Sabba Khan on finding a visual language to describe her experience as a second generation Azad Kashmiri migrant in east London
The illustrator talks us through the making of her book, The Roles We Play.
- Elfie Thomas
- 16 December 2021
Sabba Khan’s three-part autobiographical book has just been celebrated as one of The Guardian’s top graphic novels of the year. We talked to Sabba to find out more about the inspiration behind her book. Sabba begins by speaking about her upbringing. Her parents migrated from Mirpur in Pakistan administered Kashmir in the mid-60s. Sabba’s book navigates her story from growing up in east London in the 80s all the way through to when she settled down with her partner, just a “short walk” from her family home. “Being the youngest in my family, I’ve always struggled with asserting myself,” Sabba explains. As she grew up, did an art foundation and started a career in architecture, she found herself being constantly restricted by the “hierarchies of power” that both surrounded and excluded her. With these burdens in mind, it is incredible to witness the bravery and honesty with which Sabba narrates her story in The Roles We Play.
The three-part narrative broaches many topics which have been difficult for Sabba to talk about. From the day-to-day experience of Islamophobia on the bus, through to very personal dilemmas like beginning art school as a young Muslim woman and being expected to paint a nude model. But her storytelling never wallows in these hardships. The pages are often uplifted by wistful moments of beauty and happiness. A running playlist of music accompanies us as we navigate its pages, offering a third dimension to each new chapter. The dulcet tones of Jagit Singh’s Woh Kagiz Ki Kashti reverberate as Sabba talks to stall owners in Queen’s market while the hectic Disorder by Joy Division sets the mood as she challenges a male family member to a game of pool.
The Roles We Play oscillates between exploring the pressures felt from home as well as the marginalisation of London society. “I needed to unpack these hierarchies of power and dominance in family and society – I needed to give myself some space from it all so I could grow beyond and not be limited by the roles I found myself in,” she explains. As the book took shape, she felt herself addressing the work to other “Mirpuri / South Asian / Muslim / Migrant women living as part of a diaspora in the westernised world.” By finding the courage to share her own experiences, Sabba began to create within her book the kind of “non-judgemental” space that was denied to her when she was growing up. Thus, it is no surprise that the book has touched many hearts. Sabba recalls emotionally how members of the Mirpuri community living in Britain have reached out to her, who never believed “they’d ever see our migration history drawn in a graphic novel”.
One of the many elements of the book which stands out is how Sabba sensitively documents a particularly difficult period in her life when she decided to stop wearing her hijab. “I remember being so worried and anxious about revealing my time as an Ex-Muslim, that tender time when I’d fallen out of love with the religion I’d been brought up on,” she explains. In a double-page spread, composed of two portraits, Sabba eloquently communicates the sense of loss she felt. The faces from the portraits are empty, windows into dreamlike scenes where Sabba feels as though she still has the comforting folds of fabric around her. The tenderness that Sabba feels towards the clothing that she grew up making and wearing, shines through in the way she depicts these garments. When it came to portraying shalwar kameez in the book, Sabba explains how her architectural training informed her approach. She paired down the striking colours and patterns which usually characterise the shalwar kameez and instead focussed on their construction, “the stitching and the way the fabric folds around the body.” In this way, Sabba celebrates the “craft behind the clothing” and pays homage to the hours she spent making them with her mother as a child.
Throughout the book, Sabba carefully avoids common tropes which are often linked to the depiction of South Asian British life. Instead, she turns to “Hakusai’s wood prints, graphic minimalism, and architectural modernism of the colours, textures and shapes.” As she gives life to her story with this inventive style, she fulfils her goal of creating “a unique, contemporary and fresh visual language for the South Asian diaspora”.
Sabba Khan: The Roles We Play (Copyright © Sabba Khan, 2021)
About the Author
Elfie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in November 2021 after finishing an art history degree at Sussex University. She is particularly interested in creative projects which shed light on histories that have been traditionally overlooked or misrepresented.