Hanna Ali is a writer, a poet, a Teaching Fellow and a PhD candidate in SOAS, University of London where she specialises in Afro-Arab identity and how migrant writers in Britain negotiate questions of home and (un) belonging. This is a theme that also re-occurs in her creative work, which is concerned with unpacking what it means to be lost. Hanna is a former radio presenter who speaks 4 languages and has lived in 6 countries. She was recently listed as number 4 in Buzz Feed’s “21 Black British Muslims You Should Know About”. Her collection of short-stories translated from English to Somali was published in October 24 by Market FiftyFour, and she was also shortlisted for the London Short Story Prize 2016 and won 3rd prize in the 2017 HISSAC Short Story Prize. Her collection can be purchased at www.marketfiftyfour.com and she can be found on Twitter: @HannaAli.
This conversation took place between a green bedroom in scorching hot Gaborone, Botswana, and a flat in central London on a cold, rainy autumn morning via Skype.
INTERVIEW BY GAAMANGWE JOY MOGAMI
Gaamangwe: Hanna, let me start by sending healing mercies to Mogadishu. What has been happening there in the last couple of weeks is truly heartbreaking. I cannot imagine how this experience has been like for Somalis.
Hanna: Thank you Gaamangwe. It’s been difficult and a devastating blow that affected us at so many different levels. Unfortunately, it was days before a festival I was organizing; the bombing happened on the 14 of October, and the festival started on the 20th and ended on the 29th of October. One of the things that we had to deal with was how to move forward with a festival that is about joy and celebration while Mogadishu was not in a happy place. So, it was a difficult time for us to deal with what was happening on a personal level because we had to process this hurt in time for the festival and make the festival make sense in light of everything that has happened. We actually didn’t have time to seat and process because we had to get on with the work of organizing a good festival.
There were some people who were critical of us because I think people think that festivals and events are created from the spur of the moment and that things can be changed in a day. They don’t realize that we’ve been working on it for six months. So we had to explain to people that this was planned month ago and that its been happening every year. Also, catastrophic things that happen should not lead to us surrendering our initial plans. In the end, we shifted the idea of the festival to be about the Somali strength, resilience and how communities can come together. It was also a great chance to do fund-raising.
Gaamangwe: That’s good. Your short story collections, Sheekadii Noloshayada or The Story of Us was launched at the same time. Congratulations! The short stories explore being Somali and a child refugee, which is a reflection of your own personal experiences.
Hanna: Yes, my writing are inspired and influenced by my personal experiences, other people’s experiences shared with me, the feelings I have experienced around other people, and the things that I read. The accumulation of this usually comes together during the creative process. I was having a conversation with someone at the launch and they asked if the stories are about me because I write in first person. It’s a tricky question because I started as a poet and most of these stories were created out of my poetry. If you take my stories and you compare them to my poems, you will see that the extracts from each story is actual, individual poems that I have put together in an experimental way. When I write stories, I don’t focus much on plot. I focus on emotions, and how and what characters are feeling at a certain moment. So, writing my stories as poetry allows me to express my true, real-life feelings that are wrapped around a fictional setting.
Gaamangwe: That is interesting. Did you start the short story collection with a specific idea of what you want to explore with the collection?
Hanna: Well, The Story of Us was a story that I had written years ago, and I kept going back to it. My dream was to write a novel titled The Story of Us and it was always going to have the start as: “As long as you’re in this house, you are still in Soomaaliya.” That was always going to be my first line of any novel I ever wrote. So, I always had that at the back of my mind and I reformulated it at the start of this year because I wanted to start entering competitions. The short story Bloated was meant to be a continuation of The Story of Us. In my mind, I thought that it could potentially be a later version of what happened to the girl after growing up and going to university. But then, I wrote the piece as its own short story. The other two are newer stories that are a bit outside of my usual narrative. But I always wanted to explore this idea of women who are not as good as they should be. I find the idea of bad women interesting and so I explore that.
Gaamangwe: That’s powerful. Is that first line from The Story of Us inspired by your own personal experiences?
Hanna: That’s a line that’s always been in my head. It’s not necessarily something that my mother said to me in those exact words. In fact, I think that I was the one who made my household more into Somalia than my parents because I felt like I had to hold onto something that I didn’t have. I left Somalia as a very young child. So, I told myself that Somalia was the only place that I could connect to. I also knew that when I go off to the university and I grow up, I probably was never going to move back into the house again. So, it’s a place for me that I could connect to. The end goal has always been writing and exploring this idea of three generations of the daughter, mother and grandmother, and how they come to terms with life in Europe.
