I never met a Somali character in books growing up – I had to change that | Ayaan Mohamud

AAs a teenager living in British Somaliland, there are a few things I heard repeated about my culture. In no particular order, there were: drought, Black Hawk Down, high foreheads, theft, hunger, girls and rice behavior, terrorism, and the “look at me, I’m the Captain now” meme. Ironically, it didn’t always feel “cool” to be Somali.

When these feelings were combined with the age-old question of who Somalis are, I found it difficult to express my sense of identity. Torn between the country’s location in the Horn of Africa, our shared ethnicity, and Somalia’s membership of the Arab League, it often felt like I was being pulled in a million ways. different. Was I Black, East African, Arab or just Somali? And how did my identity as a Muslim fit into these racist laws?

None of this was helped by the lack of real Somali representation in literature. When I was a child, I loved to read. I read books by authors like Meg Cabot, Anthony Horowitz and Jenny Nimmo. As I got a little older, I set my sights on Jane Austen, Cassandra Clare and John Green. Looking back, I wonder why I never came across books with diverse characters, and I feel sad that I didn’t stop to question their absence.

The first thing I remember reading a book with a Black character was Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses. Years later, when I started my AS-level English literature course, doors opened that I didn’t know existed. I read Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. I read Mohsin Hamid. I read it all and loved it.

Throughout those years and those that followed, I became aware of exactly what I was reading – the words and letters on the page – and the momentary feeling of alienation in doing so. I’ve loved seeing my pieces shown in print, in different ways of the Black British experience or the experience of being a Muslim told through the lens of someone from South Asia or the Middle East. But it wasn’t until three or four years ago that I realized that the experience still felt incomplete.

This became clear when I discovered and read Black Mamba Boy, by Booker short story writer Nadifa Mohamed; it was made clear when I came across Warsan Shire’s haunting poetry in his first pamphlet, Teaching My Mother How To Berth. Here, finally, were British-Somali words that I didn’t know existed. Here are the stories I didn’t know I needed. I found my people in the poignant words of Shire’s Conversations About Home, giving voice to the desperation of Somali refugees, and in Mohamed’s analysis of 20th-century Somalia, told through the lens of a boy trying to found himself in the country. an unforgiving world. The comfort these stories gave me, the joy of feeling – of being seen – was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. And, at that moment, I felt that the void must have been filled with the magic I had found. What else could I want or need?

Shukri Abdi’s sad story stopped me in my tracks. His death stayed with me, and much of the UK Somali community, for a long time. The tragic circumstances of his death and the way the police handled the incident left me reeling, thinking about his story every now and then. What must it have been like for a young Somali refugee to come to this country? Facing ridicule for being different, while struggling to fit in with a society outside of what they knew?

My first book for young adults, You Think You Know Me, was born out of those thoughts, and I realized that what was missing were children’s voices. Accessible stories of drama, adventure, heartbreak, fiction, happiness, drama, fantasy, featuring Somali characters.

Young people and young readers need to see themselves featured on the page to counter the negative stereotypes that plague the Somali community. How else will they be able to see themselves clearly within their kaleidoscopic identities? My story features many unloved Somalis who appreciate every part of who they are. They are refugees, Muslim, Black, and proud of it. They speak English, Somali and Arabic. They eat the food of their country and wear their traditional clothes. They use the idioms of their people to guide and guide each other. They left home but they take home with them, in everything they do.

I’m proud of You Think You Know Me for adding to the growing conversation about cultural representation, and there are others paving the way. Somali Sideways, an international platform that aims to dispel negative stereotypes by photographing and documenting the lives of Somalis, is doing exceptional work to achieve this. The annual Somalia Week celebration has also made great strides in ending the dangerous “single story” of Somalis.

This is what I hope the next generation of Somali children will hear and understand: that we are many things, that we come from a beautiful but struggling country, that we are the descendants of poets and immigrants -sorrow – but above all, that we can be there. whatever we want to be.

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