WDN Interview with Nadifa Mohamed:
The Author of Black Mamba Boy
April 21, 2011
Editor's Note: WardheerNews had the rarest of opportunities to interview Nadifa Mohamed the author of Black Mumba Boy. Black Mumba Boy, the first novel of British novelist and Somali-born author Nadifa Mohamed debuted in 2010, has been long listed for the Orange Prize and shortlisted for The Guardian First Book Prize. It was also shortlisted for The John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Black Mamba Boy is translated into numerous languages including Chinese, Norwegian, Turkish, French, Korean and many other languages. Nadifa studied History and politics at Oxford. The editorial board at WardheerNews is pleased to share this insightful interview with our valued readers.
WardheerNews (WDN): Could you briefly share your back ground and your upbringing with us?
Nadifa:Yes, I was born in Hargeisa Hospital in 1981 but have lived in London since 1986. My father was a sailor in the merchant navy and my mother a landlady in Hargeisa. We were amongst the first Somali immigrants in south-west London although my uncles had lived in west London for a time whilst working for the BBC Somali service. I studied History and Politics and wanted to work in diplomacy but after graduating I decided to write a novel about my father instead.
WDN: Black Mamba Boy is your first novel that debuted in 2010, could you tell us something about the novel and what it’s all about?
Nadifa: Black Mamba Boy is based very closely on my father’s life experiences in East Africa and the Middle East during the 1930s and 40s. The novel grew out of a desire to learn more about my roots, to elucidate Somali history for a wider audience and to tell a story that I found fascinating.
WDN: What inspired you to write your novel, was it an idea that simmered for awhile that you wanted to share the world with?
Nadifa: I think it came about by accident; I fell into writing through a film job I had after university and also wrote for a great Somali magazine named ‘Sheeko’. I was basically experimenting, doing different things and when I started to listen more closely to my father’s stories something just clicked inside me. I actually remember the day I told him I wanted to write his life story and I think neither of us were really convinced it would happen.
WDN: What is the significance of the title?
Nadifa: It is a translation of ‘Good’, my father’s nickname which was given to him by his mother who believed he was a special child with fate on his side.
WDN: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Nadifa: Starting it, continuing it, finishing it, editing it and promoting it. It was all hard!
WDN: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Nadifa: I am not sure, I have always loved escaping into a book but it didn’t really occur to me to write until I was in my early twenties and thinking about working in film. Writing had felt like something you had to be mature and wise to do but when a particular story grabs you it forces you to write it.
WDN: What’s your writing routine like?
Nadifa: I usually write late at night when everything is quiet and there is nothing to distract me but I do not have a particular routine. I have to have music on in the background but the type of music varies a lot; at the moment I am listening to an album called ‘New Dawn’ by the Waaberi troupe.
WDN: Are there any authors that influenced you writing?
Nadifa: I think I am probably influenced by everything I read but I go back to certain writers such as Toni Morrison, J.M Coetzee and Arundhati Roy for inspiration.
WDN: Your book is published by a major publisher, how did you break the cycle of getting into a major publishing company?
Nadifa: In the U.K. you need an agent. My agent, Ben, is pretty amazing and believed in the novel from day one and sold it to HarperCollins. Agents are your advocate and dallaal.
WDN: Given that you are a black, Muslim, immigrant female and first time author, what was your expectation of the kind of reception your book might receive?
Nadifa: I didn’t have any particular expectations; I thought my father’s story was unusual, epic and a counterpoint to the perspectives we usually hear from so I believed that people would want to read it. The great thing about novels is that people go to them to learn about other people and other places and your own history isn’t an obstacle but a unique combination that can be used as a starting point to discuss wider concerns: the meaning of life, family dynamics, suffering, love…
WDN: It seems Jama, the main character, is a magnet to crisis; a mother dying young, father abandoning the family, disjointed relatives, a bout with malaria, abject poverty, etc, yet he always manages to survive. Is this the way you wanted to introduce your father to your readers, as a strong man who despite all the tragedies in his life, still managed to raise a family and survive his circumstance?
