I can see someone has an ethnic background themselves, I don’t mind sharing – they’re asking because it’s a mutual, shared interest. When a white person asks, it’s more of a morbid curiosity, it’s kind of voyeuristic. There’s a weird tone behind it that I don’t necessarily like. Most of the time I just answer anyway because I think it's quite an interesting response and I don’t mind telling people.
Do you feel that your sense of self has been consistent over time?
Growing up I've always connected more with my Pakistani identity. My household followed the traditional Pakistani-Nigerian domestic set-up, where my mum did most of the child-rearing. I spoke Urdu before I spoke English because that was the language that she spoke to me and my sister in. She does all the cooking so I eat Pakistani food, she buys all our clothes, I wear salwar kameez and saris, I watched a lot of Bollywood movies…
My Nigerian side, I’ve got far less of that. I hardly eat Nigerian food or wear Nigerian clothes because my dad didn’t feed that into that family situation. I still felt Nigerian in some ways, but not massively. I’ve written an essay about my relationship with Nigeria for Of This Our Country. But I was always very much Pakistani.
The area where I had a lot of confusion was my Britishness. At home, we didn’t act British. It was hard for me to understand where I fit in, growing up as a kid all you want to do is assimilate. I went to predominantly white schools and I remember a friend coming into my house which has a massive Turkish rug, furniture from Pakistan and masks on the wall from Nigeria. My friend said “this is very ethnic.” My mum would make curry for tea, and my friends would think they were trying “strange” and “exotic” food – not British.
I struggled with the idea of how I could be Pakistani-Nigerian, like I was at home, but sufficiently British to fit in at school. I grew out of that – when I was at university, you decide that being the same is not actually that interesting, being different is way more fun.
Did you ever speak to your family explicitly about being mixed?
No, I haven’t. We might have conversations about racism or the difficulties of mixed relationships, how that was awkward for their families and how they were treated when they came to the UK, but we never had the conversation about how that filtered down to our generation and how we as mixed children were impacted. Because I look Black, most people assume I don’t have any South Asian in me at all, which is strange because I feel more South Asian. Because I've had the experience of being mixed growing up, that conversation will naturally be had with my kids.
There’s a lot of anti-Blackness in South Asian communities, as well as colourism – this is something you explore in We Are All Birds of Uganda. Has that been an issue in your family?
I would say 80% of the experiences in the book are things that have happened to me, or that I’ve seen happen to friends and family. The descriptions of anti-Blackness, the racism in South Asian communities and colourism are real things that are still going on. It’s very rarely explored in media, aside from something like the film Mississippi Masala. When I walk into the South Asian communities expecting to be accepted as one of them, then being rejected because I don’t look like them, the anti-Blackness is more stark.
There was a lot of resistance on my mum’s side to marrying my dad because he was the darker skinned one. I don’t think my dad’s family were that fussed. They had to weather that storm. It’s a sad thing and it’s something worth drawing attention to. Whenever we talk about racism, we talk about white people, but they’re not always the perpetrators.
Do you think there’s a stereotype around being mixed?
I think it’s tough to look at somebody and know exactly who they are and where they come from. The phrase mixed-race people often get is ‘ethnically ambiguous,’ and it’s always me having to prove that I’m half-South Asian because I look Black. It’s really annoying.
The whole conversation of how we see mixedness has to be a little bit more liberal because we’re so constricted by what people look like, yet we’re having conversations around people culturally appropriating. My daughter’s a quarter Black, if she wanted to wear cornrows, is she allowed to do that? It’s all very delicate because we’re becoming more and more mixed. As society progresses, we’re in an era of wokeness where every little thing you say or do can be blown out of proportion. But as a group, we’re becoming more and more ethnically mixed. We’re going to have to balance how we reconcile those two competing things because we can’t start accusing people of cultural appropriation if they’re actually a quarter of that heritage.
What’s the best thing about being mixed for you?
I love being mixed. I feel like I’m fully both, I don’t have to be half of something. Despite the fact that I’m ethnically 50/50, I’m going to immerse myself 100% in both cultures and ethnicities. I don’t have to sacrifice any part of me to do that. That’s such a unique thing to be able to do, who gets to say they’re South Asian and Nigerian?!
Can you represent your mixed experience in a word?
Unique. Hopefully it won't be that unique in like another 200 years time, but at the moment it feels like I'm one of not many, and it's an individual experience to everyone who is mixed. You have your own story and unique experience.
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Mixed Messages is a weekly exploration of the mixed-race experience, from me, Isabella Silvers. My mom is Punjabi (by way of East Africa) and my dad is white British, but finding my place between these two cultures hasn’t always been easy. That’s why I started Mixed Messages, where each week I’ll speak to a prominent mixed voice to delve into what it really feels like to be mixed.