I first found Abdul’s name on African Writing, I think. I was then searching for writers to include in this project, writers who were, should I say, "within reach." Indeed, Abdul was. This conversation demonstrates, in an interesting way, how his creativity seems bared, in an open-ended way, so that it seems possible to discover the extent of his nuances.
Abdul convinces me in this conversation that Gambit will highlight the uniqueness of the vast talent Africa is offering to the literary world. Especially because of what I call a neo-literariness, the debunking of preconceived notions of exchanging literature – inherent in online opportunities, the hyphenated cultural outlook of most emerging writers, and the commitment to telling a individual story that might resonate with the rest of the world.
Abdul Adan was born in Somalia and grew up in Kenya, where he learnt English, Swahili, and Arabic. He has contributed fiction to Kwani?, African-writing, StoryTime, Jungle Jim, Arab World Books, and most recently SCARF. He lives in the U.S. and studies literature at Washington University in St. Louis.
EMMANUEL IDUMA: Do we say that there is a hyphen between the words “home” and “identity”? And that writers such as yourself walk within that hyphen trying to understand what is home, how home shifts, how home never remains the same, perhaps how no place is home? I ask this to understand how your “Somalification,” to use your word, might not have been interrupted by schooling and living elsewhere.
ABDUL ADAN: I have been struggling with this for a while, this intersection between “home” and “identity,” especially since I started to write. I have pondered many a night on how to introduce myself to readers. It isn’t that I didn’t or don’t have a home. It’s my identity that, as you speculated, has continued to shift and still does. I am from the Gedo region, a large piece of land that lies in western Somalia and extends into parts of north eastern Kenya. But the people who were on the Kenyan side weren’t as Somali by manners as those in Somalia. They were Kenyanized Somalis. So, in a way, my Somali-ness has always had interferences one way or another. I am used to these interferences. Sometimes when I think of how much non-Somaliness comes through me, I feel I could use some Somalification myself.
EI: I am drawn, infinitely, even obsessively, to making words “free” and “rhythmic.” Is this a necessity? For instance, I have read of postcolonial attempts to wrest the colonial language, divest it of all its imperial configurations. What do you seek to do with the English language?
AA: I intend to use the English language in the way that suits my craft best. If that means creating a word out of nowhere, so be it. But, at all times, I take clarity into account. The average intelligent reader must be able to understand the word without external reference. I do not think of the English language as belonging to the imperialists anymore; I think of it as mine, a tool among many tools for me. In twisting and corrupting it to suit my needs, I am in no way motivated by its history as a colonial language. I yearn to make it more of mine each day. It resists me without doubt. It’s a jealous language. It’s aware of the other languages that are desperately competing for my attention. My role is to coax it, strip it of its defenses, assure it, so I can use it better each time, with minimum effort.
EI: Yet, I should point out that, to use a certain analogy, you can shake the tree but the roots still remain planted. In this sense, you might wish to “corrupt” and twist the English language, but the words—the letters that are your tools—cannot be taken apart from their colonial history. For even if we dare to define the language as what it is for us, we cannot escape what it was, and how that past implicates itself in present usage. You get my drift?
AA: I understand what you mean. True, it came to us from elsewhere. But to me, its history means little when it comes to its usage in my art. The owners brought it to me. My role is to assimilate it into my work, and, like I said before, make it more of mine. I aim to use it with a degree of authority at some point. The more twisting that goes into it, the more my authority over it. Where I find myself is where I work from. The past has done its work, shaping me into who I am. I feel no need to prod the history of the English language in Africa, or how that affects the African usage of it presently.
EI: You know, when Khalid in your story “The Somalification of James Karangi” says that James ought to understand whether he was for and against his brother, I easily recall Scott Peterson’s book, Me Against My Brother, in which as an epigraph he lists a hierarchy of priorities ordered by a Somali proverb: “Me and my clan against the world; Me and my family against my clan; Me and my brother against my family; Me against my brother.” How can we think of the proverb without reading selfishness into it?
AA: I think you should go ahead and read selfishness into it, keeping in mind it isn’t any selfishness that’s specific to Somalis. One is protective of his space naturally, and protects more and more as he gets closer to himself, then finally himself most.
EI: While reading “The Somalification…” I recalled what Kwasi Wiredu calls a “malleability of mind,” which makes intercultural dialogue possible. Perhaps, like James, we are being inducted to a new way of seeing, that we can have malleable minds?
AA: I am flattered that you inferred from my story such grand concepts as “malleability of mind.” Yes, I believe we can have malleable minds, but I did not intend it in the story. In the case of James, I think he changed more in the way of being than in the way of seeing, so that any alteration to his “way of seeing” only resulted from his new way of being. I’d prefer to think that his inner self changed, so that everything could follow thereafter. His attitude, humor, and temperament were merely results of that altered core.
If in real life, for instance, I move to some distant place and assimilate into a new culture—as is probably happening to me now, albeit gradually—my way of seeing won’t necessarily change into that of my new culture. On the contrary, it would merge with what I had before, and form a new culture. Sometimes this mix of one thing and another doesn’t necessarily result in something better than either. So if James were to live his new Somali life, it would be likely that he would be far more enterprising than the original Somalis, and could display such an inclination for rage as would make them seem like a bunch of Gandhis.
EI: There’s the possibility that literature is concerned with the perpetual struggle to understand what it means to be human. For instance, Siyad in your story “A Bag of Oranges” says, “You will define that happiness.” Do you find yourself, like your characters, attempting to define those essential “intangibles” that make up our existence?
AA: Yes, but I try to break it up into its concrete parts as opposed to just defining. Though not so much in the way of the tortured Siyad. Perhaps, in attempting to understand elusive themes in life, I am more like Khalid. Self-questioning is (and has been) a daily exercise for me. Themes like “happiness” and “sorrow” aren’t exactly what concern me. My questions regularly involve matters that are essential to me, such as, “What do I really need to have in life to make it what I would consider successful?” Lately the answer to that has been to impress my father, have an income and a loving family, and enough days off to visit libraries and attend readings. I keep wondering if these pleasures would be as enjoyable as they are once I wrinkle up and slow down in my gait.
EI: Is there any reason why the Kenyan-Somali hybrid features in your stories?
AA: It’s simple really. I haven’t learned to write about the Somali-Somalis. And I fear that I might learn to write about Somali-Americans next. Perhaps it’s worth understanding that when I mention the word “Somali,” it’s not so much a nationality as it is an ethnicity. Especially now, given that Somalia is a broken nation, Somalis exist wherever they are as an ethnic group above all else. The name “Somali” as an ethnicity is way older than “Somalia.” The tribal identity is the better thing to identify with. It distances one from the failures of Somalia and merges one with all other Somalis: Djibouti, north eastern Kenya, southern Ethiopia, and the diaspora.
EI: Perhaps a glimpse into your childhood might help us understand the kind of writer you have become, the sensibilities that you have acquired. What was most exciting about growing up?
AA: The greatest excitement of my life, growing up and even as an adult, has always been my father. My childhood files are buried very deep in my head, but I can recall a few things. In primary school, I was that child who was very quiet in class and took minimal risks. I hated crowds and still do. When I walked home at the lunch hour, I looked down at the ground and lost myself in the arrangement of the stones, the sand particles, etc. Often I forgot about whichever boy I was walking with and wouldn’t notice when we separated. My teachers and classmates knew me as the “absentminded boy.” If my father noticed the same, he didn’t mention it. Many a time, resting under a shade in our compound, he’d send me to get him a pillow from the bedroom and I would return with a thermos, a flashlight, or a radio. Sometimes it would be the radio he sent me for, and I would be back with a pillow.
A more unfavorable episode resulting from this “absentmindedness” was when a teacher sent me to his office to grab him some chalk. I had gone to the office, stood at the door, not knowing how I got there, and reluctantly had gone back to ask him again. He grabbed me by my pants and gave me a thrashing. “Where was your mind, boy?” This involuntary, mental detachment from my immediate surroundings has stuck with me ever since, and in that, I was lonely going into young adulthood.
