Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Published review of our book launch

The 'From Somalia, with love' book launch on Friday 13 June was attended by schoolgirls, supporters and members of the children's literature community. Here is a review by one of the attendees:

On Friday 13th June, Louise Ellis -Barrett attended a Somali celebration to mark the publication of Na'ima B Robert's From Somalia With Love She sent us this report:
Bringing teenagers to books is always going to be a challenge but it is one that Na’ima B Robert is happy to tackle. Na’ima has written picturebooks for young children and a novel for adults. ‘From Somalia With Love’ is written for teenagers and in doing this Na’ima has taken on the challenge of sharing the relatively unknown, very rich and often misunderstood Somali culture.

‘From Somalia With Love’ may be entirely fictional but on Friday 13th June, the first day of publication, it had already won a firm following among at least some of its intended audience. In the main hall of the Brady Arts Centre, Tower Hamlets an invited, female only, audience of around 40 people, comprising mainly teenagers, gathered for a cultural event to celebrate the launch of the book and celbrate Somali culture.

It is difficult to find the words to describe the buzz and excitement generated by the anticipation felt by all there but Na’ima’s introduction, reading and question and answer session could have continued all morning! When food and drink called the promise of a dramatisation of one of the scenes from the book by the local Youth Group lured the audience back. This was followed by some examples of traditional Somali dance, music and song that the audience were actively encouraged to participate in. In turn this was followed by the opportunity to meet the author, see some examples of Somali fashion and taste some traditional Somali food! This bought to a close a fascinating morning.

‘From Somalia With Love’ is, I hope, just the first of many books from Na'ima whose mission is to bring a love of books to children everywhere. Visit www.somalialove.com to find out more.

Thanks Na’ima for organising a great morning.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Who's who in 'From Somalia, with love'?

“I didn’t see you standing there
Somali-British girl

East African-East Londoner
Council estate wanderer
Fish ‘n chips and banana
Tracksuit and bandana

I didn’t see you standing there
Somali-British girl
I didn’t see you standing there
Somali-British girl

Safia Dirie: 14 years old, responsible, a bit of a dreamer and a young poet, loves braided hair and her hoyo's recitation of Surah Yusuf

Hoyo: Safia's mum, strong, great cook (of course!), loves the Qur'an, finds the new generation of Somalis puzzling, has a secret stash of vintage dirac

Abdullahi: Safia's eldest brother, mature, religious, 'man of the house' until Abo comes back, got straight after a stint in juvenile

Ahmed: Safia'a favourite brother, the 'lovable rogue', loves the street life, sweet-talker, gets crazy mad if anyone tries to 'check' his sister

Abo: Safia's long-lost father, just come from Somalia, intelligent, traditional and with a few surprises up his sleeve...

Hamida: Bengali pseudo-tomboy rebel, wannabe psychoanalyst and Safia's best friend

Firdaws: Safia's worldly wise cousin, stunning, a rebellious, confident exterior masking a soft centre...

Habaryero: Safia's auntie, perceptive, honest, getting married after several years of looking: he's Somali, he's from Holland and he's fiiiine, nayaa!

PLus loads of other characters who you will just have to wait and meet...
I smile every time I think about this book - I had such fun writing it! I hope people enjoy reading it, even half as much, insha Allah.

A poem about Ahmed, the Somali 'bad boy', Safia's brother


I was fortunate enough to be introduced to the work of a young Somali poet, Warsan Shire, a fierce 19 year old poet whose words are 'womanly wise'.

Her poem, 'Bus stop Genocide' reminded me so much of Ahmed and all the other Somali boys struggling to prove themselves without the tools to do it.

Listen to it here.

Be warned, it is deep and visceral, not easy listening but so vital.

Alhamdulillah, she will be gracing us with her presence, her poetry and prose at the East London launch on the 13th of July.

Will post more later...

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Do Muslims need 'representative' reading?


A poster on our Facebook group asked why we need 'representative' stories, why we can't just read any book and identify with it.

I agreed with her to a certain extent: there are many stories and books that 'speak' to all of us, whether we are boys, girls, black, white, or whatever.

