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AUTHOR HAFSA ZAYYAN'S MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

We asked Hafsa Zayyan, the winner of Stormzy’s New Writers’ Prize, to tell us about her most cherished platonic love

17.02.2021

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“There’s no one like your sister,” my father said sternly as my younger – and only – sister peered over the top of the Oxford Dictionary & Thesaurus, the weight of the thing sitting heavy and precarious on her small knees. I sat in another corner of the room, quietly triumphant. “Now go on,” my father continued. “Read it. And tell me, after each one, is your sister one of those things?”

HASFA AND HER SISTER Sanaa

My sister grimaced, pulling the leaf-thin paper apart, squinting as she brought the text close enough to hide her face, to the point where it looked as though the book was about to devour her. “A female dog,” came a small voice from behind the hardback, rubbing a little grease onto the page as she read and tried, unsuccessfully, to stifle a giggle.

My mother, passing through momentarily, paused to offer: “You know when you go off to university you’ll miss each other so much and you’ll wish you spent more time being friends and less time fighting.”

We both snorted. We were eight years old – university was a lifetime away. But my sister never called me a bitch again.

There’s always one month in a year when we are the same age – we are born within the space of 12 months, although I always tried to impress my dominance as the eldest upon her during our childhood. The months of our birthdays didn’t allow me to be the oldest and her the youngest in the same school year – and so I got to do everything first: I went to high school before her, I got the mobile phone first, I got to learn to drive first. Outside of school, we were practically inseparable – largely because my mother forced me to take her with me anywhere I went. And so she skipped along my side like my shadow, and (much to my annoyance) became friends with all my friends.

For many years, we shared a room. We would get screamed at by my parents because they could hear us through the walls laughing hysterically when we were supposed to be sleeping. My sister was the bubbly optimist and I was the stoic realist, and we fit together like yin and yang. No friendship can mirror the completeness of understanding that comes from growing up behind the same closed doors. My sister was the endless presence I didn’t choose, the blood that bound us to one another itself a constant reminder that it could never be severed.

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I went to university first. I never thought about what impact my departure might have had on her, but when she went to university the following year and got her own things, and became her own person, it stung. I remember worrying frantically about her because she hadn’t contacted me for two days during her freshers’ week. I remember the bitterness of seeing things she brought home from university that I had no idea existed until they came to my consciousness at the end of term. And of course, university changed her – she developed her own independent interests; she adopted new ways of thinking and speaking. She met a boy. All these things I could have no part in, and I was fiercely jealous, immensely proud, and slightly heartbroken.

We don’t live in the same town now; in the many years we’ve lived apart, I’ve become used to her absence. But I speak to her nearly every day. She has always been my biggest cheerleader. She is the person I can turn to when I feel like there is no one else. Yes, we've had our rows, but they've never lasted more than an hour without apologies. She is, in a nutshell, my most familiar person. I can only hope I am for her what she is for me. For with this type of love, sisterly love, there is, like my father says, nothing quite like it.

We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan is out now, #MerkyBooks, £14.99