My father’s stories were what excited me most as a child. We took trips, too. My father owned about 200 camels and in the rainy season, we loaded everything onto a Land Rover and left for the encampments. On the way, my father would be pointing out every hill and tree by its name, explaining each, its significance to the people and to history.
Often his stories would feature the Shifta War between Somali separatists and the Kenyan government in the early 1960s. On most evenings, I would be seated by his side on the mat, and ask questions about his childhood. Sometimes, our conversations veered off into ancient Arabic poetry and our clan’s history. It was as though he was attempting to keep it alive and by instinct, knowing one doesn’t live forever, I was amassing as much information as possible, to the point of memorizing every poem he recited to me, even in passing. Of course, he did not know I would eventually try to make myself into a storyteller in a different, broader tradition. He was talking for the pleasure of it.
EI: And what kind of writer have you become?
AA: I do not know if I have got to the point where I can accurately refer to myself as “a writer.” In my writing so far, I see a confusion I haven’t intended upon myself. I guess I am the artist who creates out of inner impulses, and who, hopefully, is devoid of ideology.
EI: While reading your story “The Deaths of Old Graham,” I was thinking of how a transcendent reality seems even more evident than we dare to admit. Indeed, Old Graham's story is not entirely new; my Mum tells me of a similar experience with my paternal grandfather, who “died” more than once. Why does the metaphysical fascinate you?
AA: I like the freedom found in metaphysical narratives. In this sort of a story, I could put characters in improbable situations and aim for diverse effects. It can hardly fail in getting the effect through, precisely because I could do what I want with it. Before writing it, metaphysical realities did not come to my mind. All I wanted was to create an unusual situation and take it to an unthinkable resolution.
EI: Old Graham's story equally justifies what has been said about a short story: that it is a glimpse of a slice of life. Do you agree with this? That stories do not “end”? That the last word only triggers a chain of reactions in the reader's mind?
AA: Yes, I agree. Stories do not necessarily end, but they need resolutions. In some stories, many of the events happen in the so-called “negative space,” the unwritten part. In others, the main conflict is brought to a conclusion, but naturally, the characters—as beings with names—do not have to end there. Rather it’s the situation that ended. I believe with Old Graham I achieved what I wanted. If it does raise a question in the reader’s mind, then fine. That was also intended. Some readers like to conclude it by themselves, though. The narrative was controlled by the idea of a man being led by the hand to some place people are usually carried to. Everything else was meant to make that possible. And after Old Graham’s event, whichever way it ends, his son is still alive.
EI: I have recently been playing with the thought that stories can be written without the need for resolutions. To keep the “situation” as though it keeps happening—maybe this way you can keep the reader thinking about the story as one that unfolds in endless layers. Ah, permit me, I hope this is not tangential.
AA: I think Nabokov ended some of his stories like that. Still, upon careful reading, one finds he has provided enough clues for the reader to end the story. Basically, the story’s main conflict has to either conclude, leaving a few open ends for the sub-conflicts, and if not concluded, then at least enough hints have to be found throughout the story for a reader to end it, whichever way. In some Chekhov stories you would see a single sentence at the end that hints at a continuation of the events already depicted. I saw this simply as an attempt on the writer’s part to bring things as close to life as possible.
EI: In writing fiction, do you consider the possibility of multi-layered perspectives? For instance, in the first paragraph of “We Can See You” we get the perspective of Mahmud Yare as well as jobless youths and shoe shiners.
AA: I always do. Thanks for noticing. I feel, however, that this comes out more in some stories than others. With “We Can See You” I wasn’t fully conscious of doing that. But in others, as in “The Somalification of James Karangi,” I was aware of what I was doing. It was the only way I knew how to write, especially at the time that I wrote those two stories. I am evolving every day and quite young in my craft. I have yet to try most of what I am thinking about. I am generally happier when I succeed in getting vague perspectives through, as opposed to such laid-bare scenes as the first parts of “We Can See You.”
EI: For Mahmud Yare, I figure it isn't home that changed or makes him late for prayers when he returns. It is a condition similar to what is experienced by Ibou, in Melissa Myambo's “La Salle de Départ.” As such, I come away with the conclusion that what we call “home” is an assemblage of our collective viewpoints. Does this resonate with you?
