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Nadifa Mohamed: Writing the Lives of Somalia’s Women

The complex psychology of pre-war Somalia, and the endurance of its women, is vividly portrayed in The Orchard of Lost Souls.

Nadifa Mohamed is a rising star of the literary world whose life experiences are woven intimately into her award-winning fiction.

Born in Hargeisa, a city in the north of what was then Somalia, she was four years old when her family relocated to London, where they remained when civil war broke out in their homeland shortly thereafter. It was an experience she described as “a rupture of everything I’d known… going to school for the first time in a completely different environment knowing that the world I did know was lost in quite a big way was very traumatic.”

A Somali diaspora has emerged in the UK and elsewhere in the intervening years, but in that early and chaotic period it lacked the sense of diasporic community that it would later develop.

“That’s definitely I think something that came along later, with the increase of Somalis in London. Before that it was almost like being an alien. Very few people had heard of Somalia. The two big groups here were either Jamaican or Pakistani, so you were constantly put into one of those two groups, or questioned as to why you weren’t one of those groups. It was only much later, say in the mid-‘90s, when Somalis began to move into my part of London and began to be seen more widely across London. And now there’s a huge population, and you do feel part of a diaspora.”

After growing up and attending university in the UK, Mohamed’s career took an unexpected literary turn. Her debut novel, Black Mamba Boy, was based on her father’s experiences growing up in ’30s Yemen and East Africa. The novel, published in 2009, won the Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for several other prestigious prizes.

In 2013 she released her second novel, The Orchard of Lost Souls. The book is set in 1987 Somalia, in the northern city of Hargeisa on the eve of the civil war which would devastate and fragment the country. The events leading up to the outbreak of civil war are experienced from the perspective of three female protagonists – Kawsar, Deqo, and Filsan – but the events and characters that populate the novel are based on dozens of interviews, in addition to considerable archival research, that Mohamed conducted as she developed the book. Having studied history at Oxford, this part of the work came naturally to her.

“I loved the research part of writing,” she enthused. “I began with interviews, I interviewed my mother to begin with, and female relatives who’d been in the war as children now as adults. I go to Hargeisa quite a lot now for different reasons, so I also interviewed people there and that was really fascinating. There’s very little done to memorialize people’s experience of the war. I think it’s so close that people just kind of turned their backs to it and walked away. So it’s very rare to actually hear a full narrative of someone’s experiences in the war. And so I sought them out.”

Despite the fact that Mohamed was only a child when the events she describes were taking place, her novel depicts them in powerful and evocative prose. In addition to interviewing people who experienced the war, and studying the reports of humanitarian organizations that operated in Somalia during and after the war, she drew from other first-hand sources, as well.

“There’s lots and lots of footage now of Somalia as it used to be on YouTube. Lots of young people who’ve grown up outside of the country are fascinated by these videos of such a normal city – especially Mogadishu, which is so destroyed now – but on YouTube you can watch hours and hours of footage of people just walking around Mogadishu. People are really touched at the fact that there are streetlights, and traffic, and policemen, and you know people just sitting around outside cafes and wearing different clothes from what they can wear now.”

The interviews she conducted also struck her powerfully. Some of them comprised brief off-hand conversations; others turned into lengthy repeat sessions. Some of those interviews, she said, constituted book-worthy experiences in their own right.

“There was one guy at a hotel in Hargeisa, we were both staying at this hotel, and we got talking in a casual way and it turns out he’d been in the war as a doctor. He’d been corralled into the main hospital – where I was born – to treat soldiers. All of the civilian patients had been forced out and it had been turned into a military hospital and he was forced to work nonstop for twelve days until his white coat was soaked in blood, he said. And eventually he managed to persuade them to let him go home to pick some things up, or to clean up, and then he escaped.

So he had a really interesting view on what it was like in that hospital, on what it had been like before then. He’d been born into a nomadic family and been educated – he was definitely the first doctor in his family, probably even the first to go to university, maybe even to be literate in his family. So he was an obstetrician in Somalia but because of the trauma and experiences he’d had during the war he ended up moving to Canada and retraining as a psychiatrist. He’s someone that deserves a book of his own.”