But I do feel quite strongly that every cultural group needs to see itself reflected in at least some of the books it reads. We need to read about people like ourselves, who face the same situations we face, who view life similarly to us, to gain confidence and insight into our identity and culture.

This was the basis of 'From Somalia, with love': the idea that Muslim teenagers and Somali Muslim teenagers in particular wanted to read about people like themselves, who faced the same problems, the same issues that they face every day. I also wanted to make the book a celebration of Somali and Muslim culture, a culture that is hardly-known and rarely spoken about.

If you look around you in the children's section of any UK library, you will see very few non-White faces on book covers. There are very few Black characters in modern children's literature, even fewer Muslim ones. I hope 'From Somalia, with love' will do something to change that scene... insha Allah.


Friday, May 2, 2008

Somali training!

After my publishers (Frances Lincoln) read the first draft of 'From Somalia, with love', they called me in for a meeting to discuss it. It was then that it emerged that one of the editors actually thought I was half Somali. Why? I guess because Somali culture permeates the book, it was inspired by it and seeks to introduce it to a wider audience, one that may have never known the delights of the dirac, danced the buraambur or tasted baasto iyo hilib!
And that ignorance about Somali culture is found everywhere, amongst Muslims and non-Muslims. Perhaps because they haven't been in the West for as long as South East Asians, or because they don't have a Bollywood of their own, Somalis are nowhere near as mainstream as Asians or other Africans as far as ethnic minorities go.

So, the question remains: how did Somali culture end up being the inspiration and focal point for a book by an ajnabi?

Working in East London first introduced me to Somalis (this is a story I tell in my book 'From My Sisters' Lips') but living in South London brought me into closer contact with them. I fell in love with the Somali women I knew: their strength of character, their beauty, their love for the Qur'an, their seeming fearlessness: so many of them reminded my of my mother.

But these were women who were my age and older. In order to write FSWL and make it believable, I needed an authentic voice: the voice of a fairly typical Somali teenager. And I knew just where to find that: the Somali forums online.

And that, as I will recount in a future post, was like walking into a whole new world... Nothing could have prepared me for that!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Who is Safia Dirie?

Safia Dirie, the heroine of 'From Somalia, with love' is a 14 year-old Somali girl who lives in the East End. She is fairly shy, reflective, a poet on a journey of self-discovery, learning to navigate the world around her.
"My name is Safia Dirie. My family has always been my mum, Hoyo, and my two older brothers, Ahmed and Abdullahi. I don't really remember Somalia - I'm an East London girl, through and through. But now Abo, my father, is coming from Somalia to live with us, after 12 long years. How am I going to cope?"

Does she really exist? In a way, yes: in so many young Muslim girls I have met. She shares their vulnerability, their strength, their desire to please their parents while finding themselves; their struggle between the carefree ways of their peers and the high ideals of Islam.

But no, Safia Dirie is not based on any one girl, no-one in particular. But I do hope she embodies many of the characteristics familiar to teenagers everywhere - thus making it easy to relate to her story, whether you are Somali or not, Muslim or not, British or otherwise.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Inspiration in the countryside

I still remember when the idea for 'From Somalia, with Love' came to me. As a writer, one of my idiosyncrasies is that I never write a story until it has 'told itself' in my head. It may come to me in a dream or in a moment of imagining or keep growing in the back of my mind until it is ready to be told. Either way, I never write it down until the story has been told.

So it was with FSWL. I was on a retreat with a group of Somali teenagers and some older sisters at a beautiful old house in the country. The venue was secluded and relaxed; plums and apricots grew in the orchard, blackberries in the bushes. We were able to totally relax, roam the grounds, play tennis, basketball, go for midnight walks and explore to our heart's content. It was wonderful, masha Allah.

It was there that the thought of Somali poetry came to me. I remembered reading somewhere that poetry is an important part of Somali culture. And I thought of a young girl, a young poet, whose father came from Somalia to live with her and her Hoyo - and the story unfolded in my mind.
I spent the rest of that retreat asking questions, observing, absorbing the girls' mannerisms and some basic Somali. And the story and its characters began to take shape...