AA: Not at all. I see “home” in very simple terms. Home is where one makes a living and lives. For Mahmud, his home hasn’t been changed by his movement, but again, that’s his personality. He is the inflexible type.
EI: In considering the nuance of religion, do you assume it is a “character” embodied with all the fluidity of a person? Or do you consider it a motif that is inevitable, which must be written about?
AA: It’s a bit of both really. It has enough life to be a character of its own, and a very mysterious and profound one at that. I am experimenting with different voices now, looking for my particular flair. So you might find a few more of my stories in which religion plays one role or another. But I hope I can minimize this over time. I think in “dialoguing” religion you are alluding to a scene in “We Can See You,” in which external worries interfere with Mahmud Yare’s concentration in prayer. I was seeking a particular effect in that instance, an effect easily recognizable to Muslim readers. But generally, I have little interest in capturing religion in art, unless it infringes on the character’s emotions in some way. Although, since religion abounds in irony—something really attractive to me—I might explore it in writing. But I am not very sure. I am still thinking about it.
EI: What is the most important thing that has happened to you as a writer?
AA: It was an e-mail I received from African Writing, informing me that they accepted my story. My first acceptance, yes. I can’t forget it.
EI: Is there any success you are afraid of?
AA: I am afraid of being acclaimed and failing to keep up the reputation.
EI: Do you feel obliged to anyone as a writer? For when we contemplate “reputation,” I’m worried that too much attention is accorded others.
AA: I feel most obliged to myself, but I think this changes when one accumulates readership. Written work is for reading. I do not wish to write some interesting stuff and then follow through with boring stuff. Often I can tell when I am writing something boring. I am the first it bores.
EI: Most of your stories have been published on the continent. Does this say anything about the growing need to, as they say, “tell our own stories”? And perhaps it speaks of an equally essential need to take a swipe at illiteracy and ineffective educational systems.
AA: Possibly, but more from the publisher’s viewpoint I would imagine. I am not sure what “our own” stories are. I avoid thinking in such collective terms. I just want to communicate my artistic whims to whoever will pay attention.
I am afraid the “illiteracy” you speak of eludes me. I grew up among people who can read but hardly do. I would say there is a greater need to get people more interested in reading, as opposed eliminating illiteracy. My hope is that “our people” would understand better the need for written stories, insofar as it attempts to give some order to the otherwise disorderly web of their lives. I am not referring to the order of resting under a shade and reading a book. I am talking about the order that art forms like fiction give to life.
EI: What other matters preoccupy your thoughts, aside from an unfinished story?
AA: Finances, family, and education. I really want to be done with this degree as soon as possible. I want to settle down as a family man real soon.
EI: Are there writers whose writing stimulates your work?
AA: There are writers who taught me much through their work. Among them are Bessie Head, Chinua Achebe, Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, and H. H. Munro. I have learned different things from each of these writers. I am trying to fight off an overwhelming influence of V. S. Naipaul, who wrote the best novel I have ever read: A House for Mr. Biswas. I am a very slow reader. Big books intimidate me. Even longer short stories do. I don’t mind though. In a way, I would like to minimize external influences, except ones that comes without my noticing.
EI: What does being outside Somalia mean to you? Does it, as someone suggested of all immigrant writers, make you feel more given that you're living in an “advanced society”? Or does such transplanting suggest that you're constantly a hybrid person, navigating between the part of you that is Somalian and another that is being educated in America?
AA: It’s the latter. I navigate between the two. When the mood calls for it, I am a raging, Somali nationalist. At other times, I argue from a Kenyan viewpoint. And at others, I speak like the Republican Congressman of my district here in the state of Missouri. Each time, my arguments are clear and substantiated. Being away from my land of origin has given me multiple personalities. This isn’t so bad for my craft.
Read More of Abdul's work:
The Death of Old Graham in Jungle Jim - African Pulp (SA), Issue 12, May 2012
Follow Emmanuel on Twitter @emmaiduma
Abdul Adan, Africa, Gambit, Somalia