The complex psychology of the pre-war period is what riveted her, and this comes through expressively in the novel.

“It’s a situation where the people of what becomes Somaliland later on are treated like children. They’re told to go to their rooms and not to leave their homes after 4pm and they can’t listen to this radio station and they can’t do that and they can’t build buildings over two storeys, and it’s so infantilizing.

And it also affected gender relationships. Before, men were the ones who could roam and do what they like, and they were the breadwinners of their family, and that wasn’t really the case anymore. Many of the men went to different countries because they couldn’t earn anything and live freely, and the ones who stayed were harassed by the government and imprisoned and executed, and that had a huge impact.”

Writing Somalia’s Past – and Present

Today, Hargeisa lies in Somaliland, in what was once the north of Somalia. Somaliland has declared its independence from the former Somalia but has not been recognized by any other nations as a state despite a functional democratic government and a growing infrastructure of hospitals, schools, universities and other modern institutions. After growing up in London, while in her early 20s, Mohamed eventually returned to Hargeisa, in Somaliland.

“It was amazing. The city had changed a lot… everything has been rebuilt and swept up and is all very busy and there’s lots of little shops everywhere. So it’s a strange city, and it’s also a familiar city at the same time. It’s much wealthier than when I was living there in the ‘80s, there are many more schools and hospitals and universities. It’s much more successful, and freer, and democratic now, but it’s also more conservative now on the social level. So it’s somewhere that I’m getting to know, and I think that I had this kind of nostalgic belief that it was still home. But the more time that I spend there the more I realize no, it’s actually the home of the people who stayed. And their ownership and their attachment is much greater than mine.”

Her previous book, Black Mamba Boy, focused on predominantly male worlds. For her second book she wanted to focus on women’s lives, and also on the Somali civil war which had such an impact on her own life.

“The two images that started the novel were one of an elderly woman bed-bound as the war raged around her. And the inspiration for that probably came from the fact that my grandmother experienced the war in a similar way. She was bed-bound after a car accident, and when the war broke out everyone who could flee, fled. But of course disabled people, sick people, some of the mentally ill trapped in cells, could not escape. And the other image was of a little girl who is using the war as an opportunity. All of the sudden these abandoned homes become her playground. She breaks into them and enjoys their lovely big beds and eats their food. Very Goldilocks like.”

Both of these images turned into key characters in the novel. Deqo is the young girl, an abandoned child who grew up in a refugee camp. She lives in a barrel under a bridge, but wanders the city with a child’s skittish freedom, seeking to understand the strange world unfolding around her.

Kawsar is the old woman: a matriarch who tries to defend Deqo – a stranger to her – when a government militia tries to capture and beat the girl. Kawsar is arrested and brutally beaten in Deqo’s place, and spends much of the novel bed-bound as a result, surrounded by her memories and her strong but powerless feelings about the nation descending into war and violence outside her walls. After peeking through her window at the scenes of civilians fleeing, tanks firing and jet fighters screaming overhead, “She collapses back onto the bed and pulls a blanket over her face, fearing that a bomb will explode through her roof in a matter of seconds. Both she and Guryo Samo have reached the end of their time; the soldiers will return the street to the desert, unplug the stars, shoot the dogs and extinguish the sun in a well.”

This moving depiction of the beginning of the end for Somalia as it was then, which appears toward the end of the book, lies in stark contrast to Kawsar’s equally moving memory of independence, which she describes at the beginning of the book. The hopes and dreams of that moment are juxtaposed powerfully against the despair and horror that erupts 27 years later.

When the British had left on 26 June 1960, everyone had poured out of their homes in their Eid clothes and gathered at the municipal khayriyo between the national bank and prison. It was as if they were drunk, wild; girls got pregnant that night and when asked who the father of their child was, they would reply: ‘Ask the flag.’ That night, crushed within a mixed crowd as the Somali flag was raised for the first time, Kawsar had lost a long, gold earring that was part of her dowry, but Farah hadn’t cared – he’d said it was a gift to the new nation. The party had moved to Freedom Park and lasted into the next morning, the sleepy town transformed into a playground, the youth of the country believing that they had achieved what their elders hadn’t. People always half-joked afterwards that that day changed the women of Hargeisa; that they never returned to the modest, quiet lives they had known after that bacchanalian display, that the taste of one kind of freedom led to an insatiable desire for every kind.

