Shelina Shariff-Zia’s passion for literature first blossomed when she was a child growing up in Kenya. She recalls that both she and her family were avid readers, often trading books among family members. Later, her interest in reading and writing led her to study literature at Rice University in Texas and pursue a Master’s degree in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Now, she is on the verge of publishing her first novel, entitled Nairobi Days, which will come out in mid-October.
After receiving her Master’s, Shelina worked as a journalist covering the chemical industry. She later wrote book reviews and travel articles. However, writing fiction didn’t happen until Shelina experienced the loss of her mother. In her six years of fighting bone marrow cancer, her mother Gulzar shared with her daughter stories of living in Kenya. After her mother’s death, she remembers sitting down at her computer in shock.
“I remembered all those things she told me so I just started writing. I wrote a chapter about my mum and how she grew up in Kampala and had an arranged marriage. Then I sent it to my brother, and he said, ‘Oh, wow! You remember all this, it’s great.’ Recreating the world we had lost is just what we needed at the time,” Shelina said.
As she continued to write, Shelina began to embellish her stories with fictional anecdotes, and after ten months she had a 500-page book on her hands. She took it to writing workshops and chose to separate the work into two books– one a memoir of her family’s life and the other a work of fiction. The latter is what will be published this fall.
Nairobi Days is a saga that traces the life of a young Ismaili girl growing up in Kenya. The story, set in Kenya between the sixties and eighties, illustrates the problems the Indian minority endured. It is also a coming of age story and a romance novel. Though it is fiction, Shelina acknowledges that she embedded parts of her own childhood into the story, using authentic restaurants and street addresses to make the novel realistic.
“I tried to be as honest as I could. And that’s the great thing about writing fiction, you can basically do what you want. You can make it much more dramatic, and you don’t have to worry about offending people,” Shelina said.
Besides writing, Shelina also teaches English at Bronx Community College. She enjoys working with the students, many of whom are talented writers. She hopes to continue teaching and writing and publishing a second book, a memoir of her family’s life in Kenya.