Nadifa Mohamed on Somali Writers

To start at the beginning of Somali literature in English, or at least what appears to be the start, we have to go back to 1928 and a anarchist-Tolstoyan commune in the rural English Cotswolds, where Ibrahim Ismaa'il recited his autobiography to his Belgian friend (and perhaps lover) Eugene Gaspard Marin. This remarkable document was unearthed by academic and Ethiopia specialist Richard Pankhurst, whose equally remarkable suffragette mother Sylvia had been close to Marin, and published decades later in academic journals, most notably the Rome-based Africa. In Marin's preface he minimizes his role in the autobiography, stating "though his English had been slightly corrected, not a thought has been added or altered to make [Ismaa'il's] narrative more exciting or more to the taste of the European public."

A sense that what the usually Western audience is reading is authentic, true, and unflinchingly real is a recurring demand on literature by non-Western writers, but the account Ismaa'il provides is extraordinarily magical and incredibly flamboyant. The 41-page autobiography of the approximately 30-year-old includes his time as a nomad boy caught up in Mohamed Abdullah Hassan's rebellion against the British, a solo journey to Yemen, a brief stint of enslavement at the hands of Arab pirates, 16 months on a British man-of-war during the First World War, and then hand-to-hand fighting in the 1919 Cardiff race riots. It was my father's story only written nearly a century earlier and I had to read it with regular breaks to still my beating heart. The same implausible twists of fate, the humour, and the picaresqueness of Ismaa'il's story reminded me of The Tin Drum and Midnight's Children.

Although not published commercially, Ismaa'il's "Life and Adventures of a Somali" seems to have opened the floodgates to a band of Somali writers who have each outdone the previous in the physical and spiritual distance travelled from their beginnings. Three memoirs by Somali women – Aman (published under a pseudonym, Aman: the story of a Somali girl was published in 1994), Waris Dirie (the former model whose first memoir, Desert Flower, came out in 1998 and was turned into a film in 2009) and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (a politician and activist whose Infidel came out in 2010) – have followed in Ismaa'il's footsteps and, in Dirie and Ali's cases, even reached bestseller status. These memoirs are also 'as told to' or ghostwritten and follow the same route from a 'pristine', timeless Somali way of life to the bright lights of the West. All three women flit continuously from one identity to another; we read about life as a Bond girl, a Nairobi fundamentalist, a Mogadishu good-time girl, a MacDonald's burger flipper, but the slow ascent from "barbarianism" to "civilisation" appears central to each narrative. While Aman's account seems anthropological in purpose, Dirie's and Ali's are polemics against the way women are treated in Somali or Muslim cultures. Both feature extremely vivid descriptions of female genital mutilation and beseech the reader to join efforts to stop the practise worldwide. To varying degrees Dirie and Ali are outsiders who look back on the world they left with an almost proselytising zeal; it is not hard to imagine them in that colony in the Cotswolds alongside Ibrahim Ismaa'il, plotting the imminent revolution.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Hadrawi, born in northern Somalia in 1943, who in his sandals, cloak, and beard is the most prominent classical poet in Somalia. His lengthy, intricate, and rousing poems have been translated and published in English but he is at heart a live performer, attracting hundreds and more to his readings across the globe. As Somalis migrated, their language has migrated with them, absorbing Arabic, English, and Italian so that maybe a third of its vocabulary is of foreign origin, but Hadrawi's poems turn back the clock and utilise a purer tongue, linking him to a poetic tradition that has lasted for centuries but is quickly disappearing. That is not to say that Hadrawi is only concerned with the past; his poems, recorded on cassettes and passed around in teashops, drew the ire of Siad Barre's dictatorship and earned him five-years of solitary confinement between 1973 and 1978. The sense that words, poems, and books must have a purpose is a pervasive one amongst Somali writers; poets were the record-keepers, the teachers, the consciences of their communities and the same expectations are placed on other writers. Nuruddin Farah has been writing about Somalia since the 1960s (his first novel, From a Crooked Rib, appeared in 1970; his most recent one, Crossbones, in 2011), throwing a spotlight on the figures generally sidelined in society – women, ethnic minorities, wayfarers – and was forced into exile by Siad Barre. The language of his novels is that of a polyglot; his characters often pursued by secrets, inhabiting a spiritual and physical hinterland—neither one thing nor another.

Secrets and outsiders also feature in what I consider Somalia's version of Uncle Tom's Cabin. In The Yibir of Las Burghabo (2004) by Mahmood Gaildon the lives of Somali 'untouchables' are thrown into focus; no other book of fiction that I have read examines so closely the psychological and physical consequences of living as a minority in Somalia. While the narrative often repeated by Somali and non-Somali writers is of a homogenous, egalitarian, and informal culture, Gaildon's story reveals a place as defined by prejudice as the American Deep South. The novel follows an orphan boy and his sister living on the outskirts of town and subsisting on hard bread and tea, their father and mother having died in mysterious circumstances. It takes another outsider – this time a teacher recently returned from America – to question their isolation. It is interesting to see the cross-fertilisation of ideas in the novel: the teacher has returned from fighting for civil rights in the United States and continues this fight in the provincial (and imaginary) town of Las Burghabo; again we see the sharp-eyed traveller returning home and finding everything strange and intolerable.

The world beyond the horizon has always had a particular fascination for Somali writers, and as Somalia imploded in the late 1980s and its citizens sought sanctuary in whichever port they could find, writers have emerged who attempt to describe this sudden, violent dispersal. Yasmeen Mahamoud's Nomad Diaries (2009) is an unwieldy self-published whale of a book that is crammed with every element of the migrant experience in Minnesota: the shame of reduced circumstances, the envy of those doing worse than others, the conflict within families that is a kind of aftershock from the violent conflict they have escaped from. In Nomad Diaries references to Sex and the City sit beside descriptions of rape and mass-murder in Mogadishu, the narrative jumps wildly about and events race along to the bewilderment of the central character, Nadifo. The book treads new ground in Somali fiction by covering the minutiae of refugee life: the appointments at welfare offices, the language classes, the long bus rides along grey, endless roads, the almost termite-mound-busy life of a tower block, the shock of naked bodies writhing on television. With sizeable numbers of refugees living all over the world, from Iceland to Australia, the tales we shall see in the future will be even more far-flung and diverse and hopefully more secrets will be revealed.