South London sisters Ambreen and Uzma Hameed had been working on their novel Undying for many years before they finally published it independently during the pandemic. It tells a fascinating story centred on a fictional sibling rivalry.
Moments before my call with Ambreen and Uzma Hameed, I’d been reading one of their novel’s pivotal scenes.
Tensions between Sufya and Zarina, the two sisters at the heart of Undying, have been simmering for a long time, and they finally come to a head – twice.
First, younger sister Zarina relates the argument – a bust-up filled with resentments and revelations swirling around Heathrow, the alluring but elusive (it’s tempting to say flighty) man they both love.
And then, her sister Sufya tells the same story – from her own perspective.
Different events come to the fore, even the dialogue is altered. It’s the same event, but told so differently that it seems like another one altogether.
“That happens in families,” said Ambreen, who wrote Sufya’s chapters.
“Whenever you discuss family events, every person thinks it happened a different way. What I often found when I read what Uzma had written was that she had put something in it that I’d never have thought of.
“In that sense, one person couldn’t have written Undying. Because each sister didn’t see it as her sister saw it – even in the writing process.”
Uzma, who wrote Zarina, added: “That’s so true. I also thought at the time, and still think now, I could never have written what you wrote.”
Having just read that argument scene, I was on the lookout for a flicker of conflict between the sisters – a difference of opinion here or there, maybe even a slight disagreement. A raised eyebrow, at least.
But there’s nothing. I gradually realised that writing Undying has been something quite unusual – a decades-long project between two siblings that has strengthened the bond between them.
South Londoners for almost all their lives, Ambreen and Uzma came up with the concept for Undying in around 1998–99, when the novel is set.
It centres on a British Muslim family around the Balham area, and the fraught love triangle between Sufya, Zarina and Heathrow, their cryptic childhood friend named for the place he was found abandoned as a young boy.
Curious name that it is, “Heathrow” carries all kinds of resonances – of Heathcliff, for one, a different sort of romantic antihero.
And, as Uzma pointed out: “Heathrow – I mean the airport – looms large in the life of immigrants.”
The name is typical of the the novel’s shifts in styles and tone, serious one moment, comic the next.
Its influences, equally varied, draw on both sides of the authors’ British Muslim background – spanning Austen and Emily Brontë, Hollywood, Bollywood, and Sufi poetry.
Ambreen remarked: “It’s not surprising, really, that we would end up picking styles that came from both cultures, and all of them seem somehow expressions of us. Because we were exploring identity, we had to let those voices speak.”
The plot, meanwhile, extends way beyond the love story to encompass all manner of other threads, including a fascinating look at the rise of Islamist fundamentalists – “fundies”, as the characters disparagingly call them – in those pre-9/11 days.
And, in an unexpected supernatural strand, a djinn styled as Humphrey Bogart turns up in West Norwood Cemetery.
It took a long time for the novel to reach its current form, with the sisters busy with work in TV and theatre, but they found pockets of time in which to work in detail on the novel’s plot, before the writing itself began in 2006.
They received help early on in the form of funding from Arts Council England, and later on a subsidised script consultancy from The Literary Consultancy – and in 2011 they came close to placing it with a publisher.
It didn’t quite cross the line, but they were constantly coming close.
“‘We don’t love it enough’, was the comment that we had a lot,” Ambreen recalled.
“There was enough in it to encourage us that we weren’t producing something rubbish. So we kept going.”
Uzma added: “I distinctly remember one of the interested publishers wanting us to steer clear of the political territory and make it more of a British Asian comedy of manners.
“But we wanted it to be the best novel that it was trying to be. We didn’t want to make it into something else.”
The duo dug deeper, and decided to embrace Undying’s wide-ranging nature.
In the end, the pandemic prompted them to make the final push and put the novel out themselves. The first book came out in 2020, and the second earlier this year.
Though they’ve lacked the heft of a major publisher, they have enjoyed the process, and the novel has won endorsements from literary big-hitters including Boyd Tonkin and Stef Penney.
“I think we both wondered why we hadn’t done it before,” Ambreen said. “It’s just made me so happy that people have enjoyed it.”
Uzma mentioned the creative control that comes with publishing independently, too.
Is there another collaboration in the pipeline?
“I don’t think so,” Ambreen said.
“It was a very rich experience, one of the treasures of my life, that I did this with my sister, and our relationship grew in the way that it’s grown.
“You’d be greedy to expect something like that to happen more than once.”
“Completely agree with that,” said Uzma.
Not a raised eyebrow in sight.