Of all the characters, Kawsar, based loosely on her grandmother, is Mohamed’s favourite. “When I saw her in my mind it was almost as if she’d always been there, waiting for me. She’s a very fully formed person to me… I think for me she represents a lot of the women I lost during the war, or during our own departure.”

Other characters had more fragmented origins. Filsan is an unlikely protagonist. A soldier in the Somalian army, she navigates the constant threat of sexual harassment and rebel attacks yet also commits acts of horrific violence. Despite this, she’s a powerfully engaging character the reader cannot help sympathizing with.

“Filsan is probably the hardest character to pin down to any one person,” reflects Mohamed. “She’s someone who appears more tangentially in narratives that people said, because women were part of the dictatorship, they were part of the framework of this regime… people often say that she’s a character they haven’t seen before, and I guess she’s a character that I have not written before. I wouldn’t say I liked her, but the more I spent time with her and told her story, the more I sympathized and felt sorry for her, because she had been brutalized at a very early age, and she had the misfortune to grow up in what becomes a police state. And she’s been told that she’s part of making society better through this police state.

At heart she’s an idealist. She’s someone that wants improvement and progress and she’s led by these men around her to believe that that can be done through violence. And on an emotional level, she’s willing to use violence. She’s sick of being the powerless one. With her father she’s the powerless one, often in these professional environments she’s the least powerful one, so when she’s given the opportunity to be the powerful one, she can’t say no.”

The Sustaining Power of the Political Novel

While Orchard of Lost Souls focuses on the psychology of pre-war tension among its female protagonists – painting a picture of women’s lives and struggles in post-colonial Somalia – it is very much a political novel, as well.

“It can often feel that rather than a book being taken as a work of fiction, as a work of art, it’s seen as an anthropological treatise on a group of people that people don’t know much about, around the world.”

“I think everything is political,” Mohamed is quick to point out. “I do definitely believe that the personal is political, and the way that we live our lives and the opportunities that are afforded to us and the constraints we feel… I would say that both books are political. They’re both dealing with power, and who has it and who hasn’t.”

Novels that grapple with historical themes of colonialism and empire have a contemporary power and resonance too, insofar as these remain potent forces that continue to shape today’s world. Addressing them was an integral part of Black Mamba Boy.

“I did want to kind of challenge a political narrative that was re-emerging about empire, about the relationship between powerful, wealthy western nations and poorer, non-western nations. Especially around the Iraq war, quite a lot of British narratives and opinion-makers were saying ‘Let’s just have empires again! Let’s have an American empire, it’d be fantastic, why not?’ And it was disconcerting listening to that, or reading that in the newspapers, and having my father recount exactly what it was like to be a subject of an empire, which was racialized and which was brutal and which afforded someone like him no value in it. So I think there was a clear political aim there.”

Writing about Somalia in Orchard of Lost Souls took on political dimensions too, but in a different way.

“I think there’s still a lot of political discussions about Somalia and to be honest they almost feel like a distraction now. I think what’s not talked about is the trauma of what happened, and the impact it had on women, and the impact it has on minorities, and on little girls who live on the street and are not looked after by anyone. I think Somalia’s often just talked about in the political sense and it’s frustrating.”

One of the factors that renders political discussions about Somalia so complex is the relationship between contemporary Somalia and the large Somali diaspora, comprised of Somali families like Mohamed’s, who fled the country when the civil war broke out. In a 2013 interview published on AfricanArguments.org, Mohamed warned that “Diasporas can be quite dangerous. They can have quite a distorted view of their homeland. And they can come with a kind of sense of ownership – an almost colonial-type attitude.”

I asked her to expand on the point.

