Rrecently shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, Nadifa Mohamed’s third novel, The men of fortune, is a fictional retelling of the story of the Somali sailor Mahmood Mattan, who was wrongly convicted of murder in Cardiff in 1952. Born in Hargeisa in 1981, Mohamed is the first British-Somali author to appear on Booker’s shortlist of finalists. His two previous novels, Black Mamba Boy (2010) and The garden of lost souls (2013), won the Betty Trask and Somerset Maugham Awards.
What were you doing when you found out that you had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize?
I was at my mother’s house, I am one of her caregivers. I got a call from my editor and she said: Good news! We did a quick dance and then we went back to Mommy’s needs.
The men of fortune it was his first novel set in Great Britain, where he has lived most of his life. Was that a different process from the act of recreating the Yemen of the 1930s or Somalia on the brink of 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 a bit uncomfortable delving deeply. Here, I felt the ability to deal with my characters in a more aggressive way than I had allowed myself in the past.
There is a joy in your description of Mahmood’s inner world that, for me, was it is not an obvious path, dice what the story is a tragedy.
Did I go out to do that? Not consciously. But because of his resemblance to my father, Mahmood is very familiar to me. They were born in the same city. They came to this country at the same age, as merchant sailors. When I went to research the novel and returned to these old sailor communities in London and Cardiff, it was like being back in warm water. Now they are all bundled up with anoraks, with canes, but the same souls, the same spirits are there. You can see those young men who were thrown into post-war Britain and found humor here, found love here, found terror here. They were a particular type of people. They were rebels. Otherwise, they would have stayed at home, they would have kept their livestock or their families in tents like Mahmood’s family in Hargeisa. But they were risky and my father was one of them. And they are easy to love. It’s about that wanderlust. It’s about that curiosity. It’s about feeling like you want to make a life on your own terms. That for me is also my own inner life. I am trying to write my own story.
Tell me more about your history.
I was born in Hargeisa and then moved to London when I was four because my father could see that Somalia was sinking further. At the time, it was a dictatorship, but a couple of years after we left, civil war broke out and our hometown was razed by South African mercenaries and local Somali troops. We left just before the war, so you’re in that middle ground between being an immigrant and a refugee and then where you lived, where you had been, where all your memories were, they 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 the feeling that we would return. But then Somalia appeared in the newspapers and on television coverage because of the terror and famine and then you realize that you cannot go back. I guess your imagination always lives there. The men of fortune It is the first time that I have left Somalia with imagination.
Who have been your main literary influences?
Toni Morrison is the obvious one. I think that Arundhati Roy and the way he writes about power and helplessness and the way he lives his life is a huge influence. I love Pushkin. I love metaphysical poetry – John Donne, Sam Selvon. A big influence on me is Claude McKay, who wrote in the 1920s and 1930s and was a radical communist and bohemian. His first novel, Harlem home , was written after Trotsky encouraged him to write about the socio-political conditions of African Americans, but instead of this dry call to arms, he wrote this fantastic, raunchy, fun modernist book that captured a slice of Harlem life. I think other people were afraid to put it on paper.
What are you writing now?
I am trapped in Britain. It is something contemporary, something very different from The men of fortune – on Somali women, young women and families who fled the war but have not fled it internally. Britain today is intense. Something strange is happening [and] Whatever postcolonial psychosis it is, it is so crazy and so extreme. Being a black, Muslim, someone who until recently thought he understood this country, I am desperate to understand what is going on. When you have a son of immigrants like our Home Secretary who enthusiastically calls for immigrants to be pushed into the English Channel, that should make you stop and think. There is an extreme in the conversation and in the demand for violence from the people that is really worrying and I think that in the same way that my father could see where Somalia was going, I am quite worried. [about] where is Britain going. And maybe it has to do with the fact that I come from a country that fell apart.
Does the new book have a title?
In fact, it does.
Follow, continue. We will break the news …
Is named Broken Heart Syndrome.
Tell me about broken heart syndrome.
I think we all experience it, we all suffer from it, especially immigrants, especially refugees; it is a physical and medical condition. It is when shock occurs and causes immense stress on the heart that can resemble a heart attack. The protagonist of the novel is a pediatrician, but she and her mother are suffering from various types of broken heart syndrome and I think we all do and maybe that’s how I feel about Britain too, that heartbroken feeling about where Is going…
What are you reading right now?
Breakfast in Bronzefield by Sophie Campbell (but that’s a pseudonym). It is about the Bronzefield Women’s Prison, where there was recently this case of a young woman who gave birth without supervision and her son died.
What’s the best debut you’ve read in the last few months?
When we were birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo. It’s set in Trinidad, but it’s a fictional version of Trinidad and it’s the writing that I love, not really what it’s about. So it is written. With a kind of magic.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism