During “Africa Utopia” (Thursday 11th – Sunday 14th September 2014) at Southbank Centre, London, “Africa39 authors, Chibundu Onuzo and Nadifa Mohamed gave readings and spoke about the new Africa39 anthology. This was the first event at which the Africa39 anthology was launched.
Writing about her latest novel, Mohamed said:
I left Hargeisa in northern Somalia as a child but was born in a hospital that symbolized the brutality of the regime; my mother was nearly turned away from the labor ward as I had the temerity to want to arrive after the curfew, doctors who tried to improve the hospital were arrested on trumped-up charges and given life sentences, and during the war it became the site of unimaginable abuses. To return to this world of sadness was no easy act but one story kept leading me forward, demanding to be told and that was of my grandmother, my namesake, Nadifa. An apparently stern and no-nonsense kind of woman, she had been born a nomad in 1908 and had eloped at the age of seventeen with my grandfather, for the rest of her life she traveled where she wanted as free as any man, from the borderlands of Eritrea to Mecca, she pushed aside whatever barriers stood in her way. On her return to Somalia, she wanted to live a quiet life tending to her orchard, reading fortunes in coffee cups, and singing the songs a lifetime of adventure had taught her. It was not to be. A traffic accident left her bed-bound and when the bombardment of the city began she was left abandoned, as were many of Hargeisa’s elderly and disabled residents. I reflected on her fate with guilt, sorrow and most of all anger. The seed of “The Orchard of Lost Souls” was sown from that reflection, what does war mean when you strip it of machismo and romanticism? What does it mean for elderly women? The disabled? Street girls? What would it have meant for me if we hadn’t left? (‘What Did You Do in the War, Mother?’)
Aminatta Forna, in The New York Times, says of the women in “The Orchard of Lost Souls”:
Hargeisa is ultimately a city of women. “Women are running their families because the streets have been emptied of men,” Mohamed writes. “Those not working abroad are in prison, or have been grabbed off the street and conscripted into the army.” The remainder are brutes who bring little but misery: soldiers, policemen, the prostitutes’ clients. Among the women, it is only the somewhat fanatical Filsan who possesses anything that looks like power, and what she does with it makes her the most complex and intriguing character in the book. Her disintegrating moral core mirrors that of the revolution. She stands aside while her soldiers loot homes and steal from fleeing civilians; she kills three tribal elders and allows the murders to be covered up with official lies. There is nothing innately good about women or bad about men, Mohamed suggests — the difference lies in their unequal share of power. Power corrupts, which is something that could be said for Somalia as well, and of Filsan’s beloved revolution. (“Daughters of Revolution”)
Nadifa Mohamed was recently in conversation with her fellow Africa39 author, Taiye Selasi, as well as Maaza Mengiste, in the “Three Women,Three Africas” panel presented by the British Council’s “Women Uninterrupted”:
In confronting violence and brutality through her writing in “Black Mamba Boy,” Nadifa Mohamed says:
It is incredibly difficult. I circled it for a very long time, and afterwards made sure that Jama had a respite from all that violence for my sake and his. I read about the murder of Shidane Arone by U.N peacekeepers when I was teenager and it stayed with me – the images particularly – so when writing about Italian atrocities, I felt a need to connect it with ongoing violence against the poor and vulnerable. It was very hard to put down on paper, though.