“It’s not just diasporas,” she reflected. “I think that’s something that Filsan made me think about, is how city people in poor nations — and not necessarily just poor nations, I think in most nations – see rural people.”

As an example, she pointed to the prevalence of Irish jokes in the UK, the ubiquity of which can be traced back for centuries.

“And a lot of that was revolving around the fact that Irish communities were often very rural, and were therefore seen as uneducated, as brutal, as simple, and that’s also the case in Somalia when it comes to the way people see nomadic groups. And there’s lots of bigotry, I guess, and humour around all the uneducated nomads coming into the big city for the first time. And that’s what Filsan sees. And when she goes into rural areas on these violent missions, I think she sees her role as very colonial! She’s meant to be bringing civilization to these people, and she sees them as these brutes who are resisting it…

There’s this real tension which re-occurs in lots of different places, and I think what now is happening is that the city-and-rural-divide is now the diaspora-and-home-population-divide, where people come from the UK, America, Sweden, with very certain ideas about how societies should operate and how political systems should operate and they can have very hostile attitudes to the way things are done in their home countries. People get very upset at the simple things, like toilets. They’re used to western toilets, and if a toilet doesn’t fit with what they know at home, then it’s awful and disgusting. And that can also be when it comes to social behaviours. I’m very used to wearing trousers, and you can’t really wear trousers in Somaliland because of social norms, and that can cause conflict.

There’s lots of small things that can cause conflict, but often even in Britain the narrative within the diaspora is ‘How do we go back and change things? How do we go back and improve things?’ And it’s meant with love and it’s meant with care and concern, but when you don’t live there all year, and you come back for a holiday for a month or two, and you have this idea of how you’re going to change that society and that country, I think that’s very problematic. You don’t have that place anymore, you don’t have that investment anymore. And your sense of what is possible and what is desirable is different from what people who live there want and desire.”

In addition to being a political novel, I suggest to Mohamed that Orchard of Lost Souls is also a feminist novel, and she concurs.

“I think it is. I think that it’s heavily focused on the power relationships between men and women of that time, and the effect it has on those women when they are disempowered. To me that’s probably the definition of a feminist novel. That’s my definition of a feminist novel.”

The Strengths and Weaknesses of the Novel as Literary Form

As a writer, Mohamed has explored a variety of styles. In addition to her two novels, she’s a frequent contributor of journalistic essays and commentaries for publications such as The Guardian and the Huffington Post, among others. She’s written on everything from the politics of international money transfer to Africa, to female genital mutilation, to the power of Beyonce. But it’s the novel form that she truly loves. This is partly because of the greater ability it affords to explore problems in considerable depth, and to reveal the innate complexity of the topics under discussion.

In Orchard of Lost Souls, very little is clear-cut. Characters are complex combinations of positive and negative attributes; even the political developments that eventually led to the devastating civil war are depicted as a complicated brew of good intentions and malignant aspirations. It is, Mohamed observes, novels that afford the greatest opportunity to depict the honest complexity of the real world.

“That sits with you, in a novel, and you realize how complicated the situation is. I think quite narrow impressions are given of Somali life, African life, Muslim life, so a novel allows you to give them a lot more detail and show a lot more complexity in how people think and act and aspire and love and everything else. So I much prefer writing novels. I feel that with these other articles you have to just have one point, and just defend that one point, which isn’t really what I want to do.”

Novels, however, can also pose challenges, especially once they leave the writer’s hand. One of the challenges, she notes, is that people tend to read African novels as documentaries of African lives. Just as western novels shouldn’t be generalized and presumed to depict the totality of social experience in western countries, neither should African novels be presumed to depict the totality of African experiences, especially contemporary African lives.

“I don’t want anyone reading my books as a description of African life,” she emphasized, taking the example of Black Mamba Boy. “That’s not what it is. It’s a description of one boy’s experiences in ’30s East Africa, that’s as specific as it can be. And when I’m telling the story of him, I’m also telling the story of a slightly wider group of young men, of his generation, who also experienced those similar situations.

