This female Somali writer started her career because she was tired of “gloomy books about Africa.” She spoke to Azra Thakur.
I found Nomad Diaries by Yasmeen Maxamuud to be a wonderful introduction to the lives of Somali women living in the United States. There were times where I was reminded of my own immigrant grandmother and mother as I read about the protagonist Nadifo’s life.
Azra Thakur: As I mentioned in my review of Nomad Diaries, I am not familiar with stories that portray an African refugee woman’s journey to the United States presented in literature. What inspired you to write your novel?
Yasmeen Maxamuud: Nomad Diaries came out of my desire to tell stories about the Somali diaspora community. I started writing about seven years ago out of a desire to communicate an issue in an article. Then came a plethora of reading about African affairs, and I didn’t like what was out there. Everyone had an opinion on Africans, but the African voice was lacking. At the time, I was reading a lot of gloomy books about Africa. Few that come to mind are King Leopold’s Ghost, about the Congo; and The Graves are Not Full about Rwanda. As I read these books, I began having one-way conversations with myself and I started asking questions. These responses became long accounts of my opinion about certain issues, like poverty, corruption, nepotism, and tribalism in Africa.
As I was grappling with my African identity, 9/11 happened, and my entire world as I knew it changed. As I emerged from my new world as a baffled African Muslim, I looked for books that spoke to me, and there were none. I wanted to read about the Somali diaspora community, I wanted books that were written by people from home and, in particular, I wanted to read books from a Somali woman’s perspective. When I didn’t find “me” in a positive light in books that were in bookstores, I decided to write so that those similar to me with questions may find some answers.
I questioned many endearing parts of my culture. One central question that kept ringing in my mind was “If we have such a beautiful Somali culture as was sold to me as a child, why are my people slaughtering each other?” In a nutshell, it’s the reason I wrote Nomad Diaries: to answer these questions for myself and to contribute to Somali literature from a woman’s perspective.
Another reason for writing the book is to share our rich literature with non-Somali readers so that Somali literature is not an isolated literature in the corridors of the Somali community only, but one shared by a larger global community. I wanted to give readers a viewpoint of African women they may not have encountered before.
I am struck by the image of a Somali woman on the cover of the novel: we see her back as she crosses a bridge. Why is this Somali woman on the cover of the book?
The woman on the cover of the book represents Somali women – both traditional and modern. She is dressed in a traditional garb called sadex qayd. This is the traditional dress for Somali women in the countryside. My sister designed this particular sadex qayd for her wedding in America.
As for the cover photograph, I wanted to capture the essence of a Somali woman moving forward while looking back into the past. The quintessential Somali woman in the American diaspora is one at the helm of her present life while continuously looking back into what she has lost in the civil war. Likewise, I desired for the cover to capture the past, the traditional, and the present modern Somali woman.
The voices of African Muslim women are rarely portrayed in a positive light, either by themselves or by others in the media, if at all. Instead, stories illustrate the despairing situations women find themselves in with little to no mention of African women who work daily to overcome the challenges they face. Why do you think that is? Did this affect your decision to self-publish the novel?
If one believes the portrayals one sees in the Western media, one will come away thinking African Muslim women are weak and desperate and oppressed with no voice. Of course the Western media has no reason to depict Somali women in a positive light. Depicting African women in a gloomy desperate predicament has often been a story to tell. In contrast, here is a group of women who are strong, empowered, and definitely at the tiller of their own lives. Women like Nadifo are everywhere, both in Somalia and in America. They are women who have figured a niche in the American melting pot, while still adhering to traditional culture and religious practices. A portrayal that is endearing, yet challenging, and ultimately human.
It’s important to tell our own story. If I had waited for some big publisher to publish this book, I probably would have waited for years. Going on book tours has assured me that this is an important story to tell, readers everywhere were waiting, it seems, to hear an authentic African women’s story that is real and non-sensational. I can’t imagine anyone else telling our story the way a Somali woman can.
The transience of wealth is a recurring theme throughout the book. Its indiscriminate pursuit has dire consequences for one of the characters. Women in the book are presented as being dependent on governmental aid or their spouses for financial support while in Somalia, which makes them unable to assume positions of power in their relationships. As the women become financially independent in the United States, however, they start to assert themselves far more often and are able to convey their opinions to greater effect. Is economic independence the means through which women are able to assert themselves most effectively?
The civil war and its devastation have won Somali women a bargaining chip that was nonexistent while the country was in peace. Although it comes at a price, Somali women have managed to carve for themselves a position in society where, in many cases, they are the head of household. Both inside Somalia and in America, women have assumed positions that were traditionally male-dominated. In America, they are often single mothers who run businesses, work multiple menial jobs, and sometimes have professional careers. Somali women are ingenious and have figured out a system that has worked well for them in the post-civil war Somalia. But their new economic freedom may come at a high cost, as divorce rates and single mother households are on the rise.
The influence of Islam remains in the background of the women’s experience within the novel, where the influence is a sustaining force and not oppressive in nature. While religion is hardly in the background when the novel is set in Somalia, its presence becomes more subtly apparent once Nadifo’s family is living in the United States. When Muslim women are presented in the media, however, their religion is usually placed at the forefront of the story, regardless of how their beliefs contribute to the story itself. Was this a conscious decision on your part or something that occurred naturally without a deliberate reason?
Somalis in general have become devout after the civil war. Pre-civil war Somalia was a very secular one. In the past 20 years, the average Somali person has become well-versed in Islam. In a way, the spiritual connection to Allah has been a saving grace for many. Therefore, one cannot separate spiritual life from any writing or depiction that has to do with the Somalis of today. Worshiping comes naturally in Somali households in America. Since spirituality is part and parcel of the Somali existence, it was natural to include it in the story.
Post-9/11 America has also changed things in a way where religion and spiritual life are more often sought, due to the onslaught of negativity to Islam. I cannot imagine any writing where spiritual life is not at the centre of my characters. It’s ultimately who we are at this juncture of life. I was not trying to harmonise Islam for anyone; I don’t think I need to do that, as I believe Islam is a beautiful religion. But I wanted to add to the mix something different, to give the reader something they may not witness anywhere else. I wanted to present Islam to my readers the way I know Islam.
This interview was originally published on Muslimah Media Watch