Grappling in the Dark: An Interview with Ali Jimale Ahmed

by    /  April 18, 2018  / No comments

Dr. Ahmed with Laas Geel Cave paintings on the outskirts of Hargetsa, the capital of Somaliland.

An Introduction to the Travel Ban Series

On January 27, 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order which has come to be known as the Travel Ban. The order sought to prohibit citizens from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen from entering the country.

As a magazine dedicated to publishing the work of persecuted literary voices, we at Sampsonia Way decided to begin a project in May of 2017 which would center the perspectives of writers, scholars, and artists from the countries targeted by the travel ban. Many of these writers were forced to leave their home countries due to political persecution, where they faced the threat of violence for their work. Here in the United States, people from their countries are met with stigma and unfounded suspicion.

Sampsonia Way will publish six interviews throughout 2018, each with a writer whose home country is on the banned list. In the following series of interviews, some writers offer their thoughts on current political issues, but all of them go beyond this to discuss their own experience, writing practice, and the themes and questions that drive their work. This series would not be possible without the support of the University of Pittsburgh Humanities Center, or without Jessica FitzPatrick and Mary E. Smith, who worked on the interview series as Public Humanities Fellows throughout 2017. The first installment in the series is the following interview with Dr. Ali Jimale Ahmed.

Ali Jimale Ahmed is a poet, short-story writer, and Professor of Comparative Literature at Queens College and CUNY Graduate Center. He began his public literary career as a radio broadcaster and journalist in Somalia. After leading a collaborative project to write a biography of then-President Barre which was later aborted, Ahmed came to the United States on a scholarship through a joint program between Somalia University and the University of California Los Angeles in 1983. He has been teaching and writing in the United States ever since.

Dr. Ahmed is both a creative writer and an academic critic, and his work has been translated into several languages including Japanese, Bosnian, Danish, and Portuguese. His research traces the Somali literary tradition as it shifts from oral to written forms and Dr. Ahmed himself is a great storyteller, both on paper and in person.

In conversation, Dr. Ahmed is erudite, genial, and impressively reflective. He is a master of many discourses, weaving selections from a large corpus of literary stories, proverbs, and critical theory to inform his reflections on everything from politics to teaching. Perhaps most strikingly, even after seeing his country torn apart by Civil War and its violent aftermath, Dr. Ahmed is joyful.

We spoke to Dr. Ahmed over Skype through his mobile. In one of our favorite moments, another call came came through and his phone’s incessant ringing caused him to exclaim: “The phone is superimposing itself!” To us, this cry captures Dr. Ahmed’s particular ability to contend with even life’s small challenges through well articulated humor and grace.

WRITERS AND WRITING IN SOMALI(A)

One of your earliest jobs as a writer in Somalia was working as a contributing editor for Vigilance, an English weekly newspaper. What types of stories did you cover during your time there?

Those were the days when Somalia was part of the Soviet bloc even though by the end, 1978, 1979, the Russians were kicked out by the former Somali President Barre. The founder and editor of Vigilance was this fellow, a veteran journalist, his name was M.M. Afrah. He went to London and Germany for about 15 years and then came back to Somalia and founded this newspaper. What I really remember about those days was what he allowed us to do.
I remember two pieces I wrote for them that would not have been published if he was not the editor. In those days, Somalia was a semi-Socialist state, where you couldn’t mention the name of clans. I had written a piece on a group of Somalis, the caste group[JF3] . These are the artisan groups, the ones who make shoes, knives, all that sort of thing, but they’re at the bottom rung of society. I wrote an article in which I criticized the society for ignoring the caste and all they do. I’m sure Afrah must have had his own trepidations, but he accepted it and published it. The other piece other editors would not have published was a rejoinder to another article criticizing someone who came from Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia. I was born in Mogadishu and so I wrote a rejoinder. My argument was basically: “You’re full of it.”
Afrah published those articles.

