Finding an identity is easy. It’s the easy way out.
– Zadie Smith
When I meet new people they often ask me where I’m from. Sometimes I say Melbourne; other times I say Africa. Both claims are equally true. Like many people, I grew up between two cultures. My identity has always been something I could not pin down with any accuracy. Most times I don’t like to think about it – it’s only really when someone forces me that I do – but I can always feel the question lurking in the dark alcoves of my mind.
When I told my father I wanted to be a novelist, he smiled slightly, unsurprised. ‘Yesterday you wanted to play music,’ he reminded me. ‘And before that you wanted to be a cricketer!’
But I suppose I convinced him that I was somewhat serious, since he never questioned me about it again. In fact, I thought he had forgotten about my ambition. Then, quite by surprise, I found him one day in my bedroom, perusing my bookshelf. He held up the book I was reading: his copy of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. He flipped through it absently. ‘Pushkin was black, you know,’ he said approvingly. ‘His great-grandfather was an African.’
My father is a fine speaker. He often begins his monologues with a pithy phrase that he repeats at the end of them, as if revisiting the first page of a book. I’ve heard his speech on Pushkin many times, yet it is always fresh and engaging. After his introduction, my father takes a well-rehearsed trip through the golden age of Russian poetry, stopping briefly to ask, ‘Was Lermontov greater?’ (to which the answer is invariably, ‘Not quite!’), before concluding with his initial statement: ‘Pushkin created the Russian language. Can you imagine that? He was black, you know.’
But this time he also asked if he could read one of my stories and so I printed him a few pages from my work in progress.
My father relishes a captive audience and, since I am the only one of his children who shares his love of literature, I have often been the audience for his impromptu lectures. Through these talks, I received my education as a writer. It was a surprisingly formal method: my father would give me a book or newspaper article to read and then quiz me on it. Sometimes, he asked me to read passages out loud; other times, he gave me information that he felt vital to my understanding of the text.
When I was in my early teens, my father took me with him every Saturday to Flemington, where he dropped me off at the library while he had coffee with friends. After a few hours, he returned and reviewed my selection. The same part of me that resented his inspections also yearned for his approval. I would often try to justify my choices by saying something like, ‘This book is set in Nigeria’ (knowing that anything even vaguely African would meet with his approval) or ‘This book won this or that award.’
Although I didn’t realise it, I was slowly inheriting many of my father’s biases. Some of these, such as his fondness for Russian literature, I took up with enthusiasm; others, such as his unabashed love for Jeffrey Archer – odd, considering his disdain for any other even vaguely British writer – I never really understood.
A few days after I had given him my writing, he sat me down in the living room and turned off the television. It was late afternoon. The permanent bags under his eyes gave him a look that injected a certain solemnity into his words.
‘I have read your story,’ he said. ‘Is this what you want to write?’
I was fifteen at the time, and sensational stories about space travel and government conspiracies were exciting to me. I thought he was going to object to my work on aesthetic grounds – which, looking back, would have been valid – but instead he asked me something bewildering.
‘Do you think they will ever publish these kinds of stories … with your name?’
‘These things you write about … aliens and things like that,’ he said, pointing to the stapled pages. ‘This is not your story. They will see your Somali name and they will laugh and ask, “Who does he think he is?” Nobody will read this book with your name.’
I had started reading science fiction the year before. What began as a love affair with Philip K Dick soon became an obsession with the greats of the genre. Invariably, I gravitated towards stories that tackle issues of identity, such as those by Gene Wolfe and Alfred Bester.
It was only after my father’s comment that I seriously considered my family’s heritage and the impacts it may have on my future. What did it mean that I was different, that I had an Arabic first name and an African face? I had always been aware of my skin, but had never felt the need to maintain that awareness. The idea that someone would, as my father argued, question my very right to a narrative seemed absurd.
My father is a big man. Not in the conventional flesh and blood sense, though he is quite tall, but in the way he carries himself, the way he pulls your attention with his glance. My father’s life is filled with certainties. One of these is that identity is innate, unchangeable and all-encompassing. I don’t think there is a distinction for my father between who a person is and what that person does. To him, we are Somali first and everything else second.
If I were ever to question the idea, my father would tell me that everybody else sees us as Somali and so there is no point hiding from that identification. In his world view, one’s identity is not only based on self-perceptions, but also on the perceptions of others. To my father, my identity as a writer is tied to the identity given to me by my ancestry and my appearance.
