BOOK’D| SHUBNUM KHAN

Shubnum Khan is an author and artist I found via author Ayobami Adebayo. I’m also currently reading and enjoying her debut novel, Onion Tears about three generations of Muslim women living in South Africa. Onion Tears is suffused with loving and mouth watering descriptions of Indian cuisine as one of the protagonists believes in food as a love language.

In this interview, Shubnum shares the moment in her childhood when she realized the power of reading, how reading affects her writing, what she wishes more South Africans knew and two books that have impacted her life. Shubnum’s interview is one of my favorites so far and I’ll definitely be looking up her recommendations! Enjoy!


1. What are you currently reading? Do you usually read more than one book at a time?

I’m currently reading Zukiswa Wanner’s new book, Hardly Working, a Travel Memoir of Sorts, I’ve just started Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire and I’m trying to finish Anna Karenina for a long time (for the last two years!).

2. Have you always been a reader? What is the first book you remember ever reading? What drew you into reading/why do you read?

Yes! When I was little my eldest sister would take me to the library and read the books we borrowed at night. She was very studious and she would sleep promptly at 9pm and I would have to wait until the next night to for her to continue the story. I still recall one night sitting with a copy of Roald Dahl’s The Giraffe, The Pelly and Me desperately wanting to know what happened next but she had gone to sleep. I remember sitting with the book on my lap and wishing I could make sense of the squiggles on the page so that I knew what happened next. I suppose at 4 or 5 years old that was my first understanding of the power of reading.

When I was little my eldest sister would take me to the library and read the books we borrowed at night. She was very studious and she would sleep promptly at 9pm and I would have to wait until the next night to for her to continue the… Click To Tweet

3. What is your philosophy on reading? (for example, some people have to finish every book they start)

I don’t know if I have a philosophy per se but I do try to finish what I start (which explains why I’m still trying to finish Anna Karenina two years on). While I don’t like half-finished jobs I do have some half-finished books in the house (which I plan to finish someday!).

4. How often do you read? And how do you fit it into your day?

To be honest I was a bad reader for a good few years and I believe it was why I struggled with my writing. The world just became very distracting especially because of computers and the internet. In fact I’m still easily distracted but because of my work I meet many inspiring writers and I realised if I want to take what I do seriously I have to read more. My best writer friends are the best readers. So now I try to read everyday; I’ve become a lot more conscientious about it. I set goals on Goodreads and so on to keep me on track. I still don’t think I make enough time to read but I’m trying.

Shubnum Khan on reading and writing in a world of distractions

To be honest I was a bad reader for a good few years and I believe it was why I struggled with my writing. The world just became very distracting especially because of computers and the internet. - @shubnumkhan Click To Tweet

5. Where do you like to read? Where’s the weirdest place you’ve ever read a book?

I like to read in the morning while eating breakfast on my desk. I’d like to build up a habit of reading before I sleep but I think I need a better night lamp and more self- discipline. The weirdest place? I’m not sure, I guess secretly reading on my lap at school while a lesson was going on was pretty risque. Although the teachers that noticed never seemed to complain!

6. What makes a good book, in your opinion?

An author who firmly believes in the world they’ve created. They know the voice, the language the shape and breath of their world and the reader recognises it immediately.

7. Who are your favorite authors to read?

Arundhati Roy, Toni Morrison, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sindiwe Magona, Susan Abulhawa, Kazuo Ishiguro amongst numerous others.

8. What is a book or who is an author you wish more people knew about/read?

It’s not a specific author or book but just something I wish more South Africans knew; we have some amazing local books and there’s this impression that local books are not good; I wish more South Africans would read local books. A good example of this is Sisonke Msimang’s recently released Always Another Country about being a child of exile and returning back to South Africa. It’s current, relatable and great writing.

I wish more South Africans knew that we have some amazing local books. There’s this impression that local books are not good. I wish more South Africans would read local books. - @shubnumkhan Click To Tweet

9. E-book, audiobook or paper? How do you feel about making notes/highlighting books?

Paper over E-book! Friends have always been trying to talk me into a buying a Kindle but I just can’t; I’m already working on a screen all day and I just don’t want another one. So much of the world is disappearing into technological representations of what they are; I just want to enjoy something physical I can move and feel (and highlight and make notes!) on.

Shubnum Khan on reading and writing in a distracting world

Paper over Ebooks!... So much of the world is disappearing into technological representations of what they are; I just want to enjoy something physical I can move and feel (and highlight and make notes!) on. Click To Tweet

I have to admit I’ve only recently tried audio books so I can’t say I’ve fully given them a chance but they seem like a great idea for multitasking events like driving and getting some reading done.

10. Fiction vs Non-fiction?

When I was younger it was fiction now I lean toward non-fiction.

11. What happens to you when you read a good book? (at the beginning, during and after the experience?)

Ah, my worries just dissipate because there on the page is that vital reminder that the world is huge, that people are complex, emotions are intense; that life is going on for everyone and we are all wondering, remembering, hurting, laughing and trying to get through each day.

12. Do you reread books? Why?

Yes, because it’s like visiting old friends; you remember who you were when you knew them and you remember what you learnt and you remember the journey together with the characters you met. That said I don’t reread books in their entirety, mostly just chapters or paragraphs.

13. What book do you wish you could experience again for the first time?

Oh, tough one. Maybe The Rowing Lesson by Anne Landsman? But honestly I think rereading something can be like experiencing it for the first time again because we change so much as time goes by.

I think rereading something can be like experiencing it for the first time again because we change so much as time goes by. Click To Tweet

14. What was the last great book you read?

There were two stand outs: Sisonke Msimang’s Always Another Country and Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me.

15. If you had to choose three books that everyone should read, what would they be?

I don’t know if I would choose this for ‘everyone’ as different people need different things at different times in their lives but I think The Quran (I read it one or two times a year in English and I wish more people would read it because it’s incredible), Crime and Punishment and Remains of the Day are high up there for me.

16. What book(s) are you embarrassed to have read? What books are you embarrassed to still not have read?

I don’t think I am but supposedly I should be embarrassed I read and loved Virginia Andrews Flowers in the Attic. As for what I haven’t read – I’m  embarrassed for not reading so many books! I wish I could make up for the years that I got lazy. I’m probably most embarrassed that I haven’t yet read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings or Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye yet.

I don’t think I am but supposedly I should be embarrassed I read and loved Virginia Andrews Flowers in the Attic. Click To Tweet

17. How do you feel about ‘classic’ literature?

If by classics we mean old books with great stories then I feel I should read more of them.

18. How do you feel about book clubs?

They’re great! I hope more people start and join them.

19. What book(s) have remarkably changed your perspective on a given subject  or life in general and how?

The God of Small Things – I read it just before I wrote Onion Tears and it really helped me understand how you can create and control your own language. It also showed me that life for all its complexities can be expressed through the written word. It’s my favourite book because it shows that the right language can cut us open and make us bleed flowers.

The God of Small Things showed me that life for all its complexities can be expressed through the written word. It’s my favourite book because it shows that the right language can cut us open and make us bleed flowers. Click To Tweet

Remains of the Day – I didn’t know what to expect when I read this story but it really moved me and most fundamentally it revealed something important to me about writing: you can write about something without ever really writing about it. It was one of the best love stories yet the characters never reveal any love for one another. It changed how I looked at how you can write a love story and more importantly it taught me something about how love works in real life too.

20. How do you choose books to read?

Usually through recommendations from other writers but I’m really trying to focus on African and South African books this year. One year I tried to mainly focus on classics. So I think it changes from year to year.

21. What books are currently on your to-be-read list?

Oh I have such a long list.I’m always trying to play catch-up so it’s usually stuff that I should have read a long time ago. Here are a few on my now-now list.

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy


Shubnum Khan is a South African author and artist. Her first novel, Onion Tears was shortlisted for the Penguin Prize for African Writing and the University of Johannesburg Debut Fiction Prize. She was selected as the Mail & Guardian’s 200 top young South Africans. Her fiction has been published in Flash, the short story magazine (UK), Ajar (Vietnam), New Contrast (South Africa) and the Sunday Times (South Africa). Her work has been translated into Italian, Norwegian, German, Vietnamese and Afrikaans. She has published articles with Huffington Post South Africa, The Times, The Sunday Times, Marie Claire and O, the Oprah magazine. She has completed residencies at Art Omi in New York and the Swatch Art Peace Hotel in Shanghai. She  lives in Durban by the sea and is currently working on a second novel titled Paper Flowers and a collection of micro-memoirs.

Connect With Shubnum

Twitter: @shubnumkhan

Instagram: @shubnumkhan

Website: shubnumkhan.com

Book’d is a weekly bookish interview series seeking to foster conversation on books and reading. Read our previous interview with Mel & Akua of The Sankofa Book Club and if you enjoyed this, please share this with anyone you think would too.