  1. Dr. Ahmed’s two poetry anthologies are Fear Is a Cow (Red Sea Press, 2002) and When Donkeys Give Birth to Calves: Totems, Wars, Horizons, Diasporas (2012). His short story, “The Litigant” appears in the collection Imagine Africa (Archipelago Books, 2014). His most recent novel, Gaso, Ganuun iyo Gasiin (Pen or corral, milk vessel, and sustenance or food), will be out later this year from a Somali publisher called Laashin, in collaboration with a not-for-profit organization in Sweden. His new short-story collection, Shrinkology, will be published in English in 2018 (either Looh press in London or my publisher, The Red Sea/Africa World Press in New Jersey). He has written two critical books, The Invention of Somalia (Red Sea Press, 1995) and Daybreak Is Near: Literature, Clans, and the Nation-State in Somalia (Red Sea Press, 1996), and co-edited The Road Less Traveled: Reflections on the Literatures of the Horn of Africa with Tadessa Adrea (Red Sea Press, 2008).

During that time, you also had a weekly radio program called “Writing and Writers.” Can you speak a bit about your experiences?

In terms of Writing and Writers, that was another amazing experience. I was a young man with a radio program and I would always interview writers; sometimes, I would also translate stories into Somali. I remember this one time—I later told this to Ngugi Thiong’o [a Kenyan author famous as a champion of literature written in African native languages][JF4] — I translated one of his stories called “People of the Mercedes –Nwhato Mbense” from his short story collection, Secret Lives. It was about the upstarts of Africa who were driving Mercedes in the midst of poverty. I broadcast my translation of this story, “Raggii Mersheedisyada,” on the program.
It was a weekly program, so I got a lot of letters. The one that I really remember was about this translation, and it was supposedly sent by a kid. The letter said: “I enjoyed the story, could you broadcast it again?” I did not think it was really from a kid, and I didn’t want to run the story again because I didn’t want to run into trouble—if you get away with murder once, you don’t do it again! So I had to say no, we wouldn’t be able to run stories like that more than once.

Who was your audience for the radio show?

It was writers—a lot of writers—but also high school students and university students. Remember, the Somali language only got an orthography in 1972. Before then, it was not a written language. The government of the late President garnered a lot of press for doing that. Before he came to power, successive Somali governments could not really come out with a script for Somali because there were four or five different scripts from different clans. When President Barre came to power, he said the Latin Roman script was the one we were going to use and no one could really say anything, so… Boom! The people learning this new script could follow the stories on the radio show.
It’s important to write in African languages, we should. We must! (In fact the novel I’m publishing this year, Gaso, Ganuun iyo Gasiin, is in Somali. It’s important!) But it’s always really difficult; the mere fact that you can read in a language does not mean that you can follow the plot. People who can read English, including myself, can really have trouble understanding James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake! One time I actually spoke to Ngugi about this–the difference between being able to read a written language and to understand a difficult book. But Ngugi is Ngugi, after all, and he came up with a good response: “Imagine if the English writers, like Chaucer, had said ‘No, no, we can’t use English because that’s only for the riffraff! We should write in Latin or French.’ What would have become of English Literature?” And that is an argument that you cannot really argue with.

As you point out, Gaso, Ganuun iyo Gasiin is coming out in Somali. We were wondering if any, or all, of your books are currently in circulation in Somalia and how they have been received.

I started writing in English after the destruction and collapse of the state. The problem is that for the last twenty-seven years there hasn’t really been a viable government. The state collapsed in Somalia in January 1991. There were governments installed by the United Nations, there was the creation of Somaliland and Puntaland—we have a lot of “-stans” in Somalia in the form of “-lands.” The trouble now is, I don’t think education is what it used to be when we had a government. So it is very difficult to gauge.