Although I vaguely understood his argument, it never penetrated deeply. There was a chasm between us, a space filled with time and the different circumstance of our upbringings. He came to Australia as an adult, his Somalia identity already firmly in place; I grew up here, speak with an Australian accent and know more about cricket than Africa.
In the summer of 2012, I moved from Melbourne to Brisbane, and enrolled in a creative writing degree. When one moves to a new city as a nominal adult – too young to feel comfortable meeting new people, yet too old to easily make friends – one quickly becomes well acquainted with one’s own company.
I spent a lot of time wandering the streets. I went to protests, to marches and demonstrations. Not out of any political conviction, but rather out of a vague feeling that in observing and occasionally interacting with people, I could understand something of myself. I was reading Teju Cole’s Open City and couldn’t help drawing somewhat romantic parallels between the narrator, Julius, and myself. In the novel, Julius, a young Nigerian studying psychiatry in New York, takes long walks through the city and, in the process, meets a range of people, most of them immigrants or people living on the fringes of society.
The somewhat removed nature of Julius’ interactions is reminiscent of those in VS Naipaul’s travel writing: there is a compelling curiosity in the book, but no intimacy. This is common in Cole’s generation of post-colonial, post-national authors, most of whom were born in the decades after the first wave of African writers (Chinua Achebe, Camara Laye, Bessie Head and so on) published their first works. A fine example is Somali-British writer Nadifa Mohamed. In Black Mamba Boy, Mohamed’s semi-biographical novel about her father’s youthful journey across Africa and Europe, there is an almost journalistic air of documentation in the reportage of facts and information about the era and its people. There is plenty of emotion but also a vague sense of distance.
The lack of closeness I was feeling bothered me. I had begun work on a novel about Somalia, and the research, the assembling of documentation and facts, was leading me to think that distance was unavoidable. I am Somali, of course … but am I really? I don’t even know how to read in Somali – not fluently, at least.
I began speaking with my aunts and uncles, my grandparents. I read old newspapers and trawled the internet for hours at a time. I even spoke to my parents in Somali instead of English.
My routine became somewhat bipolar: by day, I took lengthy journeys, hopping on and off buses and trains, wandering aimlessly; by night, I spent hours reading about Somali history, sifting through Somali-language websites, and looking up prewar images of places I’d only ever heard about. The idea was to write a sweeping narrative set in the latter days of the Somali civil war. It would follow a family starting a new life in the suburban American Midwest. I chose the Midwest – somewhere I had spent a few weeks during the previous year – to detach myself from the narrative, but also because I have always wondered who I would be if my family had settled in America, as my father had wanted. I was, in effect, constructing a possible past and future, while also rebuilding a previously neglected part of my identity – that of a Somali.
I was also trying to figure out what the hell I was writing. An African novel? If I asked my father, he would certainly insist that this was the case. The novel had Africans in it and, on the surface, followed the conventions of the ‘responsible’ social realism with which he was so enamoured. Most importantly, it didn’t have any spaceships or aliens. But the idea that I was writing an ‘African’ novel sat uneasily in my gut. I don’t want to be an X-writer or a Y-writer.
I wanted to write a story about the ‘immigrant experience’ but didn’t want it to be a story just about the immigrant experience, as if that were the only kind of story someone like me could write. The reluctance came from a place of fear. Somewhere along the line, I accepted that how I see myself is intimately tied up with how I perceive others to see me. For some of us – to steal WEB Du Bois’ terminology – this creates the double-consciousness of the minority mind. There is the fear that people will look at my name or my face and say, ‘Oh, right, another African writer who writes about Africa. How inspiring and nice.’ And so I end up with a grand idealised vision of myself as a writer working to produce pure, un-modified, un-pigeonholed ‘fiction’ – the type of fiction that, strangely, only straight white men seem capable of writing.
But the question remains: if one is scared to write one’s own story for fear of writing dishonestly, or perhaps writing too consciously, then what else is there to write about?
In the preface to Beyond a Boundary, his part-cricket memoir, part-autobiography, part-philosophical treatise, CLR James poses his famous question: ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’
The question, inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The English Flag’, implies that one can’t truly know something, whether England or cricket, without knowing what that thing is set up against, without having something to which to compare it. I learnt what it is to be African from my father and his homeland, and I learnt what it is to be an Australian from my home.
Despite my father’s words, the only thing I really know is what it is to be an African who grew up in North Melbourne. My existence is a dual one – and I can convincingly be both. Sometimes I tell people that I’m from Melbourne; other times I tell them that I’m from Africa. Both claims are equally true.