‘The country stayed alive in my memory’
Nadifa Mohamed, who is on Granta’s list of Best of Young British Novelists, explains why Somalia looms large in her work.
For Somali-born British author Nadifa Mohamed, success came with her first novel, Black Mamba Boy, which won her the Betty Trask Prize and put her on the shortlist for the Guardian First Book Award. Her second novel, The Orchard of Lost Souls, published in August 2013, explores the country on the eve of the 1988 civil war.
Mohamed now finds herself on the Granta’s 2013 list of the Best of Young British Novelists. Excerpts from an interview.
What do you think of being on the Granta list?
It is a wonderful vote of confidence and it has also introduced me to many other writers whose work I hadn’t known before. It’s very interesting to be part of this snapshot of British literature and see how my own work fits in.
You moved to London from Somalia as a child. How did you keep the country alive in your mind?
I still have memories of my childhood in Hargeisa that give me an emotional base to build from. I think the country stayed alive in my memories without me willing it to. All of my extended family was there, so we would receive phone calls, letters, cassette tapes and occasional videos that let us know how much life had changed there.
Tell us about the research for The Orchard of Lost Souls.
I started by interviewing my mother about her life in Somalia from the colonial period to the 1980s, and then spoke to my aunt and cousin who had both been in Hargeisa when the war broke out. I went to Hargeisa too to see important locations for myself and spoke to as many people as I could. There are a few memorials in the city centre but it feels like the war is something people quickly put behind. It is difficult and quite painful to draw out exactly what they experienced.
In Black Mamba Boy, you drew on your father’s experiences, talking to him and interviewing him extensively.
It was a wonderful, collaborative way to work. We went to museums together, pored over maps and regularly talked about his life. It is a great way to get to know your father.
I’ve read about your plans to turn The Orchard of Lost Souls into a movie, as well as your initial ambitions of becoming a filmmaker.
I would love to. A feature film hasn’t been made in Hargeisa in decades to my knowledge but there are many young people interested in film and art. I am working with a film director on the script and hope to raise the funds needed to film it in Somaliland. My mother used to run a small cinema next to our house in Hargeisa. I have loved films since the very first ones I saw with Amitabh Bachchan playing the lead role.
You are also learning to play the oud?
Yes. My teacher is an ancient master named Hudeidi who was a sailor, like my father. He once trained with the Red Army in Siberia. I have learnt two songs and am still practising.
How was the move from Black Mamba Boy to your second book?
The second book was much harder to write. I had writer’s block and struggled to find the story I wanted to tell while the first story came to me quite easily.
You are a British-Somali author. What does that mean to you in terms of the stories you tell?
I think the stories I have wanted to tell so far have been Somali ones but that will change. I intend to set my next book in London and allow the two worlds I know to merge a little. sI have just finished reading Warsan Shire’s Teaching My Mother to Give Birth and she does a great job of talking about what it means to be both Somali and British.
How difficult was it to get your first novel published?
I didn’t begin Black Mamba Boy with the intention of having it published at all, so it has been an unexpected and enjoyable journey.