Exploring cultural belonging for Somali diaspora through writing and fashion

Discussing Diaspora Stories With: Author, Hanna Ali

Hanna Ali is a London-based author, festival director and teaching fellow and PHD candidate at SOAS, University of London. We sat down to discuss her new book, The Story of Us, and gain Hanna's insights into the themes of Somali diaspora belonging explored in it.

The Story of Us opens with this line delivered from mother to daughter: “As long as you’re in this house you’re still in Soomaliya”. I’m interested in the framing of your character’s world as a juxtaposition between the family home as an extension of Somali territory and everything on the other side of her front door as “England”. Tell me a little more about this concept of a country within a country?

The Story of Us is the one closest to my own experience growing up. I grew up in a household where the concept of Somalia was conjured up, it was meant to put fear in me, to say: you are different, no matter how much you integrate or speak the language fluently whether that’s Swedish or English, you are always going to be Somali. And that’s something that can comfort you, because it’s your constant, especially when you’re a refugee travelling from country to country. But it’s also something that makes you feel like you’re always gona be different.

I grew up in a household where the concept of Somalia was conjured up, it was meant to put fear in me…

I was always aware that my house smelled different from my friends’ homes, the food and entire vibe was different, and inside the home we had the tacky furniture which was so un-Swedish and un-British, reminding you that actually within these four walls, you are somewhere else, and that’s something I wanted to capture in the book.

Would you say there is a hard border between these places for your characters or are the boundaries fluid? With three generations of Somali women living in the household, is the answer to this different depending on which character’s perspective we consider?

The three characters represent different levels of how successful you are with integrating. The grandmother is somebody who, despite having lived in Sweden and the UK, never integrated in society and never learned how to speak either of those languages. She is very much in this Somali region that the household represents in the sense that she doesn’t know how to communicate with people outside of the home.

The mother represents an attempt. She’ll go and try her best, learn Swedish and then English in a broken way. She’ll do just enough to get through the day and then come back home and think this is my comfort zone, this is where I wear the baati (informal dirac), this is my music, my food, my safety.

…the daughter represents that new generation that…can leave the culture and never come back…

And then the daughter represents that new generation that, if they want to, can really leave the culture and never come back. That fear her grandmother has of her leaving for university is also the fear that she can actually leave this culture fully, shed herself from it and not look back, if she wants to. She has the ability to integrate in a way that the mother and the grandmother could not.

If the mother in “The Story of Us” has declared her household to be Somalia, her style of rule is framed as an authoritarian one – a “fearful, corrupt government in a shiny multicoloured diraac”. Tell me what you meant by “corrupt” in this context?

Corrupt in that context is a bit multi-layered. It’s playing on the idea that the Somali government has faced a lot of corruption as a result of the civil war and that anybody who is in charge is corrupt, anybody you look up to who is meant to teach and guide you is ultimately corrupt.

Do you think the independent/secluded nature of Somali diaspora households, by virtue of their distance from Somalia, means that there is always an authoritarian style of rule, whether this is exercised benevolently or otherwise?

In short, yes. I want to know your thoughts on this, what do you think?

Reading your book made me think of it in a way I hadn’t before. I reflected on the fact that my house was definitely an authoritarian style of rule. It pays homage to something and is inextricably connected to a place that it is not in but is trying to maintain. And I know it’s different for different households but, broadly speaking in the UK, I see a common experience between many of us, which is a not-so-benevolent authoritarian style in the family home.

I think much of the style of ruling is connected with fear. This fear that your child, especially your daughter who carries your honour, is going to be lost, shame herself, and you have to maintain her, as a way of maintaining the household, the country, the identity of this family – that is so wrapped up in girls, mostly.

…being a “good” girl is connected with being Somali…you’re either going to be [one] or one of those stories you hear your mum discussing over the phone…

I felt like that growing up, the idea of being a “good” girl is connected with being Somali. There’s no space in between, you can’t dip in and out of it, you’re either going to be a good Somali girl or you’re going to be one of those stories that you hear your mum discussing over the phone.

From a young age, I’ve always thought the good girl bad girl thing was a really crude, binary simplification of a woman’s character. And I couldn’t wrap my head around it because people are so much more complex than that.

Yeah, and if somebody keeps telling you to be good girl, you get so obsessed with the idea and living up to it that you’re likely to rebel. That’s one of the things I was interested in for the story “Bloated”, where she’s grappling with the idea that she keeps having constant sexual relationships with various men in search of stability and love. And she wants a child because that’s supposed to fix everything. She sees herself as a bad girl who has turned in to a bad woman. It’s a theme that I’m attracted to in my writing.