Gaamangwe: What other ideas besides exploring the three generations and Somalia are you interested in?
Hanna: I always thought of myself as a non-controversial writer. And it was only when I was presented with the opportunity by Market FiftyFour to have my writings translated in Somali that I suddenly became aware of myself as potentially being a controversial writer. Generally speaking, the audience that reads in Somali language is from the older generation especially if we are talking about the diaspora, which is why we are really lucky that Market FiftyFour did an audio version for the younger generation that are not confident in reading in Somali language. So this point has made me conscious of the fact that my writing is edgy for what is currently available in Somali language because I write about things that are not being talked about in the Somali community. I am interested in writing about women who don’t fit the idea of being a good woman. Women who engage in sex, women who hurt and who express that through drugs, sex and things of that nature. I am interested in exploring the idea of what is good and what that really means for people.
Gaamangwe: One of the other ideas that you explore in your research is African-Arab identity. Can you tell me more about this, I find it fascinating?
Hanna: I have always been fascinated and keenly aware of the effect and influence of Arabic culture in Africa. One of the consequences of that is the inter-marriages and the growth of Afro-Arab people. By that I mean people who feel as though they can relate to both African and the Arab world, and who have an identity stuck in-between. An example of that is Sudan. Sudan is a really interesting country where the population view themselves as Arab, but they also have to negotiate with their sense of Africanness and blackness. What does it mean to be Black? What is a true Arab? Does the idea of an Afro-Arab exists? I research that but the core centre of my research is identity. I look at identity studies and identity as a lived experience so they are no right or wrong answers in my research. So, you can’t look at a group of people and say you are Afro-Arab or Africa. Everything has to be negotiated and broken down and questioned. Because this is a lived experience for people. So, I am looking at writers in the diaspora and UK who are reflecting on having dual heritage, and obviously there are several layers to that. I find that fascinating because I think there is always layered identity everywhere. The idea that you live in one country but you have a dual heritage is a fascinating way of looking at how people come to terms with the idea of who they really are. In my research, I have discovered that people are innately obsessed with getting to the core of who they are, whether its identity or culture or genetics. This idea that I need to put my hand on who I am.
Gaamangwe: And you get the sense that its suppose to be a singular thing.
Hanna: Yes. But its multi-layered and who you are is always changing. What doesn’t change so much is your race and genetic makeup but one has to come to terms with who they see themselves to be. So, we find a lot of Sudanese who when they are back home they consider themselves to be Arabs. There are no negotiations, but when they go to Europe or UK, they are actually Black. Your face says that you are Black. So, then you are African. There are layers to identity when considering color. I find it fascinating.
Gaamangwe: And for us people who are in the other countries of Africa, it’s not a complex things. We feel African and our faces are black. I was a bit taken aback not so long ago when in my interaction with Egyptians, Moroccans and Tunisians, I realised they did not consider themselves Africans. It was the first time I considered that identity is much more than geography.
Hanna: I find that a lot in my research as well. Such that being called an African become sort of an insult. I was reading a 1950 national consensus document for what is now known as Sudan, and they came to the conclusion that there were two types of people living in Sudan: there were Arabs and there were others. And that’s it. So, this idea that even in our consensus we don’t even want to use the word African to be existing in our nation is shocking and fascinating. Why is the word an African a bad thing, an insult?
Gaamangwe: Yes. But the more I talk to people who have dual heritage the more it makes sense to embrace the two identities: Afro-Arab.
Hanna: Oh, but I don’t think Egyptians and North Africans consider themselves to be of dual heritage or Afro-Arab. I think Afro-Arabs will be more applicable to those Egyptians whose parents have inter-married with another African. I think most see themselves as Arabs; they possibly see themselves as Egyptian first because they have a strong sense of nationality. But again, I must stress that I would never claim to speak for people or tell you how someone sees themselves, this is all just general observations, and you get the idea that sometimes the idea that North Africa is in Africa is almost like a fluke to them. It’s a geographical whoops where we just happened to be, but we are not of this place perhaps.
Gaamangwe: It is fascinating and shocking for the majority of Africans because it does feel like no we would rather not be part of you people.
