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SHERIN AHMED INTERVIEW (article first published : 2007-04-3)

Back in 2003, Durban social worker Sherin Ahmed joined Professor Michael Green's six month creative writing course at the University of KZN. She took along a manuscript she was working on, a manuscript that has now been published as The Good Luck House.

It is the delightful tale of a crumbling Overport house and its landlady, Aunt Julie, set in the 1970s. Aunt Julie's burning ambition is to be able to buy the house from its owner, and in an effort to raise the money she lets out all possible space to a colourful assortment of characters - and, of course, she is reluctant to waste any of her hard-earned cash on anything as unrewarding as repairs.

The book follows the lives of the tenants and their good and bad luck stories, interspersed with the idiosyncratic voice of Aunt Julie, with her eccentric use of English and her reminiscences of earlier days. And her ongoing war with Mr van Zyl, the health inspector from the Durban City Council, who fortunately for Aunt Julie and her tenants has a passion for Indian cooking.

Michael Green spoke at the Durban launch of The Good Luck House, and, says Ahmed, was "very kind," talking about the pungency of the story, the local flavour and the political background. "He gave my writing an edge," she says. "But at the beginning, neither he nor I knew where I was going with the plot." She credits Green with giving her an understanding of the technical aspects of writing, issues such as whose point of view to write from and how to control flashbacks so that they do not stall the action.

But in the end, says Ahmed, the characters drove the plot along. "It was spooky," she says. "It was as if they wanted to tell their own stories. I could hear their voices in my head." The ending is not the one Ahmed originally wrote - and I don't want to give it away - but she says it came as a flash of inspiration, even though she knows American author Philip Roth has written: "amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work".

And work at her writing is just what she does, so a little flash of inspiration is probably well deserved. She is a disciplined writer - her PC is carefully placed where she can keep an eye on the stove if she is cooking at the same time as writing and have her children, aged 15 and 11, one on each side of her so that she can watch the progress of their homework as well.

It is not easy. Ahmed's husband works away from home a lot of the time, and writing can seem like a frivolous thing to those who don't do it. "I have to be a good daughter-in-law, a good sister, mother, nurse - all at the same time," she says. So why write? "That's what my children keep asking me," she replies. "But if I don't, my characters don't leave me alone. Their stories have to be told."

Aunt Julie leaps out from the pages of The Good Luck Hous. She is tough, feisty, warm, interfering, and very real. She is a strong woman, as are most of the women in the book, taking control of their own lives. Is she based on a real person? Ahmed laughs. "I have to be careful here," she says. "I have known someone remotely like her, but it is a fictitious story."

Ahmed's husband lived in Overport when he was growing up, and was a useful source of information on the soccer scene and other aspects of life in the area. Her own grandmother also lived there, and Ahmed has happy memories of days spent there in her childhood. Other things needed research. One character gets a job as a salesman, and has to stand outside a shop and call out the prices of the goods to passers-by. "I had to find out the price of undies and pyjamas in the 1970s - I went to the Indian Documentation Centre at the University of Durban Westville, and I looked at the advertisements in old newspapers."

"My characters are the kind of people you can meet every day - real people, leading day-to-day lives. Sometimes I would meet someone and think - you remind me of so-and-so in my book," says Ahmed. It was all a matter of staying focused on the imaginary inhabitants in the Good Luck House, says Ahmed. She lived with them, day in and day out, keeping a notebook with her all the time and jotting down ideas as they came to her - even in her car at traffic lights.

And while The Good Luck House is an entertaining read, Ahmed has a more serious purpose as well. The stories of those days, driven by the country's apartheid laws, need to be remembered and kept. "Oppression was internalised but people still survived with energy and vigour. Aunt Julie outwits the health inspector at every turn, and even when things go badly, she still makes her own life choices." For Ahmed, that power to control one’s own life and make one’s own choices is hugely important, something to be celebrated.

Ahmed was luckier than many authors - the cherry on the top of the writing experience was that the publisher came to her - she had no need to go knocking on too many doors. Solo Collective, a small publishing company run by retired English professor, Peter Strauss, approached her with an offer. "In my heyday, when I had fire in my belly for feminist literature, I was a member of a feminist literary group, run by Gertrud Strauss (Peter Strauss's wife), and we both had stories published by Ravan Press in the collection, Lip from Southern African Women, in 1983." It was through Gertrud Strauss that Solo saw the first few chapters of The Good Luck House.

The Good Luck House is not Ahmed's first exposure in print. In 2005 she won the Gcina Mhlope Short Story Award, and she was a semi-finalist in the Witness's True Stories of KZN competition in 2006 with her piece, Night Vigil, the story of a death that ended a 66 year marriage. So now, she says, her family are getting blasé about her writing success.

She has also written a youth novel, and is working on another adult novel. There are still a lot of characters in her head, making their voices heard. – Margaret von Klemperer




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