ON THE TRAVEL BAN

What was your reaction to Trump’s travel ban, which restricts people from Somalia and five other countries from entering the United States?
Politics, after all, is gathering votes and basically telling people what they want to hear most of the time. I think it is really sad, what the President did. We live in a strange world, where it is easy to kick and demonize your enemy and where it is easier to kick someone who is already down, like Somalia.
With Somalis, that’s something I don’t understand. Because there are civil strikes going on. The drones are working in Somalia, as you know. Imagine a poor person in Somalia somewhere, that poor person is not working for the Shabab insurgents, but at the same time they have nowhere to escape from the drones. They are being bombed on all sides, basically. And to tell that person that you can’t seek asylum, what sort of logic is that? You’re telling them to join the Shabab, really. That is what you’re telling them. In a way, this law is really a serpent that coils on itself, the way I see it. But, as with so many other things from this person, it is not so not well thought out.
But on the other hand, as the Trump administration was saying, the blueprint for the travel ban was left behind by Obama. We have to be honest, you know! It’s not only the current administration, and we can’t let Democrats off the hook. When Bill Clinton was in power, he authorized the bombing of the pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum.
In a way I think the Supreme Court ruling was expected. (When they say that they “follow the rule of law by the letter,” it scares the heck out of me, actually.)

Do you have a sense of how the Somali community in the U.S. has reacted?
I came here in the early 1980’s, and my wife, my brother, my kids, they’re all here. But I know of friends. People who have relatives who were expecting to come here.

Did you know that Minnesota has the largest Somali community in the US?
We were surprised to find that out during our research. We also learned about the large Somali cultural celebrations they have. Have you ever been to them?

Yes, have you been?

No, sadly, we haven’t.

Oh, you should! It is a vibrant community that really contributes to the economy of Minnesota. In this community we have many professionals—professors, medical doctors–and now we have Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American state assemblywoman in Minnesota!
For the President to really go after the Somali community, I should say, it was uncalled for. It was uncalled for–that sort of cheap politics at its worst. There is a Somali proverb which says “ “ which really means, “Catastrophe is that which makes you laugh.” This travel ban is catastrophic, no? It is sad. And it really makes you laugh.

We like that proverb. It feels entirely appropriate to the political situation.

I always say “I am a cultural historian, a cultural critic, I have nothing to do with politics,” which is not really true. When I want to wiggle out of questions, I’ll say “Oh, but that’s politics!”
Right after the November elections, I was talking to one of my colleagues, a sociologist at Queens College. I said, “There’s something I don’t understand. What is it that this fellow, our President, understood? What is it that you missed somehow that Trump got right?” Because it is kind of crazy, you know, what happened.
And my colleague said, “We didn’t really take them–the South or the working class Americans–seriously.”
“But you can’t really say them,” I said, “because you come from a working class background yourself. You’re part of it!”
Once you start playing this game of divide and rule, you go down the road to disintegration. We have seen this before in the world. I saw it in Somalia. This is probably one of those teaching moments for Americans. Hopefully. But, then again, we live in a crazy world.

ON LITERATURE AND POLITICS

In this political moment we–as English students–have to wonder about the role of literature. How can fiction help us build a better world?

I think we should use fiction exactly for that purpose. We should! Literature—fiction, for me, is an entrance into other people’s lives. Instead of writing an essay, in fiction you talk about the emotional, sentimental, psychological, and political–all the aspects of your character. Fiction allows us to empathize with people; it allows us to look at ourselves also and come clean with ourselves, that’s what it really does. Just think about reading a good novel or a good story, and saying “aha!” It tells you something that was in your unconscious, and it allows you to really look at the world with different, fresh eyes. Good fiction, good stories, good narratives all do this.

That’s one of the reasons we’re so glad you’re sharing some of your stories with us today.

It’s the best way to transform consciousness.

It’s easier to do terrible things to people when they’re not portrayed as fully realized people.

ON COMING TO THE UNITED STATES

As you mentioned, you came to the U.S. in the 1980s. What made you decide to come?
I came here on a scholarship that was given by the US government to the University of Somalia for English. I came to New York on December 30th and when I got to L.A. it was the 31st, New Year’s Eve. I started my Masters program in 1983.

What was happening in Somalia before you left?

