Neema Shah: Kololo Hill

Set in the early 1970s, Neema Shah’s debut Kololo Hill follows one family’s expulsion from Idi Amin’s Uganda and subsequent resettlement in suburban England. Authentic, poignant and vividly evoking a seldom-explored period of East African history, Kololo Hill was published in February, 2021.

Neema, huge congratulations on the very recent publication of your debut Kololo Hill! In the face of the current lockdown restrictions, how did you celebrate your big day?

Thank you so much! For a while before publication, I was feeling a little disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to have a full face-to-face launch. But actually, I think it was just as good having a virtual one. I had a lovely online launch event which Picador put on for me the night before and I had another two with friends later that week, which all made publication feel so special. The day itself was overwhelming but beautiful. So many lovely messages of support on social media and from people I know. I also did a couple of cheeky videos including a full-on Bollywood dance, and of course, there was lots of cake and bubbly!

You have said that you felt compelled to write Kololo Hill by Toni Morrison’s quotation: “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it”. How did you choose your distinctive plot, and where did your inspiration for your characters come from?
I had been vaguely aware of President Idi Amin’s expulsion of the Ugandan Asians in 1972 fromfrom a young age. The idea that people could be given 90 days to leave everything they knew behind chilled me to the core. I’d always been surprised that those events and indeed, the culture and lifestyle of the East African Asians in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania (where my parents were born) more generally, had never really been explored in British fiction before.

The character of recently-married Asha is loosely inspired by my Mum, while the matriarch in the book, Jaya, is partly inspired by my Nani (maternal grandmother). I wanted to portray the kinds of people I’ve grown up around, who are as far from the stereotypical image of meek and timid Indian women as you can imagine.

You bring to life all the sensuous beauty and creeping horror of Uganda under Idi Amin, the shock of arrival at the army barracks in England, and all that drab, but safe, 1970’s London had to offer. How important was it to you to get all the details correct, and how did you embark on your research?

I think that getting the details right is essential for any historical fiction writer, perhaps even more so when we’re talking about a period that’s within living memory. There are relatively few non-fiction books written about the expulsion so I also drew on documentaries and news articles. I was lucky to come across a brilliant oral-history project by the School of Oriental and African Studies (part of the University of London) with interviews of those who’d been expelled. There were many hours of footage and that gave me a multifaceted view of the experience. For the culture, food and language of East Africa, I was able to draw upon my own family holidays to Kenya and also spoke extensively to my parents about their upbringings.

As this was my first novel and I wasn’t even sure I’d get published, I decided not to embark on a research trip to Uganda until two drafts in! Finally, I bit the bullet and booked my ticket. My arrival was a surreal moment – the novel seemed to come to life around me. The trip was a huge help in getting the tiny sensory details right and also ensuring that my early research was sound.
Kololo Hill is narrated by three different characters, who move the action along and whose voices lend insight and intimacy to the story. Why did you choose to structure the novel in this way, and was it important to you to follow two women from different generations?

As this period of history is so little know, I was keen to show different experiences and therefore a multi-character narration was essential. Along with Asha and Jaya, the third character Vijay is Jaya’s son and Asha’s brother-in-law. He has an upper-limb disability and for the most part, he’s able to get on with his life. As the culture and society in the book is fairly patriarchal, I thought it was important to show a male point of view as a way of contrasting those of the women.

Asha and Vijay were born in Uganda, they know no other home and as a British Asian born in the UK, I wanted to show how they view the expulsion. This also gave me the opportunity to compare their experiences with those of Jaya, who moved to Uganda during World War 2 and was born in India. Jaya’s experience as a so-called ‘twice migrant’ is particularly fascinating, as she is forced to start again first in Africa and then in Europe.

I wanted to show the differences in the experiences of the relatively independent younger woman compared to Jaya, who despite her sometimes restrictive surroundings, still manages to carve out her own path.
Are you a very disciplined writer, and has lockdown changed your writing process?

