Sameer Rahim talks to Nadifa Mohamed, one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, about her challenging novel set in Somalia.
By Sameer Rahim
Somalilandsun – The Somali café in Shepherd’s Bush where I had agreed to meet Nadifa Mohamed turns out to be closed. “I forgot it was Ramadan,” says Mohamed, who was born in Somalia but moved to London when she was a child. When you’ve been away from home so long, it’s easy to forget these things.
She still has ways of keeping the old country alive. Sitting down in the place next door, I notice she’s carrying a musical instrument. “I’m learning how to play the oud,” she tells me, a traditional instrument similar to a lute. “I’m being taught by an 85-year-old who has been playing since he was 17.” She met him by chance on a plane and they became friends. “He’s very cool,” she says, adding, “he’s got some stories to tell. He’s a bit like my father.”
Her father’s stories were the basis of Mohamed’s award-winning first novel Black Mamba Boy (2009), which followed a child’s journey across the Middle East and Africa in the Thirties and Forties. She interviewed her father extensively, an experience she describes as “very collaborative, quite joyful”. Initially she had wanted to write a biography rather than a novel, but found that the freedom of fiction enabled her to “disappear into someone’s mind, someone’s spirit” – which is much harder to do, she says, if you have to stick to the facts.
Ahead of the publication of her new novel, The Orchard of Lost Souls, Mohamed was chosen as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. She is disarmingly honest about how much the accolade means to her. “This book was hard, so hard that I really didn’t know if I had a future as a writer any more. So the Granta nomination was a boost – was an act of faith in me and my writing.”
Part of her difficulty with The Orchard of Lost Souls was the harrowing nature of the material. The novel begins in Mohamed’s home city of Hargeisa in 1987, on the cusp of the Somali civil war. It charts the intersecting fate of three female characters. Kawsar, a middle-aged widow, sees Deqo, a nine-year-old girl, being attacked at a government parade. She steps in to defend her but Filsan, a female soldier, arrests her. These are the lost souls who, must find themselves. The story is brutal but compelling – leavened with the poetic language that characterised Mohamed’s first book.
Did she work from memory or research, I ask. “I remember glimpses of things,” she says, “smells and tastes. Kind of very impressionistic memories, not real memories.” She returned home to interview people who lived through the civil war, which started at the same time Mohamed moved to London and continues in patches to this day.
Mohamed tells me it was important for her to include a variety of perspectives on Somalia’s chaos. “Kawsar was the strongest character for me – she was telling a side of the story but not all of the story.” The young girl Deqo is “free of the state in many ways – it doesn’t touch her, she’s an observer”. She is a Goldilocks figure at the heart of what Mohamed calls her “distorted fairy tale”.
Before she wrote her first novel, Mohamed was interested in film-making. She now has ambitious plans to turn The Orchard of Lost Souls into afilm to be shot in Hargeisa itself. “I think Somalis would like to see a film set in Somalia, about Somalia in a recognisable, truthful way,” she says. Is there much of a movie scene over there? “There hasn’t been a feature film filmed there really for decades, I think,” she says, but she seems to be facing the challenge with cheerful confidence – even as she admits it is a “logistical nightmare”.
Musician, writer, film-maker – Mohamed’s artistic interests are broad to say the least. I wonder whether she will stick with novels. She confesses that although writing her second book did not come easily, what kept her going was the thought that without her efforts the stories she had heard would remain untold.
“There was a point where it couldn’t be casual any more. It was so taxing that it was something I had to think about: am I a writer? And I think, yes, I am a writer.” It is striking, though, that when she comes to describe the novel she turns to a piece of music. “There’s a song I’ve quoted in the book called Shimbiryahow – ‘you birds’ or ‘the birds’ – and that, to me, sounds like my book: slightly languid, sorrowful and hopeful.”
The Orchard of Lost Souls is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £12.99