By Sabba Khan (Myriad Editions)
ISBN: 978-1-912408-30-6 (Deluxe Paperback) eISBN: 978-1-912408-98-8
Do you know what’s one of the most scarily charged questions in modern life?
“Where are you from?”
It used to be a neutral opening: a simple introductory gambit when meeting new people, but has recently become fraught with purely British angst, dipped in layers of second, third and fourth-guessing for all parties concerned. Are the words a friendly, casual enquiry to establish social parity and share past experience, or is it a setting of the scene for a judgemental inquisition or even targeting for imminent disparaging condescension?
I’m Hertfordshire-born baby-boomer English, via a German mum and Polish dad: the whitest Old White Male you could ever imagine and my accent is just right to be wholly acceptable to doctors, publicans, posh gits, shopkeepers, schoolkids, sports fans of all descriptions, raving Gammons and sneaky leftist liberal socialists alike. In modern terms, that’s winning the British community lottery, but deep within, I’m tainted with foreignness to my core. Anybody feel like treating me differently now you know?
Not ticking all those boxes has made life increasingly difficult for a vast pool of my fellow Brits: a point I can perfectly prove by reference to the debut graphic novel of Architectural designer and visual artist Sabba Khan. She’s British too, but has to constantly remind not just the people around her, but also her own family…
Told over three transformative, illuminating stages The Roles We Play follows a young girl reared in a loving, abusive, restrictive, nurturing home that gave no shrift to individuality or accommodated personal dreams, but instead made everything of a culture, history and tradition forsaken for a new life in an incomprehensibly different world.
Khan grew up in East London when she was outside, but lived in a house that was a static box of ancestral Kashmiri life constructed following her parents move to England. They came as part of an Asian diaspora triggered by the 1947 partition of India and subsequent flooding of the Mirpur valley in Azad Kashmir in 1961. The project created a dam, power source and stable water supply, but forcibly displaced 15 million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims who had previously farmed the valley in peace for generations.
Apparently, two thirds of British Pakistanis trace their ancestry back to the Mirpur Valley and the 1961 Water Treaty between India and Pakistan which still resonates in the ongoing battle for control of the Kashmir region…
Although womanly skills, and general history and context were abundant and scrupulously shared and passed on in the house, tolerance of British ways was not. Sabba grew up drawn in two directions: cherishing the love of family, support of faith and familiar ways, but constantly chided for her incomprehensible interest in the places, ways and temptations of the different life beyond the house walls.
Always keen to chart her own course, Khan spent years seeking to balance two lives before choosing to pursue art and architecture. She claimed independence: breaking away from controlling family, constant judgement, wheedling scrutiny and soft-power governance to create her own career and multicultural clan with a man of another world and friends of her own choosing.
Her ruminations, observations and bittersweet reminiscences are cannily transformed here into a captivating testament to a life of choice: exploring the truth of growing up Asian in Britain, seeking to assimilate the new whilst embracing the traditional. Seen in macrocosm, her superbly imaginative graphic designs and illustrative scenes trace a life of introspection and longing, deconstructing issues of race, alienation, rejection, cultural identity and sense-of-place-and-worth, whilst confronting on a personal level countless incidents covering a history of intolerance over religion, skin colour, gender, history, class and yes, race again…
Deftly sustaining a captivating balancing act between a British now with the idealised Kashmir she never knew, Khan has manifested a compelling journey laced with humour, warmth, hope and unshakable determination that should call out to not just the many migrant communities that make up modern society – and who have built the notion of Britain since before the Roman Invasion – but also to all of us who used to proudly welcome strangers here…
© Sabba Khan 2021. All rights reserved.
The Roles We Play is published on 15th July 2021 and is available for pre-order now.