Hanna: Yes, there is the idea of “you people”. What is so negative about this, about being ‘African’, whatever that means?
Gaamangwe: I hope one day there would be a resolution to it. I don’t know if it can happen as you said, Egyptians considering themselves Arab.
Hanna: I think Somali as well because we are part of the Arab community, it’s officially seen as an Arab country and they are huge Arabic influence within Somali. As a culture, we are greatly Arabized. So, there is the idea that we accept that we are Black, but we don’t consider ourselves African. Its fascinating and complex. I am studying something that has no answer. You just go deeper into this hole of identity and displacement and home and belonging. My conclusion is that people should say where they are from because this is all a lived experience. If I consider myself to be an Arab or an African or Somali then that’s the way that I perceive myself and that’s okay. There is validity to it because it is my experience of how I see myself in life. That’s the only way to approach identity studies.
Gaamangwe: I absolutely agree with that. Now to shift a bit to your creative writing, one of the lines that keeps coming back to me from the short story collection says: I come from a place of hurt and sex. I got the sense that it means a lot to you because it also appears in your poem, “Being Black”. What does this line mean to you?
Hanna: It’s hard to explain because sometimes when you explain something, it kind of loses its magic. I want people to read that and immediately take from it, whatever applies to them and their lives. This idea that you literally come from a place of hurt and sex has multiple meanings and layers. I think of sex beyond its normal usage, but rather in terms of birth. I am interested in this idea that everybody was created out of love, that their parents were in love, and they were planned and wanted and so came out of love. I like to explore the other version which is that your literal conception and your entry into this world was from a place of hurt and not necessarily from the good place that comforts all of us. I am interested in this idea that the first trauma that occurred to you is actually at the moment of your birth. That your creation was not necessarily a positive thing that came out of love. The truth is sex and relationships can be disappointing, and sometimes conception are not planned and don’t come from people who love each other. So, I am interested in how if you were not created out of love, how does that potentially influence your life. It’s important to me because I think that trauma that happens in one’s childhood can influence the person one becomes in adulthood.
Gaamangwe: I believe in that too. On childhood traumas, you were a child refugee. How has that experience influence the person that you are?
Hanna: I was about four years old when we started the process of leaving Somalia and five years when we entered Europe. I have vivid memories of seeing a lot of death, hearing a lot of gunfire, being hidden away under the beds when men with guns surrounded our house. I remember being terrified. But then I came to Sweden, which I think in those days was probably the best place that anybody could grow up in. I felt safe and I was really happy. It was a real contrast between those real tough memories as a four year old. But I think as a result of how much I remember as being a four year old, there is quite a lot that I don’t remember as much in Sweden especially at the ages of eight to ten years. The poet in me likes to think that’s in order to preserve certain memories your mind has to let go of others. To leave space for some. But I did have a happy childhood, and I was too young to notice if people treated me any different. It was only later on that I began to realise that I was a little different but even then I was surrounded by other child refugees, so I certainly wasn’t the only black child in the class or something like that. We were probably the majority at that point. So, I was just this little child who felt accepted and played and had fun with her friends.
Gaamangwe: And how is that experience influencing you right now? Your vivid memories of you life in Somalia and Sweden are part of the story-line of your characters in the short story collection. It seems going back to these experiences is urgent for you.
Hanna: Absolutely. This is why I find a lot of comfort in Fiction because I can mix my true experiences with fictional scenarios. I always look at that period of my traumatic experiences as a child in Somali, and being a child refugee and then draw from that the different way in which my life could have turned out and the different things that could have happened to me. So, these stories are projections of what could have happened to me based upon what happened to me as a four year old in Somalia. So, they influence me in the sense that they give me the tools to explore the potentials of how my life could have turned out.
Gaamangwe: I think re-examining and imagining our lives is the pathway to healing. The idea of home and belonging is also urgent for refugees and immigrants. How is this for you?
Hanna: I consider Somalia home. I reached the point in my life where if somebody asks me where I am from, I say I am Somali because I realized that what they are asking me is where my face is from. That has encouraged me to be really proud of the fact that I am Somali. I have lived now in so many different countries, and I’ve had so many different experiences that sometimes I feel like a gypsy or a vagabond. I am always moving, always packing and unpacking things and moving into a new country, and Somalia gives me that constant that I know it’s where I am from. It’s a place that I feel connected to in a much deeper way. I think the more I have moved around the more I have actually felt Somali.
