Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Shaida Ali, author of Not a Fairy Tale, in conversation with Naomi Bruwer

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Title: Not a Fairy Tale
Author: Shaida Kazi Ali
Publisher: Umuzi
ISBN: 9781415201121

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Not a Fairy Tale tells the story of two Muslim Indian sisters from Cape Town with contrasting lives – the older one living within the boundaries set upon her, the younger one breaking free and living a worldly life. The novel combines fairy tales and recipes with the narrative. What inspired you to write this novel?

The first reading material I experienced, as a toddler, was a comic book horror series called The Witching Hour. (People who live with small children will recognise the witching hour as that time in the evening when kids are diabolical with hunger, exhaustion and the day’s dirt.) It wasn’t the stories in The Witching Hour that interested me – I couldn’t read, and I can’t remember even one of them. The narrators – three witches – held me spellbound. I would search out the pages in which they appeared and examine those sketches minutely; they filled me with fear and delight. Today I’d recognise them as archetypes – maiden, mother, crone, and I’d sneer at their stereotypical representation – voluptuous blonde, chubby maternal figure, hideous white-haired hag. Later, when I could read, the witch character in fairytales still intrigued me – she had the best lines, after all. Who can forget “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who’s the Fairest of us all”? And “She will prick her finger on a spindle and die!” But rereading them as an adult, I was irritated by the dichotomy of many fairytales in which women are either mute and cute princesses or evil old witches. I noticed the absurd misogyny: middle-aged women have the monopoly on the role of villain. In early versions of fairytales it’s the biological mother and even the mother-in-law who abuses our heroine; in later versions, the men who recorded these stories, like the Grimms, transformed them into stepmothers.

It was on a visit to a Disney theme park – sanitised fairytales have their uses too – that the characters in Not a Fairytale conjured themselves into existence. I was watching a procession of Disney’s villains, sandwiched between two women: to my left stood a woman in a black burqa surreptitiously wiping sweat off her hidden brow; to my right stood another woman with a ruby belly button winking in the sun – all of us equally mesmerised by the female villains on parade. There was Snow White’s striking stepmom, Sleeping Beauty’s diabolically gorgeous but forever-uninvited fairy Maleficent, Cinderella’s proud patrician stepparent, the fashion-crazy Cruella De Vil. Perhaps it was the muggy air, perhaps I was in sugar shock from too much candyfloss – but I heard Zuhra muttering that the Magic Mirror was the criminal of the tale. Not only was he fixated with youth and beauty, but he was racist, always nagging about who was the fairest, ie whitest. (In contemporary India the phrase “Snow-White syndrome” is used to describe a shopping craze: the sales of whitening creams, endorsed by several Bollywood types, are outstripping the sales of Coke – the soft drink – and tea.) Zuhra began writing her not-fairytale and dragged her reluctant sister, their stories, and their parallel fractured fairytales into existence.

Zuhra’s (the younger sister’s) tale is told first – an intellectual feminist who gets the chance to “escape” to London after a university education, and although her life is no happy fairy tale, it’s liberating. Why did you tell this story first?

I heard Zuhra’s voluble voice first and she provides the context to the retold fairy tales that pepper the narrative.

Salena’s tale, which comes in the second half of the novel, tells a disturbing story – of how somebody’s life is so regulated by society and by degrading relationships that it turns into absolute misery without anybody really noticing. Part of Salena’s disposition is created by her position in a South African Muslim community. What challenges were you faced with while writing this story?

There are Salenas in many cultures where a conventionally beautiful daughter is seen as a lure to attract a wealthy husband, thereby improving the status of the family. In Salena’s family a pretty, pale skin is valued more than intelligence or an education. She doesn’t rebel, at least not overtly, and even nurtures a timid narcissism. But as she matures she can no longer pretend she’s not aging (unlike some women and men who in their personal magic mirrors view themselves as ethereal Snow Whites even when they’re pensioners) and she chooses to reject her Snow White and Sleeping Beauty alter egos. The challenge, perhaps, was not to make Salena a character of such annoying misery and sadness that the reader would lose interest in her future.

From the beginning of the novel serious social problems are raised, like domestic violence, racism, self-mutilation, drug abuse and infidelity, to name a few. Life clearly is “not a fairy tale”. Was it your intention from the outset to create an awareness of these problems through your writing?

No, these issues evolved along with the tales.

