Author, journalist and artist Shubnum Khan grew up in Durban. Despite having worked around the world, from Jaipur to Shanghai, the acclaimed writer and artist still lives in her hometown. Here, she shares her insider guide to Durban for guests staying The Oyster Box Hotel and chats about her upcoming novel.
You’ve travelled and worked all over the world, why is Durban so special to you?
“Durban is usually underrated when compared to its bigger sisters, Cape Town and Johannesburg, yet it has so much to offer. Warm oceans, rolling hills and vegetation so green it takes your breath away. Then there’s the year round sunshine, the diverse mix of cultures and friendly people who take life at its own pace. People here are invested in family and leisure time and I think that makes all the difference to the feel of a place.”
Your debut novel, Onion Tears, centres on Indian Muslim women living in South Africa. How does your life in Durban influence your writing?
“Well, my story focuses on exactly that theme and Durban has one of the largest Indian populations outside of India, so the novel goes into the particular culture of these people; how Indians have taken on a mix of cultures from their language (the characters sometimes speak in a mix of Afrikaans, Urdu and Zulu) to food and dressing. Durban has such an interesting mix of identities, with people finding ways to create new communities with old heritages. I try to capture some of that in the novel.”
Durban recently became the first African city to become a UNESCO City of Literature. What do you think makes it such a great place for writers?
“I think there’s something about a city that’s unabashedly itself, with no pretences that make it an honest and good place to create something. Durban has some of that; it doesn’t pretend to be anything than what it is and I think it’s these places where the best stories emerge. There’s a great pride here as well because many businesspeople and creatives are choosing to stay because they recognise the potential of this city and they can see the landscape is changing. This recognition of UNESCO City of Literature is just one of many processes the city is undergoing where the outside world is beginning to recognise what we have here. I truly believe Durban is a diamond in the rough and we’re just beginning to see what can happen when it’s polished.”
Which writers and artists from Durban do you most admire?
“In terms of street art, SakhileMhlongo and Mook Lion are doing some interesting work in this city, and illustrations by Nikhil Tracum and Sebastien Pillay are the kind of detailed work I love. There are so many local writers I admire including Kobus Moolman, Sifiso Mzobe, Gcina Mhlope and Mariam Akabor.”
How have you seen Durban change over the years?
“Durban has changed so much over the years! Especially since the World Cup in 2010. Our beach promenade is more built up now and people really utilise the space, cycling, skating and jogging usually at sunrise and sunset. Besides our literary festivals like Poetry Africa and Time of the Writer, there are more creative spaces now like Rivertown and Station Precinct, a host of new local designners and artists and a number of popular craft and night markets. You can feel Durban is on the cusp of some big change and it’s a very interesting place to be at the moment.”
How would you spend your ideal day in Durban?
“Honestly my ideal day is just eating as much as I can and walking along the beach! Ideally in the morning, I would watch the sunrise at North beach, then I’d head to Antiques Cafe for a wholesome breakfast in their delightful garden. I’d make a stop at Phansi Museum, a quaint little museum that runs exhibitions and houses a magnificent Southern African art collection. Then, I’ll visit Glenwood Bakery next door for the best bread in town and head to Smokin’ Joes for a great chicken burger and milkshake. Later, I’ll head to Umhlanga for a walk on the promenade and enjoy high tea at The Oyster Box with some friends. Being a Durbanite, I’d probably end the evening with supper at home with my parents and an early night in.”
Are there any local specialities that we must try?
“We do have specialities like pineapple and masala on a stick and the infamous bunny chow, but I’m really just going to say you should try a Pakistani chicken tikka at MY Diners on the beachfront, because I’ve never really had a tikka like it (even in Pakistan!)”
Which restaurants do we need to visit to get a real feel for the city?
What’s your top tip for first-time visitors to Durban?
“Just go where the road takes you; we have amazing scenery up the north and south coasts with rolling green hills and hidden beaches. Pack a picnic basket and a pair of flip-flops and just go with the flow. It’s the Durban way.”
Finally, any clues as to what your next book will be about?
“It’s a bit different from my first novel. This story is set in an abandoned mansion along the beach in Durban. A young girl moves in and meets an array of eccentric characters who tell her their stories and through them she discovers not only what happened in this mansion almost a century ago but also what happens to things that were once loved and are then forgotten.”
Explore Durban’s fantastic creative scene from the comfort of The Oyster Box Hotel.