Monthly Archives: December 2011

Author Q&A Series: Alisa Ahlam

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Alisa Ahlam is a Somali author and journalist who writes under a pen name. The Arab Season,  her debut novel, reflects the plight of the daughters of muslim immigrants who are charged with the responsibility of upholding family honour while being raised in the more permissive environment of the UK, and all the things that can go wrong by being neither here nor there. As a journalist Alisa has written for the Guardian newspaper and Al Jazeera, she has also worked as a fashion and lifestyle magazine editor in London. Here she gives her opinion on Ayaan Hirsi, the wisdom of taking Hemingway to dinner, and on her book being dubbed “Muslim style Sex and the City”.

Which of your major characters would you be happy to have as a cellmate?

Hamdi, without a doubt. She’s a tough cookie that one, very feisty and is always the one to rescue the others from trouble. In a tricky situation, I would like to have her in my corner.

What is the first thing you remember writing?

Very bad poems

Where/when or with whom have you been most impressed to see a copy of your work?

Well, my debut book was released on kindle last month, and has just been released on paperback, but what has stunned me is the number of people who responded to the chapters I had initially posted on the blog, from there on, I have seen links of my blog being shared by others bloggers. The speed at which the whole thing caught fire online before anything was even released really impressed me, I have to say. The support and encouragement I have received is awesome, and I am very thankful for it.

What one book by another author do you wish you’d written?

My book has been described as a “Muslim style Sex and the City”, which I take as a great compliment because I love the TV series.

Name one author that you consider overrated.

I think Gabriel García Márquez is a wonderful writer, but the book One Hundred Years of Solitude was the most boring that I read in a long time, but it received incredible reviews. I love Paulo Coelho, but I sometime think he’s still coasting on the back of The Alchemist, some of the stuff released after that has disappointed me as a fan.

Shakespeare: Genius or Bore?

Genius.

Sell a million copies or win the Nobel Prize for literature?

I write to entertain and not for prize and accolades, with that in mind I want my work to be accessible to everyone and read by as many people as possible, so I am going with selling a million copies.


Write one classic or have a sustained career of good books?

A sustained career of good books, definitely.

Best perk of being a writer?

It means day dreaming is part of the job and I am not wasting time doing so. I love living inside my head: It’s beautiful to give life to characters and watch them grow on paper.

Worst thing about being a writer?

Editing and deadlines.

Remember your best and worst reviews? Let’s hear them.

Mercifully, I have had a quite a number of good reviews, but on the book blog I had this woman who was very critical to the point of ranting at me: she basically accused me of making Somali people look bad and then she went on to compare me to Ayaan Hirsi. I can’t stand Ayaan Hirsi: I disagree with her politics and what she stand for, so all of sudden to have someone tell me I am just like her was kind of bizarre. Her review was also unfair as she had only read a couple chapters but somehow managed to reach such a hate filled conclusion. But what was really annoying was that she assumed that everybody else who left positive comments on the blog was somehow related to me. In her narrow mind she had concluded that if she didn’t enjoy what she read, then nobody else could have enjoyed it.

One thing you wish you’d known starting out as an author?

I never thought I would finish this book, and I stressed myself over that fact a lot. I wish I had known that it was all going to be ok.

How much would you say the characters in your book are based on real people? Could you give an example?

There is a lot of scenarios in the book that I think most children of immigrants will relate to; the whole things about translating for your parents because their English isn’t as good as yours, trying to bargain the price of items in shops because nobody paid a fixed a price in shops and markets back home. Also, a lot of places that my characters hang out in are places that a lot of young Somalis frequent, i.e. the shisha cafes on Edgeware Road, the night clubs such as Blue Bar and Maddox are all real.

What book are you ashamed to admit that you haven’t read?

I haven’t read any of the Hemingway books. I am really ashamed of that, especially at dinner parties. People assume because you are a writer, then you must have read all these classics.

What is your guilty reading?

I love historical fiction/romance. Julie Garwood and Phillipa Gregory own this genre.

