Black Mamba Boy: A Book Review
By Hassan M. Abukar
October 30, 2010
There are three types of women; those who have little or nothing to say about their fathers; those who revile their fathers and those who lionize them. The American writer/poet Sylvia Plath made it fashionable to excoriate her father in the most corrosive terms. It did not matter that Plath’s father died when she was 8 years old. In her famous poem, “Daddy”, Plath blames her father for almost everything that had gone wrong in her brief but illustrious life; from attempting suicide at an early age, to marrying a fellow poet, Ted Hughes. In her poem, she uses a metaphor of her father as Hitler and her husband as a vampire.
If I have killed one man, I‘ve killed two__
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.
Plath concludes her poem with perhaps a painful departing line; “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through”. Three months after writing her poem, Plath, who suffered from chronic depression, killed herself at age 30.
Nadifa Mohamed’s new novel, Black Mamba Boy, (London: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010) is an attempt to lionize her father and pay tribute to him. As a child, Nadifa imbibed stories of her father’s early life which, to the pedantic, might seem the saddest poetry. But to Nadifa they were intriguing tales that warranted a book. The term “Griot” is used by West Africans. It refers to someone whose task is to keep an oral history of a clan or a village and then entertain people by using such methods as storytelling, dancing, and songs. Nadifa Mohamed is unabashed about who she is to her father. “I am my father’s griot…This is a hymn to him. I am telling you this story so that I can turn my father’s blood and bones, and whatever magic his mother sewed under his skin, into history,” says the novelist. Nadifa was born in Hargeisa, in 1981 but grew up in England. Her serene and free-from-trauma life is no match to what her father had endured while growing up.
Novelist Nadifa Mohamed
It is 1930s and eleven-year old Jama, the protagonist of the novel, lives with mother in Aden, Yemen; a British colonial outpost. Jama’s mother is a single woman who struggles to eke out a living in a poor and strange land. She is a woman of mercurial moods and you never know what to expect of her. She can be benevolent one minute and hard to get along on the other. Jama’s father has long been gone from their lives as he is rumored to be somewhere in Sudan. Young Jama lacks a sense of purpose and dawdles in the streets of Aden doing nothing. But this early experience in the rough streets of Yemen would later become crucial as he copes with a life rich with irony. His mother suddenly passes away and Jama is left with a meager 100 Rupees. An aunt brings him to Hargeisa, Somaliland, to live with his grandfather. But there is no grandfather in sight and he finds difficulty dealing with his female relatives. In Hargeisa, jama’s father looms imposingly over his life and the lad has a pathological drive to look for him. It becomes a veritable obsession to find his father and Jama leaves Somaliland to undertake a 1000-mile journey by foot, camel, train, and boat that takes him to Djibouti, Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt, Palestine, and Europe.
Jama’s odyssey is mired in difficulty and often warfare. He vacillates from crisis to crisis but he also utilizes a string of clan connections as well as the benevolence of strangers. Jama’s hazardous journey is all too familiar to today’s Somali immigrants who had encountered an array of hurdles, hunger, diseases, imprisonment (or to put it mildly, detention); a cascade of abuse, poverty, menial jobs, and at times, a mood of utter despondence. Jama’s survival skills and his magnificence of spirit save the day. In his journey, Jama meets a woman in Sudan, falls in love with her, and finds that he is unable to cease traveling. Jama, after making safely to London, gets news from his wife and faces the most jarring question in his life.
Nadifa Mohamed’s novel can be summarized as a novel about fatherhood and all that it entails. It is a celebration of fatherhood; the longing for a father, a search for a father, and the profound question of whether a man wants to be an active father or merely a generous sperm donor.
Nadifa is a good writer who infuses fact and fiction. Her lacerating wit makes you howl with laughter. There are, at times, tedious historical details in the novel and some phrases that are left not translated to the benefit of non-Somali readers. But overall the novel is an interesting read. I can see Nadifa saying to her father, with an apology to Sylvia Plath, “Daddy, daddy, I am proud of you.” I have heard rumors of Nadifa Mohamed’s exciting novel. For once, the gossips are right.
Hassan M. Abukar
The author is writing a book, Mogadishu Memoir, about growing up in Somalia in the 1960s and 1970s. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Other Reviews By Hassan Abukar:
* Glimpses of Somali Diaspora: A Documentary Review
* Nomad Diaries: A Book Review
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