By Rasna Warah
At a recent literary panel discussion held in Nairobi, Asad Hussein, a Somali refugee, who also happens to be a blogger and writer, asked me and the BBC correspondent Andrew Harding whether we felt we were qualified to write books about Somalia given that neither of us is Somali. (Harding was in Nairobi to launch his book The Mayor of Mogadishu and I was invited to talk about my book War Crimes.) It is a question that most non-African, particularly Western, writers are confronted with when they write books about Africa. Perhaps it is because Africa is so misrepresented in the Western media that Africans have become wary of those who claim to know the continent and its people.
Or maybe it is because Africans fear that their narratives are being appropriated by foreigners who have a tendency to reduce the complexity of African society to easy-to-digest stereotypes and simplified compartments. Like the 17-year-old American student who when asked by a New York Times journalist why she wanted to go to Africa, replied, “There are a lot of problems [in Africa] but you can group them together. I can organise Africa in my head, in terms of poverty, droughts, even governments.”)
The irony is that I wrote War Crimes because I felt that both the international and the Kenyan media were not doing justice to Somalia, which only features in the news if the story is about terrorism, piracy or famine. Yet, here I was, a Kenyan of Indian descent, being cast in the same mould as the Western journalist/writer.
It was an exiled Somali novelist who first suggested to me that that as a non-Somali I had no “right” to write about his homeland because I could not claim to know what it is like being a Somali, a suggestion I found strange coming from a writer of fiction, given that novels are largely a work of the imagination – they force novelists to inhabit worlds that are different from their own. If we were only permitted to write about people who are very much like us, or who come from our own village/city/country, then no male writer could write about or create a female character because he would never in a million years know what it is like being a woman or a girl.
Aminatta Forna, who has been described as a Sierra Leonean writer, even though she is half-Scottish and was born in Scotland, says that when she asked her Facebook friends where the orthodox idea that writers must only set stories within their own country of origin or nationality came from, she received 130 responses, mostly from writers and academics. Some wondered why the renowned American author Ernest Hemingway could write about Cuba but a Ugandan writer who has the audacity to write a book about rural America would be described as “inauthentic”.
“Writers do not write about places, they write about people who happen to live in those places,” argued Forna in an article published in the UK’s Guardian newspaper. “This is something that the labellers and their labels don’t understand either. [Chinua] Achebe did not ‘write about Africa’, he wrote about people who happen to live in Igboland. Likewise, I do not ‘write about’ Sierra Leone or Croatia; those places are settings for my characters.”
This is not to say that I am not aware of an imbalance described as “white privilege” that determines who can say what about where and how. White privilege allows white writers from Europe or North America to become experts on the rest of the world, but non-white, especially African, people are confined to being experts only of their countries of origin or of their ethnic groups – and even then, they are often dismissed as amateurs or not scholarly enough.
Some Africans are not even allowed to be experts on their own societies. This is the reason why Somali voices have been rendered largely invisible in much of the academic scholarship and literature on Somalia; it casts Somali scholars as not good enough to be taken seriously – even on subjects to do with their own country. (As one of many examples, a new anthology titled Globalizing Somalia published in 2013 has not even one Somali contributor; all except one of the authors is either American or European.)
It is important to recognise that Western academics and writers have access to more financial resources and influence than Somali academics and writers, and so their work has more chances of being published, which could explain the dearth of Somali contributors in scholarly journals. However, when a journal called Somaliland Journal of African Studies came out recently, many Somali academics wondered why none of the researchers on the journal’s editorial and advisory boards were ethnic Somalis. Markus Hoehne, a member of the journal’s advisory board, explained the absence of Somalis by arguing that he “did NOT come accross [sic] many younger Somalis who would qualify as serious SCHOLARS – not because they lack access to resources, but because they seem not to value scholarship as such.”
Under the Twitter hashtag #CaddaanStudies (caddaan means “white” in Somali), Somali scholars reacted furiously to his remarks, and released a long list of Somali academics who had done serious research at prestigious institutions and who were recognised as experts in their fields (albeit by a small, but growing group of their peers). Safia Aidid, a doctoral candidate in history at Harvard University, said that Hoehne’s comments reflected “a mindset in which the Somali is rendered passionately partisan, while the non-Somali researcher remains worldly and detached in his analysis.”
Sometimes, for the sake of “diversity” or “representation”, a few Somali scholars or analysts may be included in a collection of essays or in panel discussions. However, in my experience, only those scholars or analysts who do not deviate too far from traditional narratives about Somalia (conflict, terrorism and the like) are invited to contribute; in other words, they gain visibility through conformity. Radical thinkers, or those who actively reject representations of Somalia that negate popular perceptions, are rarely invited.
Which does not mean that Western literature or scholarship about Somalia is inherently flawed because the writer or the researcher is too remote from the subject or has racist intentions. Often physical or emotional distance from a place can make others see what those who are embedded in that place cannot – or do not want – to see. Sometimes the truth about a place may be so painful that people choose to deny it. In broken societies, such as war-torn Somalia, painful events are often quickly forgotten; this forced amnesia is a survival strategy that allows traumatised societies to move on. The downside of this amnesia is that it hinders the healing of past wounds and stands in the way of meaningful reconciliation; it allows atrocities to continue and injustices to become “normalised”.
Most Somalis, even those who have no personal experience of the civil war, and who were born in foreign, more peaceful countries, grieve the fall of their homeland and suffer from what the Swedish-Somali blogger Mulki Ali calls “unprocessed trauma” – pent up frustration and pain that is bottled up, and often denied, and passed on from generation to generation by people “who just want to wade through the confusion of a post-war Somalia and find a safe spot where they can wait out the rain of blood washing over people”.
Fortunately, a new group of young ethnic Somali writers, such as the British-Somali novelist Nadifa Mohamed and the London-based poet Warsan Shire are, through their writings, helping their people to process some of this trauma.
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