Black Mamba Boy is based on the story of Nadifa Mohamed’s father, Jama, whom we first meet as a street child in Aden in 1935. When he falls out irrevocably with his friends, then loses his mother, Jama resolves to set out and find Guure, his own long-missing father, last heard of heading for Sudan – which is not nearly as far as Jama will travel over the course of the following twelve years.
Though it tells Jama’s story, this isn’t a straightforwardly biographical novel; from interviews, I gather that Mohamed embellished some parts, and that others were perhaps embellished already. Throughout, one is reminded that we make stories out of our lives: Mohamed’s introduction/prologue, where she describes the inspiration for her book, is novelistic in tone and style; the departure of Jama’s father becomes a tale to tell, as does the origin of his mother’s nickname for her son (a mamba slithered over her while she was pregnant with him, but left both unharmed – hence the nickname Goode, or ‘black mamba’); people displaced by the Second World War tell stories that transform their homelands into a distant paradise, whatever the reality was that they left behind.
Mohamed’s narrative itself has the feeling of being told rather than written, with its long, discursive paragraphs; and its structure, swooping in on certain events, then back out again to continue Jama’s journey. What’s striking is that, whatever happens to Jama, one never doubts his story within the pages of the novel. Mohamed’s voice has the ring of truth – the truth of the storyteller.
There are, however, moments when Black Mamba Boy stumbles; they tend to be when Mohamed is acting as the 21st-century person looking back on history, rather than as the novelist inhabiting the period. Compare, for example, her statement that ‘at his tender age [Jama]…could [not] imagine the kind of mechanised, faceless slaughter the Italians would bring to Africa’ (157) with the passage describing a battle a few pages later (165-8), which really evokes the sense of Jama’s (and others’) being caught up in events larger than any one person could ever hope to comprehend. There’s no question, to my mind, which is the better technique.
(Another issue with the novel is the odd typo, in particular Mohamed’s tendency to use a comma in place of a semi-colon; this happens often enough to be distracting, which is especially a problem when the flow of the story is so important.)
The wider historical context of Black Mamba Boy is one about which I know rather little, so I’m reluctant to judge how Mohamed represents history. But I will say that I have an abiding impression of Jama and others – individuals, peoples, nations – enduring circumstances almost too harrowing for words, and doing what they can to survive. Some make it through; others don’t. Jama survives, of course, and one might say that the trait of his that most shines through in the novel is his tenacity, his striving to grasp the opportunities that come along, however steep the obstacles. What a story he had to tell; what a story Nadifa Mohamed has told.