Jamil F Khan: an unflinching queer South African voice


Jamil F Khan’s writing is sublime. His words at time wander across the page, casually painting pictures of life in a Coloured community in the Cape. However, many of the pictures his words paint are violent, painful and soaked in the red drip of anguish.

Khamr: The Makings of a Waterslams is Khan’s first book. In it he tells the sometimes harrowing story of growing up in a Coloured community in the Cape, living under a cloak of fear within his own family and their struggles with alcohol, and stepping into his own identity.

The book takes its name from a derogatory term used to describe Muslims who imbibe alcohol: Waterslams. Khamr refers to intoxicants, which are forbidden in Islam.

“In popular Coloured discourse, the figure of the Waterslams presents a complex interrelationship between respectability, religious superiority, prejudicial solidarity, power and shame. For many of us, image is all we have,” Khan writes.

The atmosphere in Khan’s home as he grew up was tense, uncertain, punctuated by raucous parties hosted by his parents. Added to that, there was an expectation for him – and other young people from his community – to succeed, to pull themselves out of their community, to better themselves.

Khan describes these young people as “insurance policies”, burdened with the responsibility of “lifting them out of hardship.”

Coloured communities have a complicated relationship with queerness

Khan was outed to his mother, which led to a humiliating confrontation with him in the early hours of the morning. This was followed by a difficult conversation with his father the next morning. The disdain with which he was met could be seen as a reflection of the awkward relationship his community seemed to have with queerness.

“I think queerphobia is a common feature of colonised societies and my community was no different,” says Khan.

“I have always received the message that queerness is undesirable and unacceptable, however, Coloured communities have a complicated relationship with queerness. It is both stigmatised and valourised at the same time. Queer people can hold very important and visible positions in the community but hold little social power and are routinely policed through queerphobia,” he notes.

The book takes the reader from Khan’s childhood, travels through the rooms of his home, at time filled with violence, and into a space deep within Khan himself in which he embraces peace, acceptance and a new wisdom birthed from his life experiences.

We deserve every chance to be remembered

“I have written a story of my own experiences and taken the time to write it in a way that humanises those who caused me harm,” Khan says, “That is the best I could do for myself and the story, which is the important thing.”

Khamr: The Makings of a Waterslams is worth reading for both its insights and the sheer poetry of Khan’s writing style, which grabs the reader and fully immerses them in Khan’s world. In Khan’s Note to the Reader, he says: “We deserve every chance to be remembered.”

Khan and his magnificent writing style will be remembered, indeed.

You can order Jamil F Khan’s book here or follow him on Twitter.

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