CategoryMohamed Nadifa

Granta Best Young British Novelists 2013: Nadifa Mohamed

Now we come to the first author in the Granta anthology whom I’ve previously reviewed on this blog – twice, in fact. A few years ago, I enjoyed both Nadifa Mohamed’s debut novel, Black Mamba Boy, and her short story ‘Summer in the City’. Now we have ‘Filsan’, a piece taken from Mohamed’s forthcoming second book. The title character is a young soldier sent from Hargeisa in northern Somalia on a mission to three border villages which are sheltering rebels. I think ‘Filsan’ works better as a series of snapshots than as a complete piece, but it has some strong moments. Especially powerful for me is the moment when, on being startled by a village elder, Filsan reflexively squeezes her gun’s trigger – and simply cannot process the fact that she has caused someone’s death. I’ll look forward to reading that new novel.

This is part of a series of posts on Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4Click here to read the rest.

Shortfire Press

Nadifa Mohamed, ‘Summer in the City’ (2010)
Laura Dockrill, ‘Topple’ (2010)
Elizabeth Jenner, ‘It Snows They Say on the Sea’ (2010)

It seems there is something of a trend at the moment for publishing individual short stories. To name two publishers doing so, I’ve already come across Nightjar Press and Spectral Press – and now Clare Hey has launched Shortfire Press, which is specialising in electronic-only editions of stories. Shortfire has launched with three titles, and it is a very strong selection.

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Nadifa Mohamed arrived on the literary scene last year with Black Mamba Boy; I liked that novel (albeit with a few reservations), and I like this story even more. The events of ‘Summer in the City’ take place in London over the course of a few hours, shortly before the birthday of Mohamed’s narrator, Hodan Ismail. Hodan has asked for a bike, and that’s what she’ll get – but not, as she discovers, the one she wanted. That scene, in the middle of the story, is nicely handled, as Hodan tries to reconcile her disappointment at seeing the rusty ‘old woman’s bike’ her father has bought from a neighbour with the feeling that she really ought to be grateful for a gift that her father would hardly be likely to have received as a child, and certainly wouldn’t have grumbled about if he had.

Apart from one or two points in the opening descriptive passage that don’t quite work, the rest of the story is similarly fine. I particularly like Mohamed’s knack for bringing characters to life in a couple of sentences. We meet some characters only in passing, maybe through only a snatched conversation, yet it’s still possible for us to create a vivid picture of them and imagine what their stories might be. The author also has a very good control of mood, as the tale shifts from a light-hearted tone to something more serious. I look forward to Mohamed’s next novel with even greater anticipation than previously.

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‘Topple’ is the first piece by Laura Dockrill that I’ve read, but it will not be the last. This story documents brilliantly the evolution of the relationship between the narrator and the object of her attention (which is sometimes affectionate, other times not). The tale begins at a swimming pool when both are aged eight, and the girl has the first stirrings of a feeling for which she may not yet even have the concepts (‘I hope I don’t miss you leaving, little red-eyes bellyflopper. Even though boys blatantly aren’t my thing’).

So the story moves forward through the years, never ringing a false note. Now the girl and boy are friends; now they aren’t. He has a girlfriend; it matters; it doesn’t. Growing up. Birthday parties (will he come? does she want him to?). Clubs (will he be there? will he be alone? does he even remember her?). Drinking. Jobs. On. Off. An air of uncertainty (around the relationship, yes, but the girl is also uncertain about herself, to an extent, as she grows up) remains throughout. ‘Topple’ is an incisive contemporary take on will-they/won’t-they – and you’ll have to read it for yourself to find out if they will.

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The third Shortfire launch story is by a new writer, Elizabeth Jenner. ’It Snows They Say on the Sea’ is a short but effective character study. A couple look back on a week when inclement weather and shift patterns kept them from seeing each other, despite their living under the same roof. They communicated largely through notes left while the other was sleeping. Now (the beginning says), they resolve not to let it happen again: ‘They will buy highlighter pens, make charts, tack planners to the fridge with plastic vegetable magnets.’ But that sounds to me more like a good intention than a serious plan; perhaps, then, the couple can laugh at that week from this distance.

One of them can, anyway. Jenner reveals a fracture in the relationship that has the potential to grow into a deeper division: the woman seems to have shaken off that week, but the man still dwells on it. In carefully detailed prose, we see the myriad little ways he was affected by her absence (or, at times, her proximity), and what the result has been. This story is a great start for Jenner, and – along with the other two pieces here – a superb start for Shortfire Press.

Nadifa Mohamed, Black Mamba Boy (2010)

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.

Further links
Video interview with Nadifa Mohamed
Article by Mohamed on writing Black Mamba Boy

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