Back in Somalia at one point before I left, I was the president of a committee of writers who were writing the biography of the late President Barre. It was kind of crazy. As the president of the committee of writers writing President Barre’s biography in Somalia, well, it is tricky when you are writing the biography of a strong man. (And God rest his soul, now, because he was much better than everything that came after him. Seriously, if you think about it, a crazy government is better than no government at times, and better than the chaos and anarchy now.) What the President used to do is he would give us names of people who knew his past, his history, where he was born, that sort of thing. In those days, there were two Presidential Villas in Mogadishu–one was the Villa Somalia where the President lived and where the current President lives, and the other was Villa Baidoa. That was where we, the panel of writers, lived. The President’s cook was cooking for us—we were really pampered in a way—and we would invite the people the President recommended to come for the interviews. We would start about 2:00 in the afternoon, and one time, we finished at 7:00 the next day.

That makes us feel better about the length of this interview.

Well they have to be long if you want to catch the gamut of things!
Now imagine as the president of the committee of writers I ask you, “So, what do you know of this figure?” And you know the President is a strong man. You’ll praise him to the skies, of course. I talked to the President numerous times, one on one, and I honestly don’t think he was malicious. I don’t think he said “Write something that praises me,” that was not the point. I think he somehow assumed that the guests would speak their minds, but why would they? We might have relayed what they said back to him!
I remember in one case there was a General in the army, one of those important later Generals. We interviewed him and he said what he wanted to say: “Without the President, Somalia would not be the same.” And I still remember when we were done, it was about 8:00 pm at that point, that this General wanted to speak with me as the president of the committee, alone. I thought “What does he want from me?”
Well, in that Presidential palace there are gardens. So we went to the gardens and started talking. And he said, “What I want to tell you is that everything I told you in the interview is a lie.”
Now: Imagine me, a poor lonely lecturer.
In my head I thought he was baiting me—he’s trying to get me! So I said, “Listen General, if that’s the case let’s go back to the palace and you can say this to the whole committee.” And he said: “Are you crazy? I’m not going to go back!” Then he mentioned the exact opposite of what he had told us—he said things the President could be indicted for! And when he was done, he said “Now I can go home and sleep.” I never said anything about that gentleman until he had passed away and the government was overthrown.
In a way I think it was lucky that I got the scholarship to come to the US through a linked program between the University of Somalia and UCLA for the MA program and stayed to finish my PhD. I went back to Somalia to do research for 9 months and then I came back. I gave a speech at USC in 1984 where I talked about the coming of the collapse of Somalia. Not that I knew things people didn’t know, but I had been a fixture in the Presidential palace, and if you were in tune with the system you could see what was going on. So I went back in 1987 to UCLA and became the editor of Ufahamu, a UCLA journal, of which I was the editor-in-chief from 1987-1989. (The word in Kiswahili means “let’s understand each other.”) Each editor was allowed to edit a special issue on a topic of their choice. Most of the times, the edited issue represented their final goodbye, not in my case. I edited a special issue on Somalia. That sort of made me a persona non-grata because in it I was really talking about the system. As it turns out, the system only had two more years to live. In 1991, President Barre was run out of town and he went to Kenya, and then to Nigeria, and he died there in 1992.
That said, what came after him is unconscionable. Especially because those who overthrew him basically, those who really destroyed that city, came from my clan. Each one wanted to become President—two powerful men said, “I’m the President.” That’s why we are in this mess.

  1. About the Interviewers:

    Mary E. Smith is a Ph.D. student in the Literature Program in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh. Her work looks particularly at constructions of gender identity in the fiction of Junot Diaz and how his particular conception femininity is politically enabling.

    Jessica FitzPatrick works at the intersection of world literature, spatial studies, and popular culture. She earned her Ph.D. in Cultural and Critical Studies from the University of Pittsburgh in 2017. Her dissertation, “Hacking the Future: The Space and Place of Earth in Postcolonial Science Fiction,” explores how writers from the Global South use spatial interventions to revise the exclusionary limits of early science fiction and to renegotiate social and political hierarchies. In classes like “Women and Literature,” “Narrative and Technology,” and “Literature of the Contemporary” she and her students explore how 20th and 21st century texts re-present our world.

What was it like being in the U.S. when this coup was happening, especially since they were from your clan?