I find that a “bad” girl is broadly somebody that is used as a cautionary tale for other girls. You are warned off being like her…

And you’re almost punished for it, even though you didn’t do it, as if she’s your big sister. The attitude is to make extra make sure you don’t head down that road and that “bad” girl becomes like poison, something you’re not meant to deal/interact with.

I use my writing to unpack identity…like: to what extent am I Swedish…British? What does that really mean?

It’s that idea of contagion and one of the challenges I’ve found within the Somali community is there’s no sense of proportion about it. There’s a sense that everyone is connected to you by virtue of being Somali and therefore accountable to you, even if you don’t know them, and especially for women where the sense of ownership is strong. There’s a bit of paranoia about the power of one individual’s bad behaviour being widely contagious.

It’s a power that you give to strangers. Because we are not back home, we are not surrounded by two hundred of our nearest cousins and kin. Instead, we have strangers who happen to be Somali like us or are distant relatives. But we give these strangers the authority of acting like family, so if I get married or have a funeral you’re all gona show up but if there’s a shameful moment you’re all gona show up for that too.

Thinking about Somali diaspora households as a collection of small, self-declared imitations of Somalia, what do you think the implications/challenges are in terms of identity-building and belonging for that second generation growing up in Britain?

It’s a difficult one to answer. I remember going to a panel in January where one of the underlying questions that came out of it was: is there an identity crisis with young Somalis in the UK?

The people in the room who were over forty did not feel that way but the younger people said they did. Some were saying I feel more British than Somali, other didn’t feel British at all. There were so many different voices and that in itself makes it very hard to define how people view themselves in the diaspora and their own sense of identity.

I use my writing to unpack that sense of identity. My personal story represents the Somalis who came to another European country first before eventually coming to England, which is slightly different to those who came straight to Britain or were born here. I felt that sense of starting over twice and each time I dealt with questions like: to what extent am I Swedish/is that part of me? And then here: am I ever going to be British? What does that really mean?

Writing has helped me to look at this question of identity: why do Somalis in the diaspora, and people in general who are affected by forced migration (directly or indirectly through their parents), feel this unsettlement within them, this feeling of I don’t quite belong.

And I find that most interesting when it comes from people who were born here and may never have gone back to the homeland and yet still feel like they don’t belong.

I was born and raised here in the East End and still felt quite a lot of conflicting things about identity growing up. Yes, London is the only home I’ve ever known but that home includes this incredibly Somali household where I’m constantly reminded that I’m Somali before anything else.

That’s what makes the difference. If we were all raised in homes where we were told ‘you are British and this is our identity’ that would be very interesting. And it may happen in the generations to come as each new one gets further and further removed.

…Losing my grandmother felt like losing a huge part of my Somali identity and I know, one day, I’m going to lose my mum and I feel this pressure…

Losing my grandmother felt like losing a huge part of my Somali identity and I know that, one day, I’m going to lose my mum and I feel this pressure. When she’s gone, there’s me, but I came here as a child so what can I pass on to my children?

The angst of knowing your parents are not always going to be there, and that now the heritage has to come from you, but you’re kind of British (or wherever you’re from) is real.

It’s a level of angst about identity that is fairly common in diaspora communities. I’m not saying there aren’t heritage conversations happening in Somalia but it’s next level here. In my writing, I talk about this elusive sense of pure Somalinimo that you’re constantly chasing after even though you may never have been that in the first place. I ask: how healthy is it to chase after something that isn’t necessarily a reflection of your reality? This is the conversation that I’m trying to stimulate because I think the current approach is quite unhealthy. You have a lot of people feeling alone when actually there’s a big community of young people who feel exactly the same way and who are trying to work out where they fit.

I think Somaliness is an exclusive little club that can be very, very intimidating. Language is the tip of that pyramid, if you don’t speak the language to the level that you should, that immediately makes you feel like you’re on the outside.

All you can say is I am who I believe myself to be based on my lived experiences…You can’t chase a perfect Somalinimo

All that you can really do is say, I am who I believe myself to be, based on my lived experience. If you know yourself to be Somali and that’s how you see yourself/self-identify, that’s all you can do. You can’t chase a perfect Somalinimo.

Even our parents, who we see as perfect Somalis, have almost grown up in Europe and spent well over twenty years of their lives, formative parts of their adult lives, here. When they go back to Somalia they may find they themselves don’t live up to this pure sense of Somaliness either.

I want to talk a bit about ethnicity and nationality, themes that run through your stories. At times, the experiences of your characters contrast in a way that refuses to draw simplistic conclusions about race and black experiences in Britain. While one character seeks to play down her blackess in order to fit to Britain another character’s move to Britain from Sweden is partly motivated by the notion that British identity is less white and perhaps better suited to ethnic minorities looking to fit in. What is it about Britain that makes it such a special case?

I think as someone who moved here at fifteen that’s something I became quickly aware of, the difference between British and English and how the term English is limited to white people. You can openly call yourself British, it is an inclusive term. I don’t know if it’s seeped in colonial guilt and this idea that we’re all connected to the British empire so the term British can be afforded to people of colour or people of different ethnic backgrounds who have come here as a result of colonialism.

Whereas growing up in Sweden I was always aware of the fact that being Swedish means being ethnically Swedish and you sort of say ‘I am a Swedish citizen’ or ‘I have a Swedish passport’ but you are very careful to not say the words ‘I am Swedish’ because that is akin to saying I am English. I felt more comfortable saying I am British than Swedish.

Do I really want to talk about sex, abortion, miscarriage…in the Somali language?

Changing gear a little, your book has been published in both English and Somali. What motivated you to do this?

The truth is I had never thought about publishing in Somali until I was approached by Market54 who gave me a publishing deal based on producing a Somali version first because publishing in African languages is their whole ethos.

My ego said no, initially, because I played into this idea that my language means less than English. I thought: who is going to read it in Somali? Am I going to sell any copies? How is it going to be judged in Somali when all the methods of judgment are always in English?

But when I really thought about it, I thought this is an amazing opportunity that I probably couldn’t have facilitated for myself.

The other thing that freaked me out was, do I want these difficult topics to be in Somali? Do I really want to talk about sex, abortion, miscarriage, wanting to harm your child and difficult descriptions of violence in Somali language? I hesitated on many levels but in the end I thought I’ve got to stick by my work.

With all these concerns in your mind, what was it that shifted your decision?

Talking to someone that is very close to me. I put the good and bad in front of them and they said something like “I did not know that you were someone who is afraid. I thought you were braver than that”. And that triggered me because, I am brave, I’ve been brave my whole life, so why am I afraid? I believe in my words. I stand by what I write, this is my art.

people assume it is my personal story because I write in first person…just because I mention the word Somali and refugee… doesn’t mean it is my life story

Tell me, what has influenced your writing style?

I come from poetry background so all I know is how to write in first person. That’s just my style of communicating feelings so my short stories in this book are mostly written in first person, apart from “Sharmarke”. People make a lot of assumptions that it is my personal story because I’m using first person.

A part of you thinks I must be a really good writer because you’re totally convinced but the other part of me is thinking, you are not affording me the luxury of imagination, to create and be creative. Just because I mention the word Somali and refugee and I’m writing in first person, doesn’t mean it is my life story.

Many of the short stories in this book present characters struggling with the memories and associated traumas of being a refugee. One character’s relationship with writing is described as an almost therapeutic way of confronting the trauma she experienced as a childhood refugee. Do you feel optimistic about writing and literature as a way to allow Somalis who have experienced the civil war to process these memories/experiences in a healthier way?

Absolutely. Writing and creative work is a critical way for people to deal with not only what they’ve experienced first-hand but also the effects of what their parents have experienced.

There’s a lot of social media criticism of Somali poets who write about the war even though they were were born here. The critics say it’s not their experience but actually my mum’s story is my story and whatever my parents have been through has affected me, their post-traumatic stress and issues have affected the generation that was born here.

I think it is critical to use art as an outlet

I think that’s why so many Somalis in London are poets and pursue creative writing because there’s a lot to work through there. Parents, especially our Somali community, don’t tell us a lot, they keep secrets. Sometimes it’s to protect us, sometimes they just don’t want to talk about the war and bad things. But their frustration, anger, disappointment and trauma comes out in different ways, sometimes in the way they raise you, the harshness and strictness – all that is a combination of what they’ve gone through.

It’s not only important to use art as an outlet, I think it is critical. If only there were programmes in school and workshops where they work through their sense of identity in a creative format, then a lot of people would find a calling in what comes out of their life story.

And finally, what are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a new story which picks up where my short story “Bloated” leaves off. Hoping to add more short stories to the collection and make it something bigger that incorporates my poetry as well. My next project will be more free verse in terms of my poems, short stories and flash fictions.

Hanna Ali’s collection of short stories “The Story of Us” can be purchased here: https://marketfiftyfour.com/products/the-story-of-us-print-edition

Find Hanna at @hannali on Twitter and @hannaaliak on Instagram.