Nadifa Mohamed: ‘Modern-day Britain is intense’5 min read
The Somali-born writer talks about her Booker-shortlisted novel, the story of a victim of a miscarriage of justice in 1950s Cardiff, ‘broken hearts syndrome’ and her love of John Donne
Recently shortlisted for the 2021 Booker prize, Nadifa Mohamed’s third novel, The Fortune Men, is a fictionalised retelling of the story of Somali seaman Mahmood Mattan, who was wrongfully convicted of murder in Cardiff in 1952. Born in Hargeisa in 1981, Mohamed is the first British-Somali author to feature in the Booker shortlist. Her two previous novels, Black Mamba Boy (2010) and The Orchard of Lost Souls (2013), won the Betty Trask and Somerset Maugham awards.
What were you doing when you found out you had been shortlisted for the Booker prize?
I was at my mum’s – I’m one of her carers. I received a call from my editor and she was like, great news! We did a quick dance and then it was back to Mum’s needs.
The Fortune Men was your first novel to be set in Britain, where you’ve lived most of your life. Was that a different process from the act of recreating 1930s Yemen or Somalia on the brink of the civil war?
Sure. Setting a novel in this country made everything feel more intimate. I think Somali people are very secretive about their private lives, so as a writer it makes you feel slightly awkward delving deeply. Here, I felt an ability to grapple with my characters in a more aggressive way than I’d allowed myself in the past.
There is a joy about your depiction of Mahmood’s inner world that, for me, was not an obvious path, given that the story is a tragedy.
Did I go out to do that? Not consciously. But, because of his similarity to my father, Mahmood is so familiar to me. They were born in the same city. They arrived in this country at the same age, as merchant sailors. When I went to research the novel and went back to these communities of old sailors in London and Cardiff, it was like being back in warm water. They’re all kind of bundled up now in anoraks, with walking sticks, but the same souls, the same spirits are there. You can see those young men who were thrown into postwar Britain and found humour here, found love here, found terror here. They were a particular kind of people. They were rebels. Otherwise they would have stayed at home, they would have stayed with their livestock or with their families in shops like Mahmood’s family had in Hargeisa. But they were risk-takers and my father was one of them. And they’re easy to love. It’s about that wanderlust. It’s about that curiosity. It’s about feeling that you want to make a life on your own terms. That to me is also my own inner life. I’m trying to write my own story.
Tell me more about your story.
I was born in Hargeisa and then moved to London when I was four because my father could see that Somalia was sinking deeper. At the time, it was a dictatorship, but a couple of years after we left the civil war broke out and our home town was flattened by South African mercenaries as well as local Somali troops. We left just before the war, so you’re in that middle zone between being an immigrant and a refugee and then where you lived, where you had been, where all your memories were, disappeared from view. It ceased to exist. For a long time, as a child, you make it exist in your mind. You force it to exist. I always had a feeling that we would return. But then Somalia appeared in the newspapers and in TV coverage because of the terror and the famine and then you realise, wow, you can’t go back. I guess your imagination always dwells there. The Fortune Men is the first time I’ve left Somalia imaginatively.
Who have been your key literary influences?
Toni Morrison is the obvious one. I think Arundhati Roy and the way she writes about power and powerlessness and the way she lives her life is a strong influence. I love Pushkin. I love metaphysical poetry – John Donne, Sam Selvon. A massive influence on me is Claude McKay, who wrote in the 1920s and 30s and who was a communist and a bohemian radical. His first novel, Home to Harlem , was written after Trotsky encouraged him to write about the sociopolitical conditions of African Americans, but instead of this dry call to arms he wrote this fantastic, bawdy, funny modernist book that captured a slice of Harlem life I think other people were scared to put on paper.
What are you writing now?
I’m stuck on Britain. It’s something contemporary, something very different from The Fortune Men – about women, young women and Somali families who fled the war but haven’t fled it internally. Modern-day Britain is intense. Something strange is happening [and] whatever postcolonial psychosis it is is so mad and so extreme.Being black, being Muslim, being someone who up until quite recently thought that they understood this country, I’m desperate to understand what’s going on. When you have a child of immigrants such as our home secretary eagerly calling for migrants to be pushed back into the Channel, that must make you stop and think. There’s an extremity to the conversation and to people’s demand for violence that is really troubling and I think that in the same way my father could see where Somalia was going, I’m quite concerned [about] where Britain is going. And maybe it’s to do with the fact that I came from a country that fell apart.
Does the new book have a title?
Actually, it does.
Go on. We’ll break the news…
It’s called Broken Hearts Syndrome.
Tell me about broken hearts syndrome.
I think we all experience it, we all suffer it, especially immigrants, especially refugees; it’s a physical and medical condition. It’s when a shock happens and causes immense stress on the heart that can resemble a heart attack. The protagonist of the novel is a paediatrician, but she and her mother, they are suffering various types of broken hearts syndrome and I think we all do and maybe that’s what I’m also feeling about Britain, that sense of a broken heart about where it’s going…
What are you reading at the moment?
Breakfast at Bronzefield by Sophie Campbell (but that’s a pseudonym). It’s about Bronzefield women’s prison, where there was recently this case of a young woman giving birth unsupervised and her child dying.
What’s the best debut you’ve read in recent months?
When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo. It’s set in Trinidad, but a fictional version of Trinidad and it’s the writing that I love, not really what it’s about. It how’s it written. With a kind of magic.