It made me feel bad, actually. Someone called me and said “Professor, you have to come back! We are in control now!” and I said, “Once you say ‘We are in control’ you are in trouble.” It as though you are saying you have driven them out, and it is your turn now. I told him to remember the Chinese proverb “If you want to take revenge for whatever was done to you, prepare two graves: one for yourself and one for the other person.”
It did not make sense to me at the time, and it does not make sense to me now. The clan that I come from is one of the largest in Somalia anyway, so they didn’t really need to do any stupid sort of thing. They could control that place until the end of the world, but with justice, with ameliorative qualities, something better than the system that came before. We should really have created a sacred center where all the clans, including the Bantus, could say “Ah, we all belong to this nation.” But that did not happen. Unfortunately, we paid a hefty price. It is really unfortunate. It is really sad.

Before discussing the takeover, you mentioned you were labeled a persona non-grata in the final days of President Barre’s regime. Do you currently identify as an exile, an immigrant, or as something else all together?

Once I became a persona non grata I was an exile, both in the sense that I was forced to a certain extent to leave, but it was also voluntary exile. These days, I call myself a Somali in the Diaspora, because supposedly people could go back now, and they do go back. But there are still problems in places like Mogadishu. You hear of suicide bombers and other violence in Mogadishu.

ON TEACHING

You practice what you call “creative teaching.” Can you explain a bit about what this is and why it is important, especially now?

I’ll give an example, if I may. On the first day of classes I ask the undergraduates to offer their names and majors, so we can see that people come from all types of disciplines. Then, I give the students the fable of the three blind men and the elephant. I tell them if you replace the elephant that you are trying to understand in the parable with the idea of the human being, you can’t understand the human if you only talk about biology. If you only talk about the humanities or social sciences, you can’t really understand the human either. You must understand the human in a way that doesn’t compartmentalize.
Then I ask them: “When we come out of our Mothers, what’s the first thing that we do?” They say “We cry.” I say, “Ok, we must remember there are two things you cannot witness: your birth and your death. Someone has to tell us. So let’s try to interpret what that type of primordial cry means.” I tell them we read that cry in two ways: one as a triumphant cry—you have been ensconced in the mother’s womb for nine months, then you come out and you say “Hallelujah!”; and the other reading is a lament—the world hits you in the face and you go, “Take me back!” Or, I tell them, the cry is a combination thereof.
For most of us it is a combination of ups and downs. The reason I tell them that story is because there’s one book in all of us. What we read in my class is someone’s account of coming out of the womb. “And hopefully,” I tell them, “I will read at least one or two of your novels someday.” In terms of your question, it is that kind of teaching method that I am interested in. I call it by the Greek word noetic.

As a professor and researcher in the field of Comparative Literature, what do you think Comparative Literature can offer us after the election?

I have nothing against the English department, but in many English Departments, the problem is that you study World Literature but only after colonialism. Since the Department doesn’t want to be written out of history, they incorporate other literatures. Jokingly, I told the English Department head at Queens College, “Now that you’re doing this, you can probably come under the rubric of Comparative Literature.” I tell my students the reason they should join the Comparative Literature Department is precisely because we encompass and incorporate history, politics, and sociology; it is an all encompassing sort of thing. It is important.

What does poetry give you space to do that your academic writing does not?

It helps you a lot, I think, in the sense that you’re not only talking about other people’s writings in class. You really know what you’re talking about because you’re a practitioner and a professor. You can engage students in a way that it wouldn’t be possible to engage them otherwise, for me at least, because you’re talking about tricks of the trade, what the craft entails. I speak only about myself–I know a lot of professors who do not write poetry, but who read poetry better than I! But, for me, writing and life intersect. The deeper you delve, the more you find yourself. In that process, poetry and fiction writing help me understand myself and understand my students.

ON HIS OWN WRITING

What made you start writing poetry?

I remember the first poem I wrote. I was in 6th grade back in Somalia.The assumption is that one in three Somalis is a poet. That’s what they say. Whether they are good poets, that’s beside the point! Poetry for Somalis and for other communities is something that as the Marxist Christopher Caldwell once said, is a manifestation of the emotions and histories of a community. It is central to the development of that community. It is central to the development of the Somali community—there are certain things you can say in a poem that would not otherwise be allowed or halal. You can get away with that in a poem. The Somalis, they revere their poets. We really respect them in the true sense of the word. Poets are poets. They’re very important. That was something I never really understood when I came to this country in the early 80’s. When I came here, I couldn’t really understand the status of poetry.

We were shocked you had run a whole radio show all about writers. We thought to ourselves, “That’s great—but who would listen to that?” It seems like a very different culture.

Strange enough, my parents did not really write poetry, but they were good reciters.

Well, then your parents were still practicing poets, bringing the poetry into their life–they were still living the poetry.

I started to write poetry in English before Somali. All the poems that you see are written in English first; they’re not translations. I don’t really know why—well, I know in the sense that when I write poetry in Somali, for some strange reason, it is too close to the bone.

Do you have the same tension with prose?
No, it’s only poetry. It’s really strange. With fiction it is not a problem, but with poetry it is too close to the bone.

Do you think poets, academics, and journalists have different responsibilities as writers? If so, what are they?
Different responsibilities, yes, but at the same time as an academic, you go to classes and teach. A journalist (not a professor of journalism) is one who does their homework in the thick of it by collecting information and then writing it in a way that is accessible. For a journalist, that is really key. In your case, in my case, as academics, we can sometime overindulge ourselves in jargon nonsense.

Dr. Ahmed in his office.

We had a few questions about what you’re currently working on. How has it been affected by recent events?
I’m working on a lot of things right now. The Somali novel, and the Shrinklology anthology, which is all about shrinks.

Oh, that type of shrink! We were thinking in terms of scale.
Yes, but I’m really trying to be facetious and funny, I don’t know if it comes out. Towards the end, my argument really is the problems of Africa and Somalia. The last three lines say, “Look no further, you are actually the problem.” How do you balance between this idea that says Africa has been oppressed from the outside, and the idea that says, why don’t you look at yourselves, what are you doing wrong? It’s tricky. One of the things I like about Sembene Ousmane’s novel, Xala, is it’s one of the earliest novels in Africa that started indigenizing the problem.

We see a connection between the idea of indigenizing the problem and your poem “Shirking Responsibility” from Fear is a Cow. We’ll read an excerpt and ask you to respond:
The Africans had a field day with the Somalis
The Arabs had a field day with the Somalis
The Shi’ites had a field day with the Somalis
The Sunnis had a field day with the Somalis
The Phalangists had a field day with the Somalis
The Marxists had a field day with the Somalis
The West had a field day with the Somalis
The Soviets had a field day with the Somalis
The Americans had a field day with the Somalis
And Yunis had a field day with the Somalis
And the griot’s son after him had a field day with the Somalis
And the swashbuckling sailor after them had a field day with the Somalis
And the Somalis, in awe of ancestral blood, had a field day with the Somalis.

The title says it all: “Shirking Responsibility.” This is what we were talking about before, indigenizing the problem: it was easy for us to say the Shi’ites, the Jews, and the West killed us, but we had a field day with ourselves. How do you account for this now? Humans are really strange. In a way, it is much easier to talk about what others do to you without looking closely at what you do or what those who are closest to you do.

This reminds us of when you talked about not letting Democrats off the hook for laying the foundation for the travel ban.
Yes. In Somalia we like nicknames. I don’t have one, but almost all Somalis who are anybody have nicknames. There are some nicknames that take something bad about the person, and if someone from my clan or someone close to me called me by that nickname, I won’t be offended, but if someone from another clan did, I’d be up in arms. And therein lies the problem, I think. We somehow create extenuating circumstances for people close to us or even ourselves most of the time.

On that note, your poem “Big Things” from When Donkeys Give Birth to Calves focuses more on the U.S.:
In America, we love things big
Big Mac
Super size double
Decker subway
. . .
Don’t get me wrong
Big is good!
I want
Big things for my family and
Big things for my country
I like big
I think big
Believe me, big!
Now, no umbrage?
Then give me a big hug
A bear hug
A big bear hug
See, no big deal.

See, no big deal—it is tongue in cheek, no? It’s really funny. There were some graphic parts in an earlier draft that I took out, about certain physical enhancements, that sort of thing. What has the world come to when these things are important to humans, with this big and that big. But it is a lighthearted poem, so the ending is: give me a hug. The minute you come to that part and you laugh, the poem has seeped into your consciousness. You can then think, wait a minute, what was he saying now?

HOME AND HOPE

What do you miss most about Somalia?
The place, the people. The vibrancy! Nostalgia is a very kind of strange thing, especially in the sense of nostroslogos — it’s true, the idea that you can’t go home again. The vibrance is what I remember of the people. The smell, the taste. In Somalia, we have the longest coastline in Africa and it’s really amazing when you think of those places.Of course, you’re born in the place; you’re always close to it. What they used to do in those days—I don’t think they do it nowadays—is bury your umbilical cord to signal that you belong to the place forever.

In your recent article, “Beyond Manichean Poetics” in the International Journal, you write that what our troubled world most needs is a new theory and a new language that would open up collective possibilities and create a better future. How can we work to build such a language?
I have a poem called “Globe.” As a kid, I remember thinking when you look at a globe, the North is always on top of the South. I remember this older brother of ours, God bless his soul, who was an intellectual by the standards of those days, and he said, “Can we let the South be on top of the North?” In the poem I wrote that I looked at the globe, and in my stare, the South flipped so that the South was soaring, and the North was spiraling down out of control. But then I realized that what I’d done was just use the same hierarchical tactic, looking at the world exactly the way I said we shouldn’t! It becomes important to somehow develop an alternative language.

Can you point towards people who are doing this work?
We talked about Ngugi before, the late Edward Said, Mahmood Mamdani. There are so many, actually. We’re all grappling in the dark, but slowly, I’m sure we’ll be able to formulate something.

The idea of grappling in the dark makes us think of the poem “In the Shadow of the Ellipsis” from your poetry collection, When Donkeys Give Birth to Calves. In the poem, you write that life is “in search of the ellipsis.” We kept returning to that phrase. What does it mean to be in the shadow of the ellipsis?
As you know, I hate to explain my poems, but for me the ellipses are the eureka moments that come after a search. The eureka moment has its ups and downs. You’re living in that shadow. When you talk about shadows in the subconscious, they are fluid–they come after you, you run after them, they run after you; it’s really a kind of dialectical engagement with life. That’s one of the things I meant.

A question about hope. In your Acknowledgements to Daybreak is Near, you thank your late sister-in-law, who along with her son, died after a grenade fell on her home in Mogadishu in 1992. How do you maintain hope in the face of such violence?
It’s really difficult. I think that without hope, there’s no life. Remember, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote “Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve, and hope without an object cannot live.” It makes sense, I think. Without hope there’s nothing really in the world, there’s nothing. With every death there is a birth, and that’s what tells you there is hope. And life goes on. Hope is always there—when you hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere else to go.

You bounce back.
That’s the hope.
Also, I must really mention the people in Somalia who never left: the medical doctors, professors, or civil servants, people who persevered and made sure that whatever was left would live on. I mention them in Daybreak; these are the real heroes.

Given Somalia’s turbulent past and present, what are your hopes for Somalia’s future?
I think Somali has a great future, honestly. I jokingly tell my students that I was weaned on red diapers. I come from the Marxists and I know my Gramsci. That oft quoted “pessimism of the intellect…
–optimism of the will.”
Yes, that’s always there. But I compare it with Samuel Beckett in The Trilogy. In The Unnamable, he states, and this is really interesting, he says “I can’t go on–
–I must go on.”
You remember that part! What is the alternative otherwise, 6 feet deep? In that sense, I think Somalia really has a great future.

About the Author

Sampsonia Way is an online magazine sponsored by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh that seeks to protect and advocate for writers who may be endangered, to educate the public about threats to writers and literary expression, and to create a community in which endangered writers thrive and literary culture is a valued part of life.

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Fearless, Ink.