Novelist Nadifa Mohammed discusses identity and personal narratives at the Writers Speak | event News

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Novelist Nadifa Mohammed discusses identity and personal narratives at the Writers Speak | event News

Somali author Nadifa Mohammed discussed her latest novel, The Fortune Men, at a lecture Tuesday in Sever Hall.

Muhammad joined Harvard History Professor Maya R. Jasanoff ’96 in a conversation hosted by the Mahindra Humanities Center as part of the Writers Speak series, which was co-sponsored by the History Seminar at the Center for European Studies.

Muhammad’s 2010 debut novel Black Mamba Boy won the Betty Trask Prize and her novel The Fortune Men was a Booker Prize finalist. She was named one of Granta’s ‘Best Young British Writers’ in 2013.

When asked about the inspirations that led to her writing, Muhammad shared her interest in studying true events and turning them into fictional stories. She said her father’s experiences as a traveler and adventurer inspired her first novel, Black Mamba Boy.

“It wasn’t until 2005, after my father died, that I think I really wanted to reconnect with the world that he was a part of. It was a form of mourning – a way to keep him alive,” Mohammed said.

Mohammed explained that her father was acquainted with Mahmoud Matan, a young Somali sailor who was wrongfully executed for murder, which led her to base her novel The Fortune Men on Matan’s true life story.

“I didn’t expect to dive into the story, so I just read what the papers said and what interviews I found in the papers, but I was lucky that in 2015 another researcher fought for the National Archives to open the case,” she said.

Mohammed said she first found the records confusing because of the framing police used to create “this fiction that made you believe he was guilty.” She added that the documents showed how Mattan was “devastated” after his experiences of being falsely accused for years in the UK and eventually stopped fighting for his innocence.

“I kept thinking, ‘Why is he doing this well, why isn’t he telling the police where he was when he didn’t commit this crime?'” Mohammed said.

“I think the physical change also reflects the psychological transformation of losing his confidence, losing his ability to notice his self-respect, but I think he’s lost his ability to defend himself, which I think is the worst thing to lose in the environment environment that he is in,” she added.

Mohammed said she mixed historical records and her own imagination to create the story and characters of “The Fortune Men.” She highlighted a part of the novel where the main character Mahmoud is interviewed by a doctor.

“The details, including the last passage of the doctor’s note, are from the archives,” Mohammed said.

“I tried to think, ‘What would Mahmoud think and what would his personality be like when he was interviewed by this doctor?'” Mohammed added.

Mohamed said incorporating non-fiction into her work allows her to connect her writing to her identity and experiences.

“I’m in these spaces, maybe with my friends, maybe with my nieces and nephews or people I take with me,” she said. “So it’s also a way to evaluate my life as a Muslim in the world right now. And I don’t think I’d want to do that in fiction.

—Staff List Christina M. Strachn can be reached at [email protected].

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