What’s the most challenging part of your creative process?

Writing down the first couple of chapters is always difficult as the story is still very abstract and often I don’t know the exact direction I want to take.

And the most pleasurable?

As soon as I complete the first half of the book, everything becomes clearer. The characters are well defined and the story writes itself, at this point spending time in front of my computer becomes pure bliss, because I am hooked on what happening and I want to know how things are going to end.

What are you likely to be most critical about in other authors’ work?

Repetition. As stated above, Julie Garwood is excellent at writing historical romances but if you read a couple of her books, you will notice she has a formula that does not change. Her heroines always seem to have freckles on their noses, and smell like roses, which can be damn annoying.
I also don’t like it when authors simplify things too much, if you must assume anything about your reader, make it a positive assumption, i.e. that they are smart.

If you could bring something back from the past what would it be?

My father, he passed away when I was a child.

What’s next?

I am thinking of writing an epic novel set in colonial times in Somalia. Because of the war there, I think a lot of our history has yet to be told. That’s what I would like to explore.

Read the first few chapters of The Arab Season on her blog, and see reviews on Amazon
Read others in the Author Q&A series

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Healing with humour: Bernadine Evaristo lampoons the slave trade in Blonde Roots

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Penguin books

Published 2008

pp 261

Psychology experts advise that when we lose someone or something valuable, rather than clam up and nurse resentments till their bulk bears down and suffocates, that we talk about it; to, in effect, purge emotions by talking the life out of our dearly departed.

Not many Black British, Black American or African people seem to have taken that line in coping with the historical and present consequences of slavery, or in coming to terms with the injustices of the era and the lives and dignity lost to the transatlantic slave trade. Not, perhaps, until 2008 and Bernadine Evaristo‘s first fully prose book Blonde Roots. True, there’ve been pointed fingers and diatribes marking every slavery abolition anniversary since William Wilberforce‘s succesful anti-slavery campaign, but these are akin to the usual lamentations of “why me?” by the bereaved.

Evaristo airs out this half-millenium long shame, with the kind of neutrality one supposes only she – biracial as she is -could have mustered. She moves us gently from ‘What the hell is she playing at?’ to fascination with the skewed history she has enacted and finally to the realisation that it feels no better (as a black person) to have the shoe on the other foot. Just as I despair silently, eons after my African ancestors have been corralled, coffled and chained, and taken on a seemingly endless journey to servitude, so do tears well in my eyes when I read of young, frail whyte Dafyyd: “our procession ground to a halt. Daffyd wasn’t moving… Garanwyn tried to tell the gurads he would carry his little brothers on his shoulder but they ignored him… (Daffyd) was released from the coffle and swung by his arms and legs into some bushes.

This episode lets us readers come to the realisation of perhaps something we have known all along but sacrificed for our racial prejudices – past injustices, whether it’s whyte enslaving blacks, Jews persecuting Christian Germans, or the hostility of a plutocratic government against its proletariat, are not caused by race or creed but of our human capacity – subdued in most of us, and dominant in a few others- to be inexplicably cruel to kind. Perhaps slavery was always bound to be one way or another (even the religious books support it). This, I think. is what Evaristo very capably demonstrates in this role reversal classic.

And it isn’t all grim, a light, pacey plot helps us laugh at the caricature Evaristo has drawn of us, in the present day, with our continued neo-colonialist mentality: “The hairdressers used kinky Aphrikan hair on the (whyte) women, who had their own fine hair chopped off and these bushy pieces sewn onto them so that the effect was (un)naturally Aphrican. It took up to ten hours… and you could get a nose flattening job done quite cheaply…the very thought of a mallet smashing down on my nose was just too scary for words.” This, one realises, is what happens when a people’s identity is cruelly discarded by a “superior race”. Colour has nothing to do with it.

But beyond creating distorted mirror images, Evaristo leaves us with humorous landmarks. Bakalo, Mayfah, Wool Wi Che, Coasta Coffee, Paddinto – all transplanted from Great Britain to Great Ambrosia, just so we do not lose ourselves in her previously uncharted waters. She further pulls us back from her fancies with language relevant to our time, garnished with her tongue-in-cheek narrative. Expressions like “My terms of engagement stipulated that it was a job for life, that my hours should run from Sunday to Monday 12 a.m. to 11.55 p.m. daily, although i needed to be available to do overtime when required. I would receive an annual wage of nothing with an added bonus of nothing for good behaviour… i was only knocked about a it in the early days as part of my in-service training when my work report read: Attendance 100%, punctuality 100%, motivation 10%”, “It made great business sense for the Europanes. They received luxury items such as battered old hats and knives and in return sold off healthy specimens of the human race” miraculously lift the gloom particularly favoured by any previous fictional and factual accounts of slavery accounts.

Blonde Roots, with its feisty, smart-mouthed heroine/narrator Omorenomwara (formerly Doris Scagglethorpe) has us shuffling between Great Ambrosia and the West Japanese Islands in Africa to the Cabbage Coast in the Grey Continent of Europa. Evasristo’s plot (especially earlier on) is like a shuffled deck of cards where the past segue seamlessly into the present. I must confess that I was taken aback when in Book Two Evaristo introduces “The reflections, thoughts, experiences and sentiments of the venerable Chief Kaga Konata Katamba I (Omorenomwara’s master) on the slave trade. She had me ten pages in when she explores the lies coated in the scientific that the slave-holders peddled among themselves to justify the trade. It does enrage!

I will quote loosely the chapter titled ‘Some are more human than others’: The caucasonoid, native to the hell-hole Europa is proven by Craniofaecia Antropometry as being biologically inferior to the negroid (indegenous to Aphrika) and is in fact a neo-primate. The skull contains a far smaller brain because it is limited by its cranial structure, while its orthognathous jaw denotes weakness of character, limited imagination and restricted intellect. these together produce traits of cowardice, laziness, moral degradation, and a nonsensical, unintelligible language known as mumble jumble. the caucasonoid are further incapable of acute emotionality or pain – be not deceived into thinking that the blood shed and torn skin during a beating is a crime against humanity.

In what might be the only false step of the novel, Evaristo goes overboard with her replication and introduces ebonics much later in the novel. because the language, which is specific to descendants of West-African slaves is so closely imitated in expressions and flow, it takes away the alternate representation that she had worked so hard to achieve in the first part of the novel. The characters simply sounded so black that the images in my head soon corrected themselves – Doris became black and Katamba a white slavemaster; and even frequent mental notes to correct the characterisation failed. Why ever did Evaristo take away their English language?

Plot wise, the “scorned first son” story lost its flavour the second time over. Why would Bwana do to his son what had been unfairly done to him? And Nonso was a bit too revealing and familiar in his confrontation with Omorenomwa in the final part of the book. In that one instance less would have been much more.

Evaristo’s imagination (creating a model counter-universe) and light-heartened (employing humour in the darkest of situations) can only be compared with JK Rowling’s in this satirical novel, in which she delivers the sorrow of the loss of family, a passage in-extremis, many tearful partings, two attempted escapes, and the horrors of a life of servitude with jocosity “Massa Rotimi once nailed a repeat offender’s ear to a tree… he forced a runway to lie down and another to shit in her mouth… I had seen limbs removed, skin scalded, cheeks branded… once a man was roasted over a spit, alive… another was suspended under a spit of pork so that the scalding fat removed his skin.” The era of slavery was a indeed cruel, miserable time, and in spite of Evaristo’s unrelenting humour, or maybe because of it, its iniquitous nature is acute in Blonde Roots. Evaristo’s

Evaristo’s 260 page novel strips away both the lingering racial outrage about – and the growing forgetfulness – of the 500 year period . It is no wonder it that it enjoys descriptions such as “brilliant”, “audacious” and “astonishing” by The Telegraph, The Independent and The Times.

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