Rrecently shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2021, Nadifa Mohamed’s third novel, Men of Fortune, is a fictionalized account of the story of Somali sailor Mahmood Mattan, who was wrongly convicted of murder in Cardiff in 1952. Born in Hargeisa in 1981, Mohamed is the first Anglo-Somali author to appear on Booker’s shortlist. His two previous novels, Black mamba boy (2010) and The orchard of lost souls (2013), won the Betty Trask and Somerset Maugham Awards.
What were you doing when you found out 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 told me great news! We did a quick dance and then it was back to mom’s needs.
Men of fortune was your first novel to be set in Britain, where you have lived most of your life. Was this a different process from recreating 1930s Yemen or Somalia on the brink of civil war?
Sure. Putting a novel in this country made everything more intimate. I think Somalis are very private about their privacy, so as a writer it makes you a little uncomfortable to dive deep. Here, I felt an ability to wrestle with my characters in a more aggressive way than I had allowed myself in the past.
There is a joy in your description of the inner world of Mahmood which, to me, was not an obvious path, given that the story is a tragedy.
Am I out to do this? Not consciously. But, because of his similarity to my father, Mahmood is so familiar to me. They were born in the same city. They came to this country at the same age, as merchant seamen. When I went to research the novel and went back to those old seafaring communities in London and Cardiff, it was like being back in hot water. They are all bundled up now in anoraks, with canes, but the same souls, the same spirits are there. You can see these young men who were thrown into post-war Britain and found the humor here, the love here, the terror here. They were a special kind of person. They were rebels. Otherwise they would have stayed at home, they would have stayed with their cattle or with their families in stores like Mahmood’s family in Hargeisa. But they were taking risks and my dad was one of them. And they’re easy to like. It is about this desire to travel. It is about this curiosity. It’s about feeling like you want to live on your own terms. For me, it’s also my own inner life. I’m trying to write my own story.
Tell me more about your story.
I was born in Hargeisa and then moved to London when I was four because my father could see Somalia sinking deeper. At the time, it was a dictatorship, but a few years after we left, civil war broke out and our hometown was razed by South African mercenaries as well as local Somali troops. We left just before the war, so you are 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, disappeared from view. He ceased to exist. For a long time, child, you make it exist in your mind. You force it to exist. I always had a feeling we would come back. But then Somalia appeared in the newspapers and on TV coverage because of the terror and the famine and then you realize, wow, you can’t go back. I guess your imagination still lives there. Men of fortune It is the first time that I have left Somalia with imagination.
What were your main literary influences?
Toni Morrison is the obvious one. I think Arundhati Roy and the way she writes about power and helplessness and the way she lives her life is a strong influence. I love Pushkin. I love metaphysical poetry – John Donne, Sam Selvon. A huge influence on me is Claude McKay, who wrote in the 1920s and 1930s and was a communist and radical bohemian. His first novel, Home in Harlem , was written after Trotsky encouraged him to write about the socio-political conditions of African Americans, but instead of that dry call to arms, he wrote this fantastic, bawdy, and funny modernist book that captured a slice of the Harlem life. I think other people were afraid to put it down on paper.
What are you writing now?
I’m stuck on Britain. It’s something contemporary, something very different from Men of Fortune – on the Somali women, young women and families who fled the war but did not flee it inside. Britain today is intense. Something strange is going on [and] whatever the postcolonial psychosis is, it is so crazy and so extreme. Being black, Muslim, being someone who until recently thought I understood this country, I am desperate to understand what is going on. When you have a child of immigrants like our Minister of the Interior who eagerly calls for the return of migrants to the Channel, that must give you pause. There is an end to the conversation and people’s demand for violence that is really unsettling and I think the same way my dad could see where Somalia was going, I’m pretty worried [about] where is Britain going. And maybe it’s because I come from a country that has collapsed.
Does the new book have a title?
In fact, it is.
Keep on going. We will announce the news …
It’s called Broken heart syndrome.
Tell me about broken heart syndrome.
I think we all live it, we all suffer it, especially immigrants, especially refugees; it is a physical and medical condition. It is when a shock occurs and causes immense stress on the heart which can resemble a heart attack. The protagonist of the novel is a pediatrician, but she and her mother suffer from various types of broken heart syndrome and I think we all have it and maybe that’s how I feel about Britain as well, that feeling to be heartbroken about where it’s going …
What are you reading?
Breakfast at Bronzefield by Sophie Campbell (but it’s a pseudonym). This is Bronzefield Women’s Prison, where there was a recent case of a young woman giving birth unsupervised and her child dying.
What’s the best debut album you’ve read in recent months?
When we were birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo. It’s set in Trinidad, but a fictional version of Trinidad and that’s the writing that I like, not really what it is. This is how it is written. With some sort of magic.