Imagine taking an entirely new look at your family photo album. But instead of the perfectly posed, Sunday-best version of events, you can see the whole story. You can hear the argument between your parents just before your 10th birthday party photo was taken or see the endless “in arrears” envelopes that began to stream in just months after you took that family photo in front of the brand-new car. Behind the Disney-approved version of your journey to this point in time, you see the web of strings and loose ends that make your picture what it is.
That’s what Jamil Khan does with his debut, Khamr: The Makings of a Waterslams. He creates a memoir that oscillates between good sense and deep sensitivity, and explores both the self and the society that shapes it.
Khan’s work has a considered quality to it. At times, the exciting and sometimes shocking events of his childhood growing up in Cape Town give the book a page-turning momentum. At other times, his pace is slower and more deliberate, particularly where he engages a kind of “floating voice” narrative above the everyday events he describes. A passage describing his father Farouk’s endless quest for wealth becomes an equally moving discussion about the ways in which post-apartheid hope, toxic masculinity, race and religion intermingle to create traps for black families.
This intentional oscillating narrative makes sense when you know the author is also pursuing a PhD in critical diversity studies. His sharp memory and career experience help the work achieve a rare feat. It is able to drive the personal story of Khan’s evolution while simultaneously tackling the ways in which societal structures shape action and reaction by everyday people, but without relegating the agency of characters like his mother, father and neighbours to “products” of their environment.
“The concept for the book changed many times throughout its eight-year inception based on who I was and what I was able to do,” Khan explains. “Honestly, the book started out to centre the theme of ethnic tensions denoted through the boesman-Slams dichotomy and I am not sure whether it remained central, but the commitment to demonstrate intersectionality just kept inserting itself. The initial process as put down in the book proposal was really about chronologically sectioning the story into chapters that made up a continuous narrative. There were central themes mapped out, but with each chapter the content came as I wrote it.”
It’s an important step forward for the ways in which stories about black life are told, even by ourselves.
In his now-famous set of essays by the same name, writer Njabulo Ndebele calls for the “rediscovery of the ordinary” in which writing about black people is not simply writing about black experience according to externally imposed stereotypes – in his context, writing in 1989, this was most often the “oppressed black” or the “struggle-for-freedom black”.
Like Ndebele, Khan recognises and writes inside the complexity of black family life, especially when we heap on the weight of race, gender, sexuality and religion, which have not been known to favour a queer, gender-fluid man of Muslim descent like Khan, categorised as coloured under apartheid.
“I think the most important thing about how I’ve gone about this is to see the possibilities for varied experiences of human behaviour, but specifically within the context of power imbalances. To understand that people are a product of their relationship to power and without such a positioning, we will always make somewhat false assessments of them. I am very deliberate about writing silenced experiences back into the archive and so the only reader that I feel the need to do something for is the reader whose experiences have also been erased. For those readers, I hope they feel affirmed and confirmed as valid. If they then choose to use their own voices to cement their experiences, I am even happier,” explains Khan.
The book seems aware of the great breadth of “isms” it must hold, and does so carefully. Instead of a reductive attempt to explain all identity markers at once, Khan peels back each layer. He starts with religion and the confusion that comes from living with a father who both espouses Islam and offers his greatest devotion to alcohol. While this is already a bristling, unresolved discussion, Khan dives headlong into the unstable battle of class, where the car you drive, the area in which you live, the preference for English in the home and even working outside of home (rather than inside the home) are all criteria for whether you can indeed keep up with the Joneses – or the Van der Merwes.
In one passage, Khan expertly takes us into the world of slurs, where words such as “boesman” or “Slams” indicate different meanings depending on whose mouth says them and in what context. Elsewhere, the outdated and horrifying practice of serenades – in which male students must sing to, match up with and spend an evening talking to women students – sets the scene for a critical discussion about sexuality and the ways in which many of our institutions are set up to uphold conservative gender norms.
Inverting power dynamics
Khan’s greatest achievement in his handling of “big” politics is that he has refused sensationalism, even where it might be expected. The story of Khan’s older sister dating a gangster does not indulge the reader looking for a “clutching pearls” moment, and while Khan reels at the idea of a racist slur being used in his community, he does not behave as if racism is rare or shocking.
Khan’s depictions are rooted in black life. While those unexposed to black life might struggle to keep abreast of these, perhaps that is exactly what Frantz Fanon meant when talking about changing the locus of enunciation, or point of view, to speak from the perspective of marginalised people – and to do so without explaining or justifying our experience.
Khan’s environment is quite different from my own, but even as a black woman immigrant raised in Durban, many of the subtle and seemingly hyper-specific references to food, family and dysfunction in Khamr rang true of my own experiences growing up.
“The capital politics for me is always about inverting power dynamics,” Khan says. “So that process was always very clearly to empower things that have been misrepresented and to diminish things that have been unjustly empowered. As the book is consumed, I’ve realised that my experiences are not as personal as I would like to think. These are all our experiences and so the choices I make in the writing must serve a purpose for more than just me, and I hope that has come to life.”