Author illustrates the complexity of her Pakistani-British life in graphic memoir

Sabba Khan's new book, 'The Roles We Play', deals with religion, migration and race

An illustration from Sabba Khan's graphic novel.
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In the background, the sun sets over the Himalayan mountains framing the intricately drawn villages of the Kashmir valley, where Sabba Khan’s family are from. In the foreground, though, Khan is walking with her mother through Queen's Market, in east London. It’s a telling juxtaposition, central to Khan’s moving graphic memoir The Roles We Play, the end of a chapter which starts with her asking: “Where is home, Mamma?”

It’s a question that is as much rhetorical and symbolic as it is literal. Two thirds of today’s British Pakistani diaspora can trace their origins back to Mirpur in Azad Kashmir (on the Pakistan side), a place that suffered mass displacement after the Mangla Dam was built in the 1960s, submerging homes, lands and livelihoods.

Khan’s parents came to England shortly afterwards, “doing jobs that the whites thought themselves above”. It was in London that Khan was born, the youngest of five children growing up dealing with ancestral ties and racial tension, the trauma of migration and the soothing - yet sometimes suffocating - balm of the family home.

It’s this constant push and pull between tradition and modernity, family and self-determination which gives The Roles We Play a poignant power. An architectural designer, Khan's trade certainly informs her art as she interrogates the importance of space, both physical and mental, in emotive illustrations that range from comic strip-like narratives to sweeping panoramas, self-portraits and infographics.

If The Roles We Play feels like an extended, artistic therapy session, then that might be the point - although it’s also a universal, wry, exploration into the dilemmas, traumas and comforts that every child of immigrants will recognise. The accompanying playlist, featuring everyone from D’Angelo to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Radiohead, deepens the experiences still further.

“It started off as a personal exercise,” she explains, “and the more I showed the chapters to people, the more encouragement I got, the more I realised it could be a safe space to talk about things that are quite difficult to approach; my family, the diaspora experience, my own struggle for self-acceptance.”

Khan often likens her experiences to being one of constantly trying to please other people, whether that be her family, the expectations of the country in which she lives, or the Kashmiri Muslim community. She calls it code switching, and the book asks both her community and the country to look beyond racial stereotypes and expected behaviours.

“It’s important for my generation and the ones to come to give ourselves the space to ask what is beautiful and uplifting about our communities, too,” she says. “My aunt said to me: ‘Sabba, we are great explorers, we’ve travelled across many lands, we’ve accommodated so much, we’ve grown so much. We’re constantly adaptable.’

“And I see that in my own family. I’ve seen my parents start off bringing their children up in a very rigid structure of arranged marriages to the point where there’s me, marrying outside the Pakistani community. That just speaks to the fact that a lot of our communities aren’t closed off and segregated – we are highly agile, flexible, incredibly embracing.”

The beginnings of her relationship with her partner is beautifully explored in the book. There’s an intensely personal section where she not only realises the depth of her love for him – “who could have known that a temporal love of this world would bring me closest to the divine” - but also the jealousy she felt because he, as a white man, was automatically “welcomed, accepted, loved and respected by everyone.”

She wonders whether she would have met him had she not taken the decision to remove her hair covering in her twenties – “it had grown louder than me,” she writes – and knows that the answer is no.

“It was such an obvious symbolic gesture to de-purdah – maybe even a bit easy,” she says. “But I do hope that people are able to create those moments where they can define and position themselves in society in a way that works for them; it doesn’t have to be as visible as what I did.”

What The Roles We Play does explore really intelligently is that seismic decisions like de-purdah don’t immediately have to be binary; it’s not a rejection of religion, tradition or family as much as a chance to engender a deeper awareness of self.

“I was definitely on a journey of dismissing everything,” she says. “But then, I’d also feel really uncomfortable and a bit disrespectful to everything that had come before me. There is a certain arrogance and self-righteousness in saying, ‘All these people are wrong, I’ll show them the right way.' At every point, I would remind myself of the sheer power of what my family have achieved, and constantly remind myself of their context, their situations, the things that they were grappling with and how they've shaped and defined them.

“It’s almost like I am here, and able to critique things, and have therapy and these conversations with myself through this book because they afforded me that privilege. So definitely, spirituality and faith are an incredibly powerful tool to offer hope, a thread to hold onto when things are unpredictable, unreliable and unknown.”

The act of drawing has that power for Khan, too. She didn’t grow up with access to comics, but became intrigued by the graphic novel section of Central Saint Martins’s library, where she was studying architecture. She’s slightly embarrassed to admit that her gateway into the form was Craig Thompson’s best-selling Blankets, but actually the comparison is apt; both are in part about growing up in families in which religion plays a significant role, where the protagonist comes to some kind of accommodation with their relationship to spirituality.

That’s the beauty of The Roles We Play – a deeply human response to a situation in which, suffocated by the "mothering" of both her community and herself, Khan was constantly shape-shifting, trying to fit in, being judged. She broke the cycle through love, art and understanding.

“At first, I wanted people to cry with me and share in my pain,” she says. “Now, I want to give people a window to see into the beautiful complexity of life.”

The Roles We Play is out in bookstores on July 15

Updated: July 15, 2021, 5:37 AM