Host Christopher Merrill talks with Somali-Italian writer Ubah Cristina Ali Farah about how her novels tell the stories of the Somali civil war and its refugees in Italy. They also discuss her work of collecting stories from migrant women for oral history projects, and the role Somali theatre played in anti-colonial fights during the 1950s and 1960s.
Episode 8 Ubah Cristina Ali Farah Publication Date August 15, 2018
I’m Christopher Merrill and you’re listening to Origins.
Origins: The International Writing Program Podcast is an interview series with writers from around the world addressing the origins of their creative works, the literary and social cultures in which they write, and the art of language.
The International Writing Program is the oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world. Since 1967, over 1,400 writers from more than 150 nations have taken part in the Fall Residency here at the University of Iowa, where writers participate in literary and cultural exchange. Last year, the Program celebrated its fiftieth year anniversary; visit the fiftieth anniversary website at iwp50.grad.uiowa.edu. To learn more about the International Writing Program, visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.
This episode of Origins features Somali-Italian writer Ubah Cristina Ali Farah.
Ubah Cristina ALI FARAH (fiction writer, poet, playwright, translator; Italy) is a Somali-Italian novelist, performer, teacher and social activist. Her two novels, Madre piccola [Little Mother, Indiana UP 2011] and Il Comandante del fiume [The Commander of the River] tell stories of the Somali civil war and its refugees in Italy. In 2006, she was awarded the Lingua Madre National Literary Prize, and in 2008, the Vittorini Prize. She has a PhD in African Studies from the University of Naples; currently she lives in Brussels. She participates courtesy of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.
We are recording from the University of Iowa on Thursday, October 26th, 2017. We had the chance to sit down with Ubah Cristina, who is here as a participant of the International Writing Program’s Fall Residency.
MERRILL: Welcome, Ubah.
ALI FARAH: Thank you, Chris.
MERRILL: During a presentation you gave at the Iowa City Public Library on the topic of translation, you spoke about how your grandmother gave you a new name, Ubah, when you arrived in Somalia at the age of three. What does Ubah mean and why did your grandmother give it to you? And my other question is how have you grow into this name?
ALI FARAH: Thank you, Chris. So I was born in Italy; my parents were both students when they met in Verona and then when I was at the age of three years old, we moved to Somalia, to Mogadishu. My father wanted to go back to the country because he studied in Italy and he wanted to contribute somehow to the country and to give his contributes. And when I arrived, of course I was young and didn’t speak Somali at the time. My mother, because she didn’t know anything about Somalia, she just chose the name she loved more, Cristina. And Cristina, not only is Cristina a Christian name and she didn’t realize it, because yeah, she was in Verona and it was a very normal name, but it was very difficult to pronounce because it has all these uh, Cristina, in Somali it was almost impossible to pronounce it. And I remember, this is the only memory that I have at that moment because I was only three years old, that when you’re a kid, you don’t know if you’re making them up or if they’re true. And I remember that I was in this house with my cousins and my aunts and everyone was calling at me and I had an impression that I didn’t understand the language and my grandmother who lived in the north of Somalia had come to meet me for the first time. And apparently she said, “I will give you another name,” because I was hiding behind a hibiscus hedge. And she said Ubah in Somali means flower and she always tells me that I love flowers and this is why she chose this name for me.
MERRILL: Great story.
ALI FARAH: Yes.
MERRILL: You said that “writing is a way to put together two worlds that were separated; it is my attempt to harmonize two coexisting cultural landscapes.” And in fact, you’ve given us a great demonstration of how the way those two worlds have to be harmonized. So we know a little something about how your worlds were separated, but what materials do you use in your writing to bring these worlds back together?
ALI FARAH: It is also connected with this name, Ubah because I always tell the story about when I decided to write again. My formal education was in Italian because at the time, I mean Somali language was written in 1972 and it was during the dictatorship of Siad Barre and he wanted to nationalize the education system as well, to introduce Somali as the language of education. But it was a huge project because you can imagine what it meant not only to write school books in Somali but also to have a number of teachers able to teach in Somali to the population. So my father at the time believed a lot in these nationalistic projects somehow, I went to a Somali school for a school years and it was really difficult to continue because the teachers were not very prepared, the classes were overcrowded. So at the end, they desisted and I went to an Italian school.
So the language of my everyday life was Somali but I was educated in Italian. And what happened was, after the civil war, I used to write every day a diary that I think was my everyday practice, writing practice, and then I stopped after the civil war. For many years I wasn’t able to write about anything that happened to me or all the people I knew. So after six years, I went to visit my father who at the time was given a refugee status in Holland and I tell this story because I short-sighten it. When I was excited about this journey, I was trying to put my lenses on, but one of them fell on the floor. So I just decided not to put my glasses so I left with this, this-
MERRILL: With only one eye.
ALI FARAH: With only one eye, yes! And so, you know that when you are short-sighten it, you can see very clearly when things are closer to you, but you don’t see things that are distant. I use this as a metaphor as my first encounter with the diaspora because veiled one hand and very close on the other. Somehow this was the very moment when I decided to write because I said I can put these worlds together; they are close but at the same time, they are distant, and I can harmonize them in this way, with closeness and intimacy, but at the same time with the distance that allows me to talk about it.
MERRILL: What a wonderful story. You have a lot of experience as a social activist, as an editor and as a coordinator, and I wonder if you could tell us about how these experiences shaped your literary work?
ALI FARAH: I think that they were so important, especially with Circolo Gianna Bosio because they work a lot with oral history and so I started working with them, especially I was collecting stories of migrant women living in Italy. Not only Somali women, but women that were not Italian, in that Italian was not their mother tongue. For the writing experience, the thing that struck me was, you know, I was recording the voices, I was recording the interviews, the stories, and two things were very important for me. The first one was the relationship you build while you are collecting a story. The people tell you what they want but because you are there, you don’t tell the same story to everyone. Somehow they are telling the story about yourself as well, because the way you project yourself, the way you ask questions, the way you relate with the person, of course determine the narrative they want to share with you.
The other thing was more linguistic and it had to do with the fact that these women were not speaking their mother tongue. And while I was transcribing their interviews, I saw that there was something very beautiful in their language. Of course there were some grammatical, not mistakes, but they were not speaking the way an Italian mother tongue would speak.
MERRILL: A different music.
ALI FARAH: Yeah, a different music. And to try to convey the music into the writing was something very challenging and beautiful and I thought that if I had been able to keep this kind of music of their other mother tongues, it would have been very very powerful.
MERRILL: Yeah, I love that. You have said that you write with Somalis in mind, even though not as many Somalis can understand Italian. In this sense, then, is your ideal audience a small population or do you hope for your works to be translated so that they can speak to audiences in both of your worlds?
ALI FARAH: Yes, I say that about Somalis because I think that somehow, something that was said that often the writers who are defined as post-colonial writers often have this idea of the responsibility of writing, that writing is not only about yourself but it is about a history, stories that you share with others. You must be humble to write because writing is also a selfish act, but at the same time you must be very humble to be able to