In her debut graphic novel, The Roles We Play, Sabba Khan presents a look into the day-to-day life of a second-generation Muslim born in the UK. This touching memoir explores what identity, belonging and memory mean for her and her family against the backdrop of this history.
Where is home? Two-thirds of today’s British Pakistani diaspora trace their origins back to Mirpur in Azad Kashmir, a district that is now controlled by Pakistan. A second generation immigrant, born in London, Sabba Khan’s debut graphic memoir from Myriad Editions explores what identity, belonging and memory mean for her and her family. She paints a vivid snapshot of contemporary British Asian life and investigates the complex shifts experienced by different generations within migrant communities.
In the prologue to the book, an adult Sabba depicts, mainly through drawings, how she has been affected by other people’s influence throughout her life. She shares her worries about talking about her experience and identity crisis, and what people will say about her book. She explains that this book is for her, and that she refuses to feel totally suffocated, like she is constantly shapeshifting, trying to fit in to different roles and be a mould of what people want her to be. Sabba begins to see the reflection of the people influencing her when she looks in the mirror and begins to hear their negative opinions. Proving she has finally found her own identity, Sabba smashes the mirror. This is where our story retrospectively begins.
When her ancestral home of Mirpur in (what is now) Pakistan is submerged by water in the 1960s, Sabba’s parents make the move to the UK. As both are the oldest siblings in their respective families, this move is important: it indicates them leading the rest of their family to a new way of life. There is a lot of pressure riding on this being a success.
The Roles We Play takes us through Sabba’s life from childhood to the present day, though not in chronological order. We get fragments and memories of different parts of Sabba’s life, which eventually form a whole narrative. Born in London, Sabba goes through many personal struggles, a lot due to the ignorance of other British people about their Asian Muslim fellow citizens, and some to do with the male gaze, who see women wearing hijabs as un-feminine and genderless (we think the hijab is beautiful). As she grows older, Sabba begins to question if anyone really has a say in the role they play, or whether we are all just products of our context. Does free will even exist? Sabba ultimately must do some soul-searching to find the answers.
The fact that Sabba studied architecture is such a clear influence throughout the book, not just in the wonderful storytelling of how she got into the male-dominated world of building, but through the illustrations. The drawings throughout are almost blueprint-like, with some being more obvious, like the layout of a house, and some much more subtle, like a thought running through someone’s head. Another small detail we loved was the song titles at the beginning of each section, which sets the scene to each chapter perfectly.
The standout quality of this graphic novel must be the relationship between Sabba and her mother. From adoring her mother and sharing her bed as a child, to finding her views on women stifling and difficult, their relationship is completely raw and real. Throughout all their conflict and difference of opinions, it is so clear that they love each other completely, even if they can’t quite understand each other, and the ending moment between them is incredibly poignant.
We recommend picking this one up and giving it a read ASAP!