I have friends who chart their word counts on Excel sheets and tick things off as they complete them. I am definitely not that kind of writer! But I think anyone who manages to complete a novel must be disciplined in their own way. I did (in my head, at least) break down the total novel word count into manageable chunks, so I wrote 500 words a day on weekdays. I wrote most of my first draft on London Underground during my commute, as I work full time in marketing.

I know that many people have struggled to carve out time in lockdown for creativity and writing, but I’ve actually found the lack of a commute a blessing. It’s given me up to 10 extra hours a week to write. I think I’m also one of the few people who has actually found my creativity has increased because I don’t have to use all my mental energy on being around people all day (I’m an introvert and as much as I like my colleagues at work, I often crave the quiet time that unfortunately can’t be found in open-plan offices).

Which novelists have influenced your writing, and what debut novels have you enjoyed recently?
I’m so thankful for authors such as Zadie Smith and Andrea Levy, who showed me that I could write stories about people who were a little like me and that there might just be an audience for it. Sarah Waters is also a huge inspiration, I love her focus on women’s social history.

I’ve been blessed with reading a whole host of amazing debut novels recently. These include Catherine Menon’s Fragile Monsters, which is set against the backdrop of 20th-century Malaysia, the heartbreakingly beautiful Boys Don’t Cry by Fiona Scarlett, and Lia Middleton’s When They Find Her is a brilliant thriller that kept me up far too late!

What can we look forward to next from you? Are we going to find out what happens to the characters in Kololo Hill, or are you working on something completely different?

I can’t ever envisage writing a sequel for Kololo Hill, or indeed any book I write. As much as Asha, Jaya and the others hold a special place in my heart, I’ve spent far too long with them, I’m afraid! I’m itching to explore brand new stories and there are so many more to be told. I can’t say much else about book two at the moment except that it’s also set in the 20th century.

You are a very supportive voice in the writing community and have recently offered to mentor an emerging underrepresented writer. Have you been surprised by the response, and how have you enjoyed the process so far?

Thank you so much. I think it’s so important for authors to ‘send the elevator down’, to support others. It’s the only way that we’ll hear more diverse stories and give everyone’s voice a chance to be heard. I’m about to start mentoring two underrepresented writers and hope to offer more mentoring in future.

I’m always surprised by the overwhelming support I receive. Writing a novel has changed my life in many ways, and I’d like to think I’m a kinder person as a result of the inspiring writing community.

What were the best – and worst! – pieces of advice you were given as you began writing your first novel, and is there anything that you wish you’d done differently?

The best advice was actually the very first technique I learnt on the short creative writing course I did to kick off Kololo Hill. Our tutor taught us how to ‘free-write’ – in essence, write without looking back over your words. It’s how the first draft of Kololo Hill and book two were written. It’s difficult to master at first because you have to leave every typo, every awful line exactly where it is but it’s the only way I could move forward in the early draft. It also means writing whatever you want, in whichever order works for you. This is great in theory, not so much fun when it comes to editing because you have to ‘stitch together’ scenes which are written entirely out of order. Unfortunately, it’s the only way I seem to be able to finish drafts!

The worst advice? That’s tricky. We’re often told to write every day but I can’t say that I do. I write most days but I think there’s also something to be said for having breaks, particularly if the writing isn’t going well. Creativity can be tiring and sometimes we need the distance to see our way through things.

And finally, as a keen exponent of writing competitions, do you have any advice for anyone thinking of entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2022?

I’ve been very lucky to be listed in various competitions. In many cases, I’d almost talked myself out of entering as I didn’t think I’d have a chance. So firstly, I’d say, enter the competition and don’t try and second-guess the outcome. You really never know but as the (rather cheesy) saying goes, “You’ve got to be in it to win it”!

I’d also say that if at all possible, don’t leave entry to the last possible moment. I know it’s sometimes unavoidable, but you’ll give yourself the best chance if you haven’t completed your work under a haze of stress and worry. Do try to ask someone else to have a look over it for typos and so on, even if they aren’t a writer. A fresh eye can make all the difference.

I wish everyone entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2022 the very best of luck!
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