Nadifa: Basically, yes, but he is also an avatar of all those children who didn’t make it, not because they were weaker, but because of their fate or bad luck or lack of support. I think some people can seem to be ‘magnets to crisis’ but it is usually their socio-economic position that can make one problem blossom into a million. I wanted my father’s story to give history to current Somali political problems and politicise our history too.
WDN: Could you contrast that little boy, with the man Jama is today?
Nadifa: The strange thing is that I don’t think the seventy-odd years have changed him, the character in my book is a figment of my imagination but with huge similarities to my father; they share the same thirst for knowledge and exploration, the same gentleness and garrulousness, the same courage, you can easily sense the little boy in the old man.
WDN: Is it a mystery that the novel does not say where Jama's mother came from? The family is originally from Hargeisa, but what is not clear is if the mother was born in Aden or at what age did she come from Hargeisa?
Nadifa: Ahh…there is no mystery, she was a true Somali nomad born in the desert (probably somewhere between the Haud and Hargeisa) and a stranger to money until she was in her late teens. She did not leave for Aden until she was in her twenties and it would have been the first time she crossed the sea, worked for a wage, lived in a city, seen piped water…
WDN: Since the book is about your father’s life journey, and often daughters are closer to mothers, how did your mother take it when you began focusing on your father’s life?
Nadifa: I guess that because so many Somali men worked on ships she didn’t understand why I thought my father’s story was so unusual, but it was the entirety of his childhood that I found interesting, I had never known anyone personally or even through books that had been a street-boy, soldier, farmer, musician and immigrant at such an early age. I am writing a novel now that is based partly on my mother’s life so she might get tired now that I’m harassing her too.
WDN: What has been the feedback from readers?
Nadifa: Great, incredibly supportive, many people- Somalis and non-Somalis- have approached me to say that the book made them cry and think differently about the conditions children around the world live in now and want to try to do something about it, you can’t ask for more than that.
WDN: Will there be more books in the pipeline? And what are you currently working on?
Nadifa: I am working on a second novel at the moment about the war in Somalia, specifically about the siege of Hargeisa and how it impacted on the lives of women who couldn’t flee. I am also preparing my third book which will be non-fiction and this time centred on my own life and the place where I was born- Hargeisa Hospital. If any readers know of anyone born in Hargeisa Hospital in 1981 or who worked there please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org
WDN: In the past, the field of Somali authors appeared to have been reserved for very limited number of male writers; however recently there are a number of Somali female writers such as yourself, Yasmeen Maxamuud and Cristina Farah Ali who appeared on the scene, where do you think the future of female Somali women writers is headed, and what advice would you provide to them?
Nadifa: I think the future is bright, I think it’s female! It is just another sign that Somali society is opening up for women, it is heartening to see so many more girls in school, in university, qualifying as doctors and writing literature. One of the reasons we have done so bad economically and politically in the modern age is that fifty percent of the population has been marginalised so really it’s time for that to change. The advice I would give is don’t let anyone dissuade you from what you want to do whether that is writing poetry, novels, screenplays or whatever, you have a unique perspective on the world that should be heard.
Black Mamba Boy: A Book Review By Hassan M. Abukar
Other interviews that WardheerNews had with Somali professionals and scholars
- Interview with Amb Abdillahi Said Osman
- WardheerNews Interview with Sheila Andrzejewski
- An interview with Dr. Alim Ahmed Fatah
- A Conversation with Ali Fatah: Chief of the GIS Division - D.C Goverment
- Conversation with Somali Ambassador in Ethiopia
- An Interview with Dr. Edmond Keller of UCLA
- An Interview with Ismail Mohamud Hurre, the FM of the TFG of Somalia
Interview by WardheerNews: Abdi Roble and Doug Rutledge
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