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Storytelling through Lived Experience, Sabba Khan

Sabba Khan is an artist, architectural designer and graphic novelist. Her debut graphic novel, The Roles We Play, is one of the Guardian's top 11 graphic novels of 2021 and Cosmopolitan's 20 books for South Asian Heritage Month. Her book delves into a largely unspoken and unacknowledged part of British history - the Mirpuri migration history and is essential reading in understanding contemporary diaspora culture.

Her wider practice looks at unpacking rootlessness, displacement and intergenerational trauma faced by migrant communities who sit in the aftermath of colonial legacy. She uses lived experience, memories and oral histories to expose how wider policies affect our day to day.

We talk to Sabba about using her creative talents to address social and political issues.

Can you tell us about your background and how you embarked on a career in the creative industries?

I’ve trained as an architect but have moved closer to the creative industries in recent years because I find it more immediate, more accessible, and easier to explore personal and political themes. I’m continuously trying to bridge the gap between my practices - I ask myself; how can physical spaces have the capacity to provoke the kind of questions I ask in my visual arts practice. You are a social justice advocate who uses art as a tool for social change. What inspired you to use your creative talents to address social and political issues?

I don’t overtly go out of my way to be a social justice advocate. That intimidates me a bit because there are people out there that have studied and made it their life work to create change. I like to come at it from a perspective of wanting to disrupt notions of normality and of what is considered acceptable. I do that to myself, I interrogate and question myself to the point of exhaustion, and so it feels only right to do that to things outside of myself that I observe. My starting point therefore is almost always from a personal perspective that then branches out.

Your debut graphic novel, The Roles We Play, comprises of 30 interconnected stories exploring themes of identity, belonging & memory within the East London Azad Kashmiri Muslim diaspora. Why did you want to specifically highlight the Muslim/ Mirpuri diaspora experience?

Approximately 70% of the UK’s Pakistani diaspora population trace their origins back to the region around Mangla Dam and Mirpur in Azad Kashmir. I also have a big extended family here in the UK, with cousins in Birmingham, Bradford, Leeds, Manchester. I always knew there are loads of us that speak this very specific language [its neither Urdu, nor Punjabi, its called Pothwari] and have this very specific migration history [connected to Mangla Dam], but I never saw any conversations about it outside of our own family networks. This coincided with my experience of architecture and the arts - I’d very rarely met South Asians in the arts that came from a similar heritage to my own. So the need to talk about the specificities of my cultural heritage came from the desire to feel less lonely.

The stories in The Roles We Play highlight issues of race, gender & class, why was it important for you to bring these to the forefront?

Because of the intersectional discrimination the Mirpuri diaspora has faced in the UK, [classicism within the Pakistani community and constantly changing attitudes and policies towards migrations and Muslims from wider UK] I wanted to unpick and untangle where this sense of not belonging comes from. I recall walking down the road with my mum, and every time we bumped into a friend, her accent would change to accommodate who she was talking to. Sometimes it would be Punjabi, sometimes broken Urdu, very rarely would it be the language we spoke at home. So, this sense of not quite being the ‘standard’ was a regular reminder growing up. When working on my book, I wanted to offer some possible solutions as to why we have some of the neuroses we have, I wanted to give my Mirpuri upbringing a chance to understand itself in the context of everything that has happened over the last 70 years. It naturally meant moving beyond the personal to the political.

Working with Each Other, a human rights charity, you illustrated 3 stories of young people’s experiences with mental health and challenges they faced. What was the experience like and what did you learn from the process?

With having used ‘lived experience’ as the starting point for my own work, the work with Each Other felt like a logical next step. The brief was to use interviews of young people’s experiences with mental health, and illustrate their stories, keeping their lived experience at the heart of the storytelling. I had to ‘step in’ to the stories of each of the participants, and get to the gut, to the heart of their stories. I found this particularly challenging, as I felt I had to embody their stories to then reflect back authentically and respectfully in the artwork. Some of the stories I connected with more, and some others less so, so sitting with that observing that, asking myself why I felt those differences were really illuminating for me and my practice.

A commission for the British Library to contribute to their Discovering Sacred Texts online learning resources resulted in you creating a series of images. What was the most rewarding part of the project?

This was a short project, and the client had a very specific idea in mind - they simply wanted me to illustrate the key prayer positions. A quick look on the internet, and I realised that there are no isometric diagrams of the key prayer positions, they’d change angle, or just show 1 or 2 poses. Since I love drawing isometric because of my architectural background, I took it upon myself to provide a drawing that did just that.