Nadifa Mohamed gave a masterclass at UEA on ‘Writing Violence: Literature as Reportage/Recovery’ and she began by sharing with the group how she came to write her debut novel Black Mamba Boy, for which she won the 2010 Betty Trask Award. The novel is a fictionalised account of her father’s experiences as a child and young man in Africa in the 1930s and 40s. These experiences were often shaped by violence and the writing became for her a process of discovery and recovery; finding out about her father’s personal history but also learning about colonial history and the politics of that era. Nadifa spoke about the need, as a writer, to bear witness to other people’s lives, without sanitising or holding back; but she also described how difficult and painful this becomes, when the violence affects someone you love.
Nadifa feels impelled to record this era, as there are so few written histories; Somali is an oral culture and that history was and is still being lost, due to death or emigration. She scrupulously researches her work, examining archives and interviewing people, describing them as ‘containers of very valuable history.’ She also talked about the need to ‘know your distance’ as a writer; whose lives do you feel able to capture on the page without moving too far beyond your own experiences? I was particularly struck by the idea that her novels are in some ways a hybrid form that is part fiction and part history. She wants to capture stories that would otherwise disappear; stories that relay the personal as well as the historical/political, and indeed the novel is the literary form that allows this. I believe that Nadifa’s fiction is able to communicate far more effectively than any history book could – because her novels make us feel this world.
Her fiction and non-fiction have often entailed ‘writing violence,’ and more recently she has come to recognise the importance of self-care; a writer needs to set up filters and protect themselves from being damaged by the content of their work. Nadifa talked about how some readers have taken issue with the detailed way in which she records acts of extreme brutality, and I found her response to this compelling: it is vital and necessary to document and fully describe the violence, as these acts are representative of crimes inflicted on people who have had no voice and no justice.
After the masterclass I asked a few people about what aspects of Nadifa Mohamed’s thinking had struck a chord with them. They sent me the following, to share as part of this blog:
‘I was particularly glad that she spoke about why we should be able to tell a story in different ways, staying true to a region’s culture, ethos, or/and storytelling techniques. She underscored the importance of diversity even in how we choose to tell our stories, and acknowledged that it may not be the same across the world. I find that this very acknowledgement is often lacking in creative writing programmes.’
‘The way she spoke about the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised, or how those who have no power try to exercise control over certain aspects of their lives, sometimes resulting in brutality and violence.’
‘Hearing Nadifa talk about her inspirations and her journey as a writer to date was humbling and insightful. Her first two novels are closely linked to her family and important moments in their timeline, but she also went into detail about how she addressed the gaps in that history when creating these pieces of literary fiction.
It was exciting to hear her talk about the obstacles she has to overcome when expressing the violence in her novels. She clearly spends a lot of thought on this and the violence is imperative to her stories. However, her use of variation, of hot and cold, humour and horror, reveals the depth of this consideration. The result is a deft handling of a very tricky dramatic trope.
My own heritage is Anglo-Iranian with which comes an inherent hunger for alternative PoVs on history. It is wonderful to hear from a successful, black, female author. Nadifa reminded us that the Somali storytelling tradition is aural, and that globalisation is breaking up this lineage. This makes it all the more important that we have authors like Nadifa who not only tell us a story from a different global perspective, but also someone that MUST tell these stories. Otherwise, they may be lost forever.’
‘I particularly enjoyed the discussion on the ethics of writing violence. We are bombarded by images of black death/trauma in the news media, even through the well-intentioned activism, to the point that it can feel like a spectacle, like being re-traumatised all over again. I found Mohamed’s thoughts on violence as a human expression – a manifestation of the impact of power and the withholding of power, erasure and visibility, what people are capable of and what stops them from acting out the worst parts of their nature – really useful. Through our lens as writers, we can navigate the responsibility of presenting violence on the page by being honest and true to the authentic expressions of our characters and not flinch from the hard parts, the ugly parts. Really the question of how to write violence and the ethics of violence in the work should be treated with the same authenticity as we would attempt when presenting any aspect of a character on the page. On the flip side of that, we also have a responsibility – not only politically but aesthetically? artistically? – to inject air into our own lives as well as narratives. Where there is pain and trauma there must be joy as well.’
This was Nadifa Mohamed’s first visit to UEA and Norfolk and I hope she will return. She was so generous in the way she shared her ideas and answered people’s questions. It was a memorable two hours.