So, home and belonging is critical to everything that I do. As people in the diaspora, our sense of belonging is always being negotiated wherever you are in the world. Now, I am in Britain and there is Brexit happening, rise of Islamophobia, rise of the right wing and there is always this feeling of where do I belong? The answer that makes sense is I belong here, I’ve got the passport, the right to reside and I live here. But there is also the deeper question of where do I belong. But personally, I like to think of this from the roots. So, I like to think of belonging and unbelonging from the day of one’s creation and actual birth. This idea of feeling welcomed and wanted in this world.
I think humans probably for the most part need other people to validate them. I think that love is one of those things that gives the sense that we belong in the world. So, when you don’t have that love, those feelings of belonging become that much more urgent, which is why in Bloated, the character is really desperate for a baby to validate her existence, to make her feel as though she belongs somewhere in the world. I think the idea of belonging is connected with love. Lack of love can really amplify your feelings of un (belonging) in the world.
Gaamangwe: It is such complex thing because sometimes one can still feel like they don’t belong even if they have family and friends that love them.
Hanna: It’s difficult because all of us are trying to navigate our self-worth with our belonging. Belonging is also a bit like self-confidence and self-love in the sense that you can have it all, but still if you are not happy within yourself then there is nothing that can make you truly happy and at home. For me, there is comfort and surrendering. I no longer try to belong somewhere. I find great comfort in just existing in the world. And I belong where I am in the moment.
Gaamangwe: Exactly. If today I feel I belong here, that’s enough. It is difficult to always chase the idea that belonging is a fixed singular feeling, I think it changes. Belonging also varies in terms of scale and urgency. For others, it’s really belonging in terms of bigger systems like homes while for some, it could be about belonging to a group of friends or family. That is also always in flux, ever-changing and evolving. Our own ideas of home, belonging and even identity are always shifting because of the place and space we are in. So, the inner world is the only thing that can truly be the thing in control of that sense of belonging and home.
Hanna: That’s true. Living in another country definitely changes the idea of belonging. For me, I have lived in six different countries since I was a child and each country has been vastly different, and it has enabled me to adapt in a way that is much deeper than I would have thought. I navigate my sense of belonging by adjusting myself to the culture and ways of the people that I am around. So, when I talk to somebody who’s literally struggling in English, I literally change my accent and the way that I talk in a way that it becomes easy for them. If I am speaking to somebody who speaks Arabic and I am speaking to them in English, I try to use as many Arabic words as possible. So now I am good with accents and mimicking dialects, and that has always freaked people out in the way that I pronounce things or say things in the way that they do, even though I know nothing about that language or particular culture.
Gaamangwe: That’s great. On languages, how was the process of translating your short story collection from English to Somali?
Hanna: Well, that was actually done by another Somali who lives in the diaspora. It was a fun experience that somebody else who also grew up in the diaspora read my stories and translated them into Somali. She is fluent and knows classic Somali, and I believe she has brought angles into how the language has changed to the diaspora. So, it’s really something exciting.
Gaamangwe: That is exciting. How does one get the book?
Hanna: The short stories collection is currently published in Somali language in written and audio version. They are available at marketfiftyfour.com where you can buy the ebook or the audio version or both. The ebook and audio version are 3.50 US dollars. The reason why we are currently only offering it in Somali is because we are really pushing for the idea that African stories in African languages matter. The book might be published in English later but it’s important for us to push this movement of contemporary, brand new stories in African languages. The greater aim is to get other writers publishing in their own African languages so that eventually we can have the languages from the fifty four countries of Africa, which is why they are called Market FiftyFour. So, for me it’s a movement that’s bigger than myself. So, when you buy this stories it’s not necessarily about me, it’s about supporting a movement of encouraging African writings in African languages.
Gaamangwe: This is such an important movement. We should all be part of it. Hanna, this has been an education. Thank you for joining me in this space. All the best with the short stories collection and your writings.
Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and interviewer from Gaborone, Botswana. Her poetry has been published in Brittle Paper, Afridiaspora, African Writer, Kalahari Review, Poetry Potion and Expound Magazine. Her interviews have been published in The Review Review, Praxis Magazine Mosaic Magazine, Alephi Magazine and Peolwane. Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is the Founder and Managing Editor of Africa in Dialogue.