The Indian Muslim family is bound by the apartheid laws, but this kind of class classification is not limited to the laws of the country. For example, in the novel Zuhra speaks of “Ma’s convoluted classification system, which would rival the government’s own labelling categories” (44). Later on Zuhra visits her father's grave and “[chokes] on hysterical silent laughter” (100) when she realises his “neighbour” is Malay. Do you mind clarifying this classification for readers not familiar with the Muslim society in Cape Town?

Ma’s peculiar philosophy has little to do with Muslim society in Cape Town or elsewhere – she’s elitist, she’s a snob. Similarly, antagonism between Muslim people of different origins is not unique to our country. Once, I overheard a conversation in which a child was described as mongrel. I thought at first it was because he was behaving badly – he was like a puppy who’d failed obedience school - but later found out it was a reference to his parentage, a Malay mom, an Indian dad – a “mixed” marriage. In Saracen At The Gates, a novel set in the Johannesburg Muslim community, the female protagonist, Zakira, is desperate to experience sex for the first time, but her would-be mate won’t oblige, because he won’t have sex with a Muslim woman outside of marriage. When Zakira points out he has been having premarital sex with a Muslim woman, or rather, that he’s been “banging Shireen Boomgaard for a year” (175), his response is, “But she’s coloured.” He said it the way one says the USA is the richest country in the world, a statement of the obvious (175). Can we blame apartheid for this kind of prejudice? Perhaps. But bigotry flourishes wherever people are desperate to feel superior.

Well-known feminists like Andrea Dworkin analysed and rewrote Grimm’s fairy tales to break down stereotypes and give a new perspective on the tales that seemed to prescribe to little girls and boys how to behave. In the novel, Zuhra is doing her dissertation on “Gold is the Fairest of All: Colour and Materialism in Fairytales” (76) – clearly all these feminist writings are known to her. Did you study these theories before writing the novel?

I read extensively: non-feminist fairy tale interpretations like those of Bruno Bettelheim and several feminist theorists, including Marina Warner, Jack Zipes and Maria Tatar. But best of all I indulged dozens of fairy tales – traditional ones by the Grimms and Andrew Lang, but also fractured fairy tales like those of Angela Carter and Jane Yolen and revised fairy tale poems like those of Anne Sexton.

Some of the fairy tale versions in Not a Fairy Tale are quite disturbing in a liberating way. Prince Charming (he must be Muslim) doesn’t have a snowball’s hope of living “happily ever after”, while Gretel acquires a very distinct culinary taste. Not all is strictly feminist – Wolf turns out to be a nice person – “Which goes to show: you can’t believe all the gossip you hear” (73) – and the love letter Wolfie writes to Ms Hood is quite inspiring. What message do you want to convey with these tales and why did you decide to combine it with the novel?

They’re all feminist retellings, even when the male character is “nice”. The fairy tales provide a distorted, dark angle to the characters’ world; they’re parallel interpretations of the sisters’ stories.

Another “extra” in the novel is recipes – from “Rice Krispies with Bananas” to “Aunty Anjum’s Moong Dhal Curry” and “Dhania Chutney” (something I’ll definitely try), as well as a few “different” recipes like “Spell for a Baby Girl” and “Prayer for a Loved One in Need”. What is the idea behind the inclusion of these recipes?

Food or the lack thereof is a theme in several fairy tales and I toyed with the idea of including recipes when I first began writing the story. Then a friend of a friend heard I was writing a book and asked (because I’m Muslim and female) if it was a cookbook. I began to include recipes out of ironic spite, but Zuhra uses food as memory, as a way of making the foreign world she inhabits less strange, as an evocative link to her mother, her sister and her home, and the recipes (food and non-food) tell a narrative of their own.

Are you passionate about food and do you like to cook?

No and no. If I read a recipe with more than five ingredients I lose interest.

Not a Fairy Tale is your first novel. Are you working on something new?


Which writers inspire you?

Anne Schuster, writer and teacher, and the women in my writing group, Gabeba Baderoon, Sindiwe Magona, Fay Weldon, Alice Munro, Alice Walker, Elif Shafak, Harper Lee, Sara Maitland, Anne Lamott, to name but a few.

What are you reading at the moment?

Rape: A love story by Joyce Carol Oates and for the 2 089th time, Mummy laid an egg by Babette Cole.

What is your life philosophy?

My philosophy-of-the-moment is: Never rebuff an opportunity to nap.


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