Ismail Einashe considers how Somalia’s story-telling tradition has changed since the civil war in our series of letters from African journalists.
I recently met Ubah Cristina Ali Farah, an award-winning writer, at a literary festival on the Italian island of Sicily.
She is one of a small group of internationally acclaimed Somali female writers, including Nadifa Mohamed, who was recently nominated for the Man Booker Prize for her third novel, The Fortune Men.
For centuries, Somalia has been known as the “nation of poets,” but this has largely been a male-dominated tradition.
It is unusual for Somali women to be the primary storytellers, but they are now doing so in the diaspora.
According to Ali Farah, this is because they have “more space” outside of Somalia to pursue their literary ambitions, free of the cultural expectations placed on them in a male-dominated society.
Furthermore, their freedom to write stems from the fact that they have found their voice in colonial languages like Italian and English that they have adopted.
Ali Farah was born in Verona, Italy, in the 1970s to a Somali father and an Italian mother.
Her father had left Somalia to further his education, then returned to build a new independent nation with his new family.
Ali Farah was educated in both Somali and Italian as a child in Mogadishu.
She was an avid reader who meticulously kept a diary of her daily encounters in Somalia’s capital.
Ali Farah, then 18 years old and with a baby son, was forced to flee the escalating violence as the country descended into civil war, which continues to this day.
She moved to Belgium after returning to Italy.
Hundreds of thousands of Somalis fled, and their stories inspired her to write, particularly about women’s stories.
She claims they have a unique “memory” of what happened because they were frequently on the frontlines of the conflict.
My main questions were: ‘What happens when everything you are born into has been destroyed? What do you do to root yourself again? What do you do to survive?'”— Ubah Cristina Ali Farah
She wrote so that Somali women would not be “forgotten,” she claims.
“My main concerns were, ‘What happens when everything you’re born into is destroyed?'” What do you do to re-establish yourself? ‘How do you stay alive?'”
Little Mother, her first novel, was published in 2007 and is about two female cousins who are separated and eventually find each other in Europe.
On a personal level, Ali Farah discovered that writing fiction allowed her to re-establish herself in a foreign land.
Somali was a spoken language for centuries before becoming a written language with a Latin script in 1972.
This influenced its literature; poetry was recited, memorized, and passed down through the generations as a result.
As a result, novels have only really flourished in exile, though they frequently allude to Somalia’s rich oral tradition.
Little Mother has sensory layers of rhythm and tempo that mimic the poetic form.
According to Ali Farah, it contains three classic poems reworked and imagined through the eyes and sounds of women.
The author is in Sicily’s capital, Palermo, to promote her new book, Le stazioni della luna (Phases of the Moon).
It is about the struggle for independence, set in the 1950s when Somalia was under UN Trusteeship, and she draws inspiration from the Somali novel’s godfather, Nuruddin Farah (no relation).
He wrote From a Crooked Rib in English, which was published to international acclaim in 1970.
It tells the story of Elba, a young female pastoralist who flees an arranged marriage and ends up in Mogadishu, where she is once again subjected to men.
Ali Farah’s main character is named after Idris Elba. “It’s a memorial to Nuruddin,” she explains.
Elba, on the other hand, escapes to a more emancipated world with modern opportunities for Somali women.
“Literature is a conversation with other texts and novels,” Ali Farah explains, “a conversation between the past and the present.”
She also explores conversations between men and women in her work, which is all too often lacking in Somali society.
Her success, as well as that of her literary peers, has demonstrated that Somali women will no longer be silenced.