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The story behind the story

I have a memory seared in my mind.

I am five years old and swimming in the Apollo Hotel pool in Kampala. It is 1974. A quiet weekend outing is suddenly charged when a grinning Idi Amin Dada appears in his swim trunks. A little boy, no older than I, is standing in front of Amin, between him and me. The boy (one of Amin’s sons it is clear by the military fatigues he is wearing and his position next to Amin) is staring at me, though there must be many other people about. The boy’s anger is palpable and directed at me. I cannot imagine what I have done to inspire it. But I am afraid of him. I am not afraid of his father.

The context of this event was life in Kampala during Amin’s lunatic rule. Soldiers, usually drunk, were crawling on most streets, particularly the ones near our home (which was very close to a large barracks). Each night the city would erupt in gunfights that would continue long after I had fallen asleep.


Idi Amin with two of his sons in Kampala in 1975.

In my early attempts at telling the story of Asians in Uganda at that time, I chose to put these scenes of my childhood at the centre of the narrative, to put myself at the centre of the narrative.

What I wrote was forced and stilted and embarrassingly self-indulgent.

Four years ago, I moved to Tanzania, leaving behind a well-paying job at The Globe and Mail and selling my house, having no plan whatsoever except to live in East Africa and write a novel (with two children under the age of three in tow, this was a reckless decision by any standard). In Dar es Salaam, my husband found a job piloting a small plane. We lived off savings and his meagre earnings as I wrote each day.

It was exhausting. The mosquitoes and heat were unbearable and my baby was waking multiple times in the night. But the words were flowing and in a voice that rang so authentically I knew the story I had been trying to tell for years was finally freed.

What opened the floodgates was a sensation of disorientation. I was lost in Dar. I found no peers, saw nothing familiar and ached for home. I began to think about why I moved, why anyone moves. When I asked these questions, my grandfather, as a young man and not as the old, tired dying man I remember, appeared in my mind.

With this young man standing in the pale dust of Malia, longing for a life beyond his imagination, Where the Air Is Sweet began.

The characters quickly came to life, often expressing thoughts I had no recollection of forming. I realized that what I needed to do for so many years was to get out of the way and the story could come.

About five months into full-time writing, I began to insert details, gleaned from my parents, from aunts and uncles and later from books and later still from newspaper archives. I travelled through Uganda to the places I was writing about. I touched the house my grandfather built, visited my grandmother’s grave, stood in front of the once feared Public Safety Unit.

This book is fiction. It is framed by historical events and my family’s experience. It is, at its simplest, a story of movement and longing.

Comments ( 16 )
  • Alia says:

    I admire your courage to go to Tanzania with the family! What an experience to share. Can’t wait to read the book :)

  • Nancy says:

    Tasneem – Freddy sent me the link your Dad sent him – I really enjoy reading books about Indian culture and with the family connection I really look forward to reading your book. So very exciting and I really look forward to it!

    • tasneem says:

      Hi Nancy! How lovely to hear from you! I’m excited about sharing my book and especially loving that I get to reconnect with people. Hope you and Freddy and kids are all well.

  • Moe Somani says:

    Congratulations Tasnem! Your dad sent the link and we are looking forward to reading the book. All the best, Salma and Moe

  • Zainul Lalani says:

    Hello Tasnim,

    Our parents grew up together in Mbarara and were (and still continue to be…) very good friends. I am sure it took a lot of courage to finally put pen to paper and express all the trauma we all went thru in the early 70’s and the fallout that still continues…I am looking forward to reading “Where The Air Is Sweet”.


  • Salina Visram says:

    I am excited to share this book with my fellow book club colleagues.
    Maybe you could do the presentation at our book club for this book in September??
    We will be reading it over the summer as it is released June 7th.

    • tasneem says:

      Absolutely, Salina! Actually the on-sale date is June 3rd. Can you send an email on the contact page of my site? It will go to my gmail account. And then we can set up a date in September (once you have one).

  • Nick Lalani says:

    Well done and congrats. Your Dad and I grew up together. Vacant wait to read the book. Would love to meet you although I must have met you when you were very little. Cheers Nick

    • tasneem says:

      Thanks! I think we might have met in Mbarara of all places in 2004 or 2005?? You were vacationing with your family; I was with my husband.

  • Vali Jamal, PhD says:

    Hello Tasneem, greetings from Vancouver, normally from Kampala. Your novel sounds interesting – to me particularly because I am writing THE book on Uganda Asians, a sort of oral history of people’s recollections of their lives in Uganda and the expulsion in 1972. (You write of meeting the dictator and his son in 1974?) It’s gone beyond a million words. It’s done now and should launch in October. I should like to feaure your book in mine, with a brief account of your escape from Uganda.
    Congratulations. I notice you finished your book in one year; mine I have been going now for seven years. Some of the people who are in the book got fed up of waiting sooo long.

  • Shahenaz Virani says:

    Congratulations Tasneem. I too am from Mbarara and went to school with your Aunt Nurjehan. I am looking forward to reading your book. I have been following your blog and have thoroughly enjoyed it.

  • Clare Fitzgibbon says:

    Hi Tasneem. Congratulations on the publication of your book. We have it ordered now at our local bookshop. You will remember our story from meeting with our son Andrew when he came to stay with your parents back in 1988, then when you were in touch on Tanzania. Your parents and we are good friends since our younger days together in Mbarara. We still visit annually since our 2 years there as volunteers with Hospice Uganda. Sending love to you all.

    • tasneem says:

      Hello Clare, I absolutely remember you (and Andrew). I still have a book of short stories of yours! So lovely to hear from you.

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