BOOK REVIEW

Shubnum Khan’s How I Accidentally Became A Global Stock Photo: A love letter to memory and connection

By Sarah Hoek 1 June 2021

Images courtesy of Shubnum Khan.

Can you write a memoir in your thirties? Have you lived enough? Shubnum Khan’s latest book is a tribute to love, life and finding yourself in ordinary moments.

“I think it’s important for everyone to tell their stories, particularly women, and particularly women of colour. I don’t think there’s enough of our stories out there,” says Khan, who recently released her new book, How I Accidentally Became a Global Stock Photo and Other Strange and Wonderful Stories, where she tells her own story with compelling grace and a quick wit that keeps the pages turning.

Khan’s writing is introspective, honest and funny without force: although she first told part of her stories on Twitter in only a few characters, in her latest book, they come out as fleshed out, expanded tales that keep you on the edge of your seat.

This is intentional, Khan says, explaining that “with social media, the jokes have to come very quickly” and “without any nuance or context,” adding, “I wanted the room to talk about culture, religion and relationships.”

Her newest book is a collection of short, autobiographical stories from her life and journeys across the world. With each chapter, she takes the reader with her on her travels, from her childhood in Durban to her time as a teacher in the Himalayas, weaving together memories that are raw and intimate and speak to the spirit of adventure and our yearning for connection.

In fact, Khan’s writing is like an extended conversation with her reader, about culture, religion, relationships and womanhood, amongst many other topics. She makes space for reflection in between descriptions of sweeping scenery and bustling streets.

“I really want to explore what it means to be a woman, a woman of colour and a Muslim woman in different spaces,” Khan says.

Exploration of the concepts of identity and belonging is carried through every story, every travel, literally checked in at every gate. 

What is it like to fly to America alone as a Muslim after 9/11, the author ponders.

“It is hard to pray”, Khan writes.  “A plane is more complicated. I’m normally seated next to my family so my slight prostrations in my seat don’t even get a second glance, but when you’re alone the person next to you might think you’re having a seizure, or worse, realise you’re a Muslim praying on the plane and have a heart attack”. 

A girl was now sitting at a fire, somewhere in the Himalayas, beneath a sky so full of stars she could reach out and touch them if she wanted.

Khan responds with humour (in a chapter jestingly titled ‘I almost went to Guantánamo Bay’), but the underlying anxiety is tangible – it is complicated indeed, at times painful, or disorienting.  

What do you do as a woman alone in Dehli, the rape capital of the world, barely a year after the 2012 bus gang rape that horrified the world?

Writes Khan: “I went on a tour of Gutab Minar, wandered the lanes of Khan Market, did a book reading in Noida… ate biryani at Nizamuddin, shopped in Connaught Place and I always returned early to my room at night.” 

Then, she adds, she propped a chair under the doorknob to bar access to possible intruders, warned by many that the city is not safe —the cold reminder that even in the vibrancy of new places, amongst all there is to see, touch and taste, your femaleness follows you. 

There is a certain bravery that comes when you choose to see the light in the world, while still acknowledging the fear that comes from darkness.

In doing so, Khan has also identified the particular experience that comes with being a woman travelling alone. It’s messy, scary and “a whole different experience”, she says.

“If you’re a woman, you’re completely aware of your environment, and I really resent that. I felt that male gaze wherever I’ve been, and it really affects how you move and navigate through a space,” she explains. 

Further in the book, Khan explores what it means to be your own company on a journey, with no one to share experiences with. Yet, this is not a lonely book, but rather one that explores connection and intimacy even in occasional solitude, inviting the feel moments with the author.

Typical of a travel memoir, Khan shares the beauty and awe of being in new spaces, describing scenes visually and emotionally. Instead of looking out, Khan encourages the reader to look up, and it is in those moments, with eyes turned upwards towards dark clouds packed with snow falling on New York, or into the expanse of sky spreading across the Himalayas, that one is truly transported.

“A girl was now sitting at a fire, somewhere in the Himalayas, beneath a sky so full of stars she could reach out and touch them if she wanted. She could pick them out of the sky. Fill her hands. Carry the light in her pockets. Hold it close.”

And just so, Khan is reaching out into memories, filling her pages with these bright, living and breathing moments, telling stories of places with heartbeats “so loud you forgot about your own.”

Yet, the book is more than a travelogue, and more than a memoir, both straddling and defying genre to instead be a love letter to a “world suddenly erupted in colour”. This is what makes the book beyond journeys taken, as Khan pays homage to human connection, writing during a year of pandemic life that demanded separation and left the world yearning.

“I am anti-social, I am a bit of an introvert, but I realised the fundamental thing of life; to connect with people,” Khan acknowledges. DM/ML

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