But it could not be broadened beyond that… colonialism wasn’t a static thing. It was very different in Somaliland where the British had very little political interest, to how it was in Kenya, or in Belgian Congo. There’s not much that you can say about one place and expand it into another place. Somalia was split into French Somaliland, Italian Somaliland, British Somaliland, and then what would become Ethiopian Somaliland. And in each of those statelets the situation was very different.”

“I hate the idea of perpetuating this idea of Somalia as this terrible place where people barely eat and have to grab plates of food off café tables and run with them. That’s not the experience of most people now, and of course Africa’s changed a whole lot…”

Being aware of the consequences of her writing and her words is very much on Mohamed’s mind, particularly since her growing fame as a writer has led to people turning to her for opinions and perspectives on issues related to Somalia more broadly.

“Being a spokesperson for Somali issues around the world is not something I ever wanted to do or felt qualified to do. It can often feel that rather than a book being taken as a work of fiction, as a work of art, it’s seen as an anthropological treatise on a group of people that people don’t know much about, around the world. I don’t want to be talking about Somalis as a problem, and I think that’s how people phrase it. I don’t want to be explaining strange Somali customs or behaviours or talking about how Somalis need to be better at finding employment in Scandinavia. You can end up talking about rather random topics that you’re not qualified to talk about…”

At the same time, however, Mohamed’s prominence lends an opportunity for an alternative voice to be heard from beyond conventional partisan politics. She’s a writer, an artist, and her role frames the important potential for artists to assume prominent roles in addressing complex and turbulent political issues. It’s important, she said, for artists to share their insights in the political sphere.

“I think it’s probably even more important than politicians, because you’re actually talking about things honestly… I don’t have an agenda, and there’s little benefit in me taking a particular position. I’m trying to reflect life as I see it and as I have heard it from people in certain situations. When you’re writing a novel, you sit with an idea for a very long time – three years, four years, five years. So you see it from pretty much every angle. And you’re talking about subjective experiences and that’s how people experience life.

I don’t think most of us are objective. And the problem with politics is that it often presents an objective answer to every problem. And that’s not the case. And I think that most writers, or the writers that I most respect and admire, are interested in life from marginalized perspectives… I think that what writers have is authenticity at least, or some integrity at least, and frankly a lot of politicians seem to lack that.”

Advice for Aspiring Writers

Mohamed is quick to point out that she stumbled into a “circuitous” path to writing.

“I didn’t have a desire to write and then found a story. I found a story that made me into a writer,” she notes, referring to Black Mamba Boy, which tells the story of her father’s youth. For her, the story is of central importance.

“I would imagine that someone who wants to write first has to find that story that won’t let them go. A story that they must tell — no matter how broke they are, no matter how inconvenient it is — and follow that through. And you have to read a lot. You occasionally hear of people who want to write but who don’t read. I don’t believe in that.”

In Orchard of Lost Souls, much of her inspiration for the book came from imagining herself in the situations she describes.

“What would have happened if I’d stayed in Somalia? If we hadn’t left? If I’d been there when the tanks were rolling through the streets and the bombs were overhead and mercenaries were running sorties over the city every 15 minutes or whatever it was – what would that have felt like? And I couldn’t think about that without thinking — what would it have felt like right before? What happens on that day when a threat which was always just there, but always just over the horizon, is suddenly right in front of you?

The way that my aunt described it is that they hadn’t packed, I think everyone had been hoping that their worst fears wouldn’t materialize. So nobody had prepared, really. So you just had to grab your children, some shoes, maybe a bit of food, and you fled. And you fled for Ethiopia, because that was the nearest border. Or if you had some relatives in the countryside, you’d try to find them. It was so desperate, and manic, and it took a lot for me to be able to imagine myself into that situation.”

Mohamed has no shortage of stories to tell. She’s already at work on her third book. She’s coy on details, but does say that it’ll be set in London. She’s also currently working on a film project. Her parting advice is for writers to recognize that stories and inspiration can come from many sources, and that it’s important to be open to all of them.

“Take influences not just from books, from music, all forms of art, photography, films… for me, writing and life are indistinguishable. They blend into one another. And that’s the only way it could be for me.”