Thursday, March 04, 2021
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“The Burgess Boys,” A book that depicts Somalis with dignity

Reviewed by Ahmed Ismail Yusuf

Last summer, boy that sounds like ages ago, I was alerted to “The Burgess Boys”, a book written by Elizabeth Strout who is a Pulitzer Prize winner and bestselling author. The book received rave reviews and was on the New York Times bestseller’s list. The story, based on an actual incident that took place in Lewiston, Maine, is about a cultural/religious conflict that erupts in a small town when a lonely, isolated teenage boy throws a pig’s head into a local mosque.  In the story, the boy is charged with committing a hate crime and his mother along with two maternal uncles try to save him from prosecution.  Yes, the story is about families and how traumatic incidents can fracture as well as unite people.  It is also about the power of forgiveness.  But the heart of the story lies in the narrative about racial and religious prejudices, and building a bridge to empower the alienated.

Burgess_boysI should remind the reader that in 2002 the eyes of world were focused on the city of Lewiston, Maine, as a wave of Somalis moved into town.  The mayor of that city made it clear that these newly arrived residents were not welcome.  Perhaps it is the mayoral seat that afflicts one with this type of disorder, for it occurred once again in 2012 when yet another mayor said almost the same thing: ‘When you come here, you accept our culture and leave your culture at the door,’ among other things.

Back to the book now.  Once I started–with the prologue–I was hooked! The language is musical. It begins with a simple pace but its melodies sieve into the reader’s mind with a soothing tone.  Using a subtle simile, such as “…I remember him as someone whose eyes never smiled,” is a phrase that could have been plucked from the body of a Somali poem, thus familiar.  Familiar because it has a relevant tone of how a Somali would compose. Seamless others bring before one a clear depiction of an unparalleled beauty that beckons to mankind’s creative capacity to imitate nature by stating, “Back in New York, calling from my twenty-sixth-floor apartment one evening, watching through the window as dusk touched the city and lights emerged like fireflies in the fields of buildings spread out before me…”artfully illuminating human’s innovative, architectural feat.

About Somalis in the book

Though the bulk of the book is about an American family of three siblings, there is enough about Somalis that would permit me to claim prideful ownership of it.  For example, a simple differentiation of “Somalis” and Somalians,” immediately tells one that the writer has invested time to learn about Somalis. From the onset, a character (mother) who uses the term “Somalians,” arms the Somali reader with a warning that the writer is implying that the speaker is ill-educated and ill-informed, and then confirms it by introducing another character who uses the word “Somalis,” inferring that this character is reasonably more educated and probably more tolerant.  As a reader, this urges me to follow the thread with thirst.  Thus I did and what I found was no less a treasure trove of writing that takes racism and anti-immigrant and xenophobia idiocy by the tail, turning it on its head. This is a book written with passion.

Consequently, there is more than enough of the book that compels me to state that the main plot is all about Somali immigrants in America.  A theme that I believe was missed by other reviewers.    The alarm bells and sirens are blaring on each page, pointing to that fact that the immigrants do feel and know when they are being blamed and pushed away as a scapegoat, where often they are unable to raise their voices over or louder than that of their detractors.  Yet when a native speaker joins his/her voice with theirs, it suddenly amplifies the not-so-loud calls that have been drowned.   So a native who speaks in the presence of the mainstream is, at times, able to harness the power that is in the narrative, and awakens the likeminded many who would not have otherwise heard the same cries.

So when literature, fiction for that matter, is tastefully done and used in that context, it is an effective tool to address issues of this type.

For example Willa Cather’s “My Antonia,” illustrates the agony that immigrants eke through in their adjusting early days.  Others such as “Black Like Me” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” evoke conscience that questions the status quo.  These employ the same social justice inclined narratives, stirring awareness far beyond where the voiceless would have: not necessarily in the prejudice part of American mainstream but the indifferent, yet the redeemable.

I should as well state the fact that I admire and am quite impressed with how much Elizabeth Strout, the writer, has taught herself about Somalis, socially, politically and culturally.  Thus, though she is a writer of fiction, who has ventured out of her comfort zone, her Somali depiction has been so authentic.  She skillfully addresses our local political affiliations such as Puntland, Somaliland and so on; our stupidity of allowing a caste system; and how we discriminate against our own like the Bantu Somalis; religious sensitivities; the civil war catastrophe;  just to name a few.  Yet surprisingly she avoids and stays clear of all pitfalls.

Furthermore, she even takes on Somali onomastics, such as Wiil Waal, Haweeya, Kaliilo(Somali names), along with cultural clothing items like guntiino.  What is quite appealing and artful about that is that she writes them in Somali with the correct Somali spelling of which even Somalis of late have been unable to do, succumbing to the immersion of the many other languages into their native tongue.  Not for this American writer though.  Not only does she spell Kaliilo correctly but it is a rare name even for Somalis.  Second, only a Somali with an authority in the language would know the meaning (early days of the spring).  Third, only a Somali or an expert in Somali lexicon would have induced the meaning from the phonetic sound.  Apparently, besides being a writer, Elizabeth Strout has earned another title: a Somali expert.  In that, thanks to her, she brings out the humanity in us that has been buried beneath a pile of pain that statelessness, one pirate story after the other and al-Shabab brought about.

Please do a favor for your mind: Get the book, “The Burgess Boys.”
The book is available at Amazon

Ahmed Ismail Yusuf
Email:[email protected]
Ahmed I. Yusuf lives in Minneapolis and  is the author of the book, “Somalis in Minnesota.”


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