Editor’s Note: Cristina ( Ubax) Ali Farah is a rising star among the emerging generation of Somali novelist. She is the author of several books including Madre Piccola (Little Mother). Christina’s novels and poetry have been published in numerous magazines such as Nuovi Argomenti, Quaderni del 900, Pagine, Sagarana, El Ghibli, Caffè, Crocevia, and in the anthologies Ai confini del verso: Poesia della migrazione in italiano (“Poetry of migration in Italy”). In 2006, Christina won the national literary competition, “Lingua Madre” (“Mother Tongue”), promoted by the Women Thoughts Studies Center. Abdelkarim Hassan conducted this interview for WardheerNews.com, Lidwien Kapteijns and Yasmeen Maxamuud also contributed to the interview.
WardheerNews (WDN): Cristina (Ubax) Farah, we are delighted to welcome you to WardheerNews.com. Before we delve into the bulk of the interview, could you please share with us a brief background history about yourself?
Cristina (Ubax) Ali Farah: Thank you. It’s the first time I’ve been interviewed by a Somali media organization and I too am really delighted. Often people ask me for whom I write and unfortunately not many Somalis read Italian as they did before, these days. Nevertheless, I always have Somalis in mind when I write. A cousin of mine with whom I’d grown up, reflecting on our condition, once used the metaphor of a string of beads, suggesting that we are like a broken string, with the beads scattered far and wide. Writing is an attempt to rethread the beads and put everything back together.
So going back to my background. I was born in Italy, my mother is from Verona and at that time, my father, along with many others from Somalia, had received a grant to study abroad. There was this community of Somali students who lived nearby the University. It was a period when the majority of Somalis who were studying abroad wanted to go back to Somalia on graduating and this is what my father did. My mother and I followed him one year later. I grew up in Mogadishu and I lived there until 1991 when the civil war also broke out there. Then I lived for a couple of years in Pécs (Hungary) before moving to Italy. At the beginning of the nineties, at the outbreak of war, numerous Somalis seeking refuge came to Italy; then, they gradually left for other destinations that might offer them a better reception and the chance to lead a decent life. A lot of these early arrivals had been shocked at what they encountered: they had studied in Italian, they had Italian friends, so in a way, it was a double whammy, a dual trauma – first the war and then the lack of a safe haven.
WDN: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer, and what was the most challenging part of writing your book(s)?
Cristina: When I set out as a writer, I had this feeling that wanting to write might be considered hugely presumptuous of me. Who are you and what do you have to talk about? Not just why do you have this ambition, but how can you be so important as to want to write?
Writing is a combination of boldness and arrogance. However, I realised that I had simply heard so many stories that I needed to put them down in writing and bring some order to them. Having worked hard on weaving together all these strands, which can be a painful process at times, tying everything together – it’s a beautiful transformation when everything slots into place.
I always tell a story about how I started writing (again). My son had only been born a few days when I left Mogadishu in January 1991. I had a safety pillow that was sent to me from Italy and I wrapped myself in a large black veil that my sister-in-law had sent me from Saudi Arabia. For a moment I thought I would never be back and so I took my last diary, one of the notebooks I had been writing in with so much dedication over countless years. Pillow, veil and diary: these three objects have for many years been symbols of that flight, of that break between life before and life after the conflict. They were the witness of a writing practice that was then interrupted for many years, seven I think, until the journey to Zeist, in the Utrecht region, where I went to visit my father and many other relatives. I can say that this trip was like my homecoming, to a moving home, my Guri. I thought: this is what I want to write about.
Diaspora is the terrain of my writing, and diaspora characters carry inside them this break, a gap between before and after, a frontier enclosing something very precious, a secret, a detail, a root…
WDN: Little Mother sheds light on the issues of exile and the plight of refugees coming out of Mogadishu as a result of the civil war, as evidenced by the characters Barni and Domenica-Axad. Can you share with us how you chose or developed these characters, how they relate to your own experience and to that of innumerable other Somalis? How did you approach the divisive nature of this topic among Somalis?
Cristina: I reckon that every novel is a quest, an attempt made to answer a question. Nuruddin Farah asks in his non-fictional book, Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora, “Still I must ask what becomes of a man or a woman if no moth taps at the window to the universe of his or her creativity?” (which is quoted at the beginning of the novel). In other words what happens when you get displaced and you lose all your references, your family, your friends, your city, all your given understanding of your surroundings?
I have reflected on it long and hard and I came up with the belief that the thing that really anchors you to a place is the relationships that you have. Wherever you are, if you manage to keep these bonds and feelings alive – if they’re thriving, you can be anywhere. It’s the relationships that define us. Basically, I feel at home when these bonds are solid and still in place.
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