Jan 21, 2015
Author Yasmeen Mahamoud Talks About Her Writing and the Somali Diaspora
I have always wanted to meet her. I never thought it would be possible. That all changed when we were both invited to speak at the Somali Women for Peace Conference in Djibouti between 30th November 2011 and 3rd December 2011.
Yasmeen Mahamoud, author of Nomad Diaries, is not only one of the few Somali women writers i know; she is also an activist and a poet. She began writing to tell the stories of the Somali diaspora community in the Western world, and sought to answer an important question: What does war, immigration and integration in a new country do to people?
Perhaps it takes the voice of a Somali woman writer such as Mahamoud – a critical, strong, indignant voice – to cut through nuance, ambiguity, and silence to address certain ugly realities that characterize Somali society at this junction of history. Somalia has known 2 decades of visil war and over 5 million of its population are believed to be dispersed throughout the world. Nomad Diaries is a captivating narrative that recounts the horrors of the Somali civil war and the onerous, often dehumanizing burden of trying to construct a second life in a new culture where one is not understood. Mahamoud is a talented writer, a Somali immigrant who tells stories of immigrant families and their experiences in America from a women’s viewpoint, weaving a textured tapestry through her unique style of storytelling.
I was able to talk with Mahamoud about her writing and community activism. Here are excerpts of that conversation.
You have lived in America for more than 20 years. Why are you still writing about Somalis and their problems?
Sitting opposite me in the foyer of Kempsinki Hotel where the Somali women’s event just took place, Mahamoud explains what Nomad Diaries is all about and what it most certainly is not. I am an American and to some extent westernised. But there is still a Somali in me’, she explains. Nomad Diaries is an endearing story of loss, despair, and family bonds tested by the destruction of a country. The Somali people have a story to tell and it is this story I am trying to bring forward and make others understand.
What does writing mean to you and why did you write this book?
I love writing. I used to write also as a child- it is my passion. Influenced by a rich Somali poetic life and the vivid stories of women, Mahamoud began eavesdropping on Somali women gatherings where women leisurely exchanged stories. This constant curiosity coupled with nightly storytelling as a child has had a lasting effect on the way her stories are woven to capture the aroma, texture and layers that mark her unique style of storytelling. I wrote this book because I wanted to tell a story- the Somali story. Many rightfully say that the book examines the human condition at its weakest? Nomad Diaries, as its name implies, are collections of anecdotes conveying the twists and turns of immigrant lives in transition. The reason why I wrote this book has to do with the fact that I wanted to show the world how strong Somali women are in the wake of the war, but also in the diaspora. Somali women are still burdened with looking after the family and keeping it intact. Somali women work hard but their work and contribution are still undervalued and under appreciated. In many European countries, you will find a very big social problem that many don’t know about. The average Somali family unit is broken in, be it in Europe of USA. It is fragmented with single mothers often heading and running the house and the entire family. The women are also tasked with the duties of the absent father’s and this involved in the school lives of their children. They also are expected to make important fatherly discussions when their children get into trouble. Somali women in the diaspora perform multiple tasks because the traditional patriarchal Somali household structure with the husband providing and women cooking and cleaning is no longer the case in the Western world. So, the book is not only about fleeing and integration problems. Its also about love, romance and infatuation. If you are an immigrant there are plenty of scenes you can relate to and appreciate; if you are not, the novel will be an eye-opener to a whole new experience about what it means to be a newcomer to the melting pot called America. The stories will shake people up and maybe reshape their presumptions about immigrants.
Why did you come to this year’s Somali Women’s Peace Conference and what are you here to talk about?
I came to this conference because I am very interested and support Somali women in their quests, both locally and internationally. I usually attend Somali women’s gatherings in the US and outside. I used to run a women’s empowerment NGO myself and we used to conduct seminars about the role of Somali women in community development. That was before I came to the decision to write. I came to the conference because I wanted to contribute to how we can together strengthen Somali women’s contributions in peace and security in Somalia. I spoke about my perspectives and what I feel could lead to useful results. I am also here to present and promote my book.
Thank you for your time and good luck with your book presentation in Djibouti.
It was a pleasure and indeed an eye opener for me to have interviewed Mohamoud under these circumstances. In my opinion Mohamoud challenged constructive community-held assumptions about immigrants. She's also brought to the surface the limited knowledge of Somali citizens, a people with a misunderstood culture and religion, of host countries about the richness and resourcefulness of immigrants- Somali or otherwise. By all accounts, Nomad Diaries is for anyone who has an interest in reading about an adventurous life and a love affair all within the world of human migration. I hope Nomad Diaries makes you dance.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.