‘Create your own world’: Minnesota's Somali writers make their mark

At least a dozen Somali authors have published or are publishing children’s books, novels and memoirs about their community. The effort, centered in Minnesota, is revolutionizing the community’s age-old oral tradition.
Author Mohamed Hajji Ahmed sits for a portrait at MPR on Thursday, August 1, 2019. Evan Frost | MPR News

Minneapolis — One July evening in Minneapolis, as a gentle breeze blew through the trees and young Somali artists took turns singing at a community event at Augsburg University, M. Hajji Ahmed stood at a corner with his arms folded across his chest.

 

Ahmed, 25, was there to promote his comic book, “Leylo Before the Storm,” but since the heavy rain scared away the crowd he anticipated, he stowed the books in the trunk of his car and used that time to speak with me about his childhood years in South Africa, his passion for art and cinema and his obsession with visual storytelling.

 

As a kid, he said, the books he read and the films he watched hardly reflected the stories and experiences of the Somali immigrants he grew up around.

 

Then in 2015, after he arrived in Minnesota, Ahmed noticed that the characters young Somali students — including those he’s worked with since last year as a paraprofessional at New Century School, a K-8 charter school in St. Paul — met in their readings often had Western names and blond hair.   

 

So, to give youngsters of Somali descent an opportunity to see themselves in the books they read, Ahmed wrote “Leylo,” which is about a 19th-century superwoman who emerges as a fearless warrior when the enemy suddenly strikes her fictional village, Barwaaqo, in Somalia.

 

Ahmed said that he wrote the book, which came out this summer, so “my son or my daughter doesn’t have to go through the same childhood” experience he had in South Africa, a childhood in which he couldn’t find books with relatable characters.  

 

Many Somalis in Minnesota and across the United States share Ahmed’s conviction of bringing Somali narratives into the Minnesota literary landscape.

 

In the past five years alone, at least a dozen Somali authors have published, or are in the process of publishing, such works as children’s books, novels and memoirs featuring Somali people, and the effort seems to be revolutionizing the community’s age-old oral tradition. 

In recent decades, Somalis across the world have embraced the literary tradition. In Minnesota, home to the largest Somali community in the United States, the shift is even more noticeable.

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Author Ruqia Abdi sits for a portait inside of the Franklin Ave. library where she works in Minneapolis on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. Abdi came to the U.S. as a refugee in 2000 and graduated with a B.S. in child development from Walden University in 2016. Evan Frost | MPR News

Somalis writing about Somalis

For centuries, Somalis have relied on oral traditions — including poetry, songs and folklore — in which they expressed themselves, recorded historical events and disseminated news and customary laws.

 

That tradition has long remained a normal phenomenon for many Somalis — even decades after the written Somali language was formulated 1972. There still remains an effort to preserve the oral culture, and Somalia still maintains its cherished “Nation of Poets” nickname.

 

As a result, said Ahmed Ismail Yusuf, who teaches Somali language at Minneapolis South High School, there haven’t been many Somali authors writing about Somalia, except for a few individuals, including Nuruddin Farah, the 73-year-old internationally renowned novelist.

 

That reality was even more apparent when Yusuf found home in Minnesota in the late 1990s. “There were no writers, particularly in the field of fiction,” he said. “You did not see someone representing your story.”

 

In recent decades, however, Somalis across the world have embraced the literary tradition. In Minnesota, home to the largest Somali community in the United States, the shift is even more noticeable.

 

In 2019, in addition to Ahmed’s comic book, “Better Parenting: A Guide for Somali Parents in the Diaspora,” written by Hennepin County librarian Ruqia Abdi, was published to provide Somali parents with advice and encouragement to help them become better parents.

 

For the decades she’s lived in Minnesota, Abdi never thought she would write a book. But then she observed a number of Somali parents struggling to connect with their children, and watched young kids drift away from their families only to end up in prison.

 

Eventually, Abdi decided it was time to write a book that helps parents better adapt to the challenging task of raising children in the United States and other Western countries. 

 

“I said, ‘Right now, I can’t watch this. I need to write something so parents can at least understand the developmental stage of these kids and they would know how to deal with them,” she noted. “I realized they really needed that help.”

 

Somali writers in Minnesota have been prolific the past few years. 

 

Last year, Yusuf, the South High teacher, released “The Lion’s Biding Oath and Other Stories,” a collection of short stories about Somalia and the struggles of Somalis before and during the Somali civil war, which erupted in 1991. St. Cloud resident Habso Mohamud published “It Only Takes One Yes,” a children’s book about a hijab-wearing Somali queen named Nasra who lives in the jungle.   

 

In 2017, Mariam Mohamed published “Ayeeyo’s Golden Rule,” a book that captures both the terror and excitement of a 9-year-old Somali refugee who is attending a school in the U.S. for the first time in her life. 

 

In that same year, Hudda Ibrahim released “From Somalia to Snow: How Central Minnesota Became Home to Somalis.” The book focuses on the culture, traditions and experiences of Somali people in the region as well as why Minnesota has become home to the largest Somali population in the U.S.

 

In 2015, Cawo Abdi, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota, published “Elusive Jannah: The Somali Diaspora and a Borderless Muslim Identity,” a research-based book that shines light on the experiences and challenges of Somali migrants in the United States, the United Arab Emirates and South Africa.

 

In 2020, as Forbes reported in January, Dey Street Books will publish Rep. Ilhan Omar’s memoir — “This Is What America Looks Like” — that chronicles her journey from Somalia to Congress. 

Issue-driven books

While Somali storytelling is an oral tradition, more creative people are turning to print, writing books to convey their messages and share views.

 

So, is this shift changing Somalis’ long-standing oral tradition?

 

“I would not dare to say that we’re changing,” Yusuf said. “But I can see that there are some of us who do not want to stay in the oral-tradition world. We’re branching out into the book world.”

 

Among the reasons why, Yusuf said many Somalis are growing up in homes where books are accessible and valued. Writers also see the need to document important issues in the community that aren’t yet publicly discussed. “Some of them want to motivate other people. Some of them want to speak of a particular topic which they care about,” Yusuf said.

 

On that July evening outside Augsburg University, Ahmed, the comic book author, came to the event to promote “Leylo.” But since the heavy rain chased away the crowd, we went for a walk. 

 

He talked to me about his love for art and his reasons for creating a Somali female character so comfortably dominating the battlefield, so naturally crushing her perpetrators.

 

“Leylo Before the Storm,” Ahmed said, is meant to give children of Somali descent an opportunity he didn’t have while growing up in South Africa: books with Somali characters.

 

His protagonist, Leylo, breaks away from some of the traditional norms — such as staying at home with the kids, cooking and cleaning — prescribed for women. Instead, she chooses to go to war with the enemy to protect her land.

 

“Her vision is, ‘I’m going to break the cycle; I don’t belong in this box. I’m a woman, but … I could be a warrior on top of that.’”

 

By writing the comic book, Ahmed also wanted to fill a conspicuous void in Minnesota’s literary landscape: The lack of stories about Somalis that are not always about wars, terrorism, piracy or famine.

        

“I just wanted to break that cycle, to tell immigrant kids … ‘Your first book shouldn’t be about your struggle,’” Ahmed said. “Imagine. Create your own world. Live in it.”  

Ibrahim Hirsi is a reporter at MPR News, where he covers immigrant communities and the politics and policies that affect them. He was previously a staff writer for MinnPost. Ibrahim got his start in journalism at the Minnesota Daily, the University of Minnesota’s student newspaper. He’s currently a Ph.D. student in immigration history at the University of Minnesota.

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