Her father’s story led Nadifa Mahomed to write her debut novel. Bron Sibree reports
If Nadifa Mohamed ever had any doubts about writing her acclaimed debut novel, Black Mamba Boy, they had nothing to do with the real-life story that inspired it: that of her father.
She began writing about her father’s experiences – as a Somali refugee who walked the Nubian Sahara and Sinai deserts and later enlisted as a boy soldier in Mussolini’s East African forces – “because it deserves to be read by people. I felt like I’d be holding something back from them if I didn’t put it out there.”
She admits she worried initially about her telling of this tale, a potent blend of fact and fiction, brutality and lyricism, “because it’s passionate, and sometimes passion can put people off. But I’m so happy that loads of people have really embraced it.”
Not only has the wider reading public embraced Black Mamba Boy, but critics have hailed it as a stunning debut. It went on to garner the prestigious Betty Trask award this year, and was also long-listed for the 2010 Dylan Thomas Award and the 2010 Orange Prize.
This harrowing yet beautiful novel opens in the Yemeni port of Aden in 1936, with Jama, 10, living with his impoverished mother in the house of her relatives. When she dies, Jama joins the feral street urchins that throng Aden’s streets, scavenging for food and favours.
He decides his only chance for survival is to find his father, who disappeared years before. So he begins an odyssey across Africa. He journeys to war-torn Eritrea and Sudan and, after a stint with Mussolini’s forces, on to Egypt. From there, he makes his way to Britain as a seaman on a British ship, the Runnymede Park, which is embroiled in Exodus 47, the deportation of Jewish refugees from Palestine back to Europe.
For 29-year-old Mohamed, a Muslim who was born in Hargesia, Somaliland, and came to Britain aged four, the seeds of the novel grew from the stories her father would tell her as a child when he took her for walks in London’s Richmond Park.
“He was always telling me little bits, like ‘when I was in Eritrea and I was working for the Italians I got malaria’. And then another time he would tell me, ‘you wouldn’t believe how much these feet have walked. I’ve walked from Africa to the Middle East.’ It was only when I was 21 and studying history and politics (at Oxford University) that I realised he was telling such an interesting story.”
In writing Black Mamba Boy, which takes its title from the snake that passed over Jama’s mother’s belly before he was born, Mohamed decided it would be a work of fiction “because it gave me the freedom that I needed to write. It gave the book a soul I think, which it might not have had if I’d kept it as a straight biography.”
She also wanted to write not just of her father, but of the many Somali men who left Africa to settle in other parts of the world.
“It was incredible to learn that from the mid-18th century, Somalis have been smuggling themselves into countries that they know nothing about. The Somali community is one of the longest established in England. Along with the Yemenis, they’ve been here for at least 150 years and it was interesting to me, because these massive upheavals of people were happening all over the world.”
One of the criticisms levelled at Mohamed is her use of the Exodus story in the book, but she says: “I brought that in because that actually did happen. The Runnymede Park was my father’s first ship. He’d been treated by the Italians and Europeans always as a second- or third-class human, but on the Runnymede Park he was shocked to see it happening to a different set of people. It was a perspective that I found very different and interesting.”
Mohamed also wanted to highlight the negative consequences that Western colonialism had in the region: “In the West there’s this perception that Europeans took civilisation, order and development to East Africa. It’s actually untrue. The Italians brought nothing but chaos. After they invaded Ethiopia, 750000 people died and there was this huge movement of people off their land.”
One of the most shocking scenes in her novel, a murder of a Somali boy by Italian soldiers, she says was based on the factual account of the murder of Somali boy by Canadian peacekeepers in 1990. “The lives of little African boys have been disposable for so long, and I find that a really scary thought.
“Now we have these tragic scenes of Somalians, Ethiopians and Eritreans going to Europe on these rickety boats, and they often die. And I think we need to understand why people are doing this. We need to respect the fact that it’s tragic, but there’s also something fantastic about it. There’s an aspect where they’re like explorers. They’re venturing into new worlds .”
But for all the ambitious sweep and lyricism of her novel, says Mohamed, “if I could reduce it down to two emotions, it would be love and grief: love that holds people together and drives them and also the grief that binds them together. One of the saddest things that motived me was that so many people like my father are just lost by the wayside and forgotten about.”