NAME: Sairish Hussain
SOUTH ASIAN HERITAGE: British Pakistani
- MA in Creative Writing from the University of Huddersfield
- Awarded the Vice Chancellor’s Scholarship to complete PhD from the University of Huddersfield
- Publication of her first novel The Family Tree (2020)
- Shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award
- Shortlisted for the Portico Prize
- Shortlisted for the Diverse Book Awards
- Longlisted for the Authors Club Best First Novel Award
- Selected as one of the Futures 10 Finalists by the Women’s Prize/Good Housekeeping
- One of Kei Miller’s 10 unmissable writers for the International Literature Showcase at the National Centre for Writing
How did your Pakistani heritage inform your younger years growing up in Bradford – can you describe your early home and school life?
Both my Pakistani heritage and growing up in Bradford have shaped me immensely as a writer and that is why I mostly write from observation. All the descriptions in The Family Tree about Ammi’s cooking, Eid celebrations, the boys being placed in an underperforming school, the ease with which the characters navigate both the British and Pakistani parts of their identity, all of this is from my own childhood.
I sometimes feel very protective of Bradford as a city and didn’t want readers of The Family Tree to project all the negative stereotypes they’d ever heard about the city: serial killers, racial divides, drug dealers, boy racers. Nor did I want the book to become just another story about an Asian family in Bradford i.e. forced marriages and radicalisation. It is the warmth of the people that I wanted to capture.
My experience of being Pakistani and from Bradford didn’t fit into the box of it being a deeply segregated city where nobody interacts with each other. And that is why I wrote about friendships between Zahra and Libby and Amjad and Ken in my novel, because I feel like people from different backgrounds can relate to each other in a way that is unlike anywhere else.
Which authors did you enjoy reading when you were growing up?
The first books I remember reading were all the Roald Dahl books, Jacqueline Wilson’s novels, and the R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. I was also part of the ‘Harry Potter Generation’ who grew up with the characters and queued up outside the shops so I could get my hands on the next one!
What led to your decision to study English Language and Literature at the University of Huddersfield?
I was always passionate about English Literature and loved reading and writing at school. It was the natural choice for me to study a subject I excelled at and once I achieved my First Class honours at undergraduate level, I pursued MA study after being awarded the Vice Chancellor’s Scholarship.
I chose Creative Writing as I was eager to get started with my lifelong dream of writing a novel. This then progressed onto PhD study where I finished working on what became The Family Tree.
When writing The Family Tree, where did you draw the inspiration for your well-rounded characters?
There are definitely parts of me in all the characters! Amjad, Saahil and Zahra reflect parts of myself, my family, my friends and the people that I grew up around. I set out to write a book about brown, Muslim, working-class, northerners, and how we can encompass the breadth of human experience too.
Your novel addresses some hard-hitting subjects such as bereavement, mental health and homelessness – what sort of research did you do in advance?
Quite a lot. Luckily one of my friends was a drug and alcohol counsellor at the time, so she was a great help in terms of knowledge and putting me in touch with people who worked in homeless shelters etc. I attended many volunteer events in Leeds, mostly outside the Art Gallery where I observed and spoke to as many people as possible. I also watched documentaries and read up on legal highs known as ‘Spice’, as well as head injury and ‘vegetative states’.
Tell us about your journey to publication.
I attended a publishing panel at the Bradford Literature Festival in 2017. A senior figure from HarperCollins was in attendance and I had the opportunity to chat to her at the end of the event. She was very interested in reading my book, so I sent it to her the next day. Luckily, I had just finished editing the novel with my supervisor at university, so the timing was perfect. I received an email a few weeks later saying that she loved my book and wanted to be my publisher. It’s been a whirlwind ever since!
What’s your second novel about and when is it due for publication?
My second novel is an ‘unlikely friendship story between a grandfather and his granddaughter. She is a neglected, moody teenager and he’s an elderly man who is suffering from delayed trauma from his experiences during the Partition of India. The story is about how they learn about each other and mend their broken relationship. It scheduled for release in July 2023 so hopefully not too long a wait!
Which authors have you particularly enjoyed reading recently?
I’ve just read The Movement by Ayisha Malik and The Halfways by Nilopar Uddin. Both were brilliant reads and available to buy now. I’m also lucky enough to have a proof copy of The Things That We Lost by Jyoti Patel, winner of the Merky Books Prize 2021. That will be my next read.
You took part in the inaugural Sangam Festival – what do you think a festival of South Asian heritage brings to Kirklees and the wider South Asian community?
I was thrilled to take part in a festival that celebrates South Asian history, talent and legacies. It is great to highlight the contribution we as a community have made to Great Britain and placing underrepresented voices at the forefront is very important to me. I wrote my novel, The Family Tree, as a counter-narrative to negative stereotypes about British Muslims and felt like the festival was the perfect platform for me to explore the influences behind the book.
Do you enjoy cooking and do you use many family recipes from your South Asian heritage?
I do enjoy cooking and have mostly use recipes that my grandma has passed down to my mum. I was in charge of making the chicken curry for Eid this year. I received lots of compliments so I must have done something right!
Can you share a favourite recipe with us?
Seviyan for breakfast on Eid morning is a tradition in our house. There are different variations in every household, and you can keep them dry or add milk for a creamier texture. It’s a sweet dish which uses the following ingredients:
Vermicelli – 1 cup
Green cardamom – 4
Sugar – ½ cup
Ghee – 2 tbsp
Dried fruit and nuts
Brown the vermicelli in the ghee until it is golden brown, then add cashews and almonds and roast further. Place on a low flame and add around 2½ cups of water. Let it simmer for a while, then add the sugar and stir until it has dissolved. Add in the seeds of the cardamom and the dried fruit and let it cook for another 5 minutes until water is gone. Seviyan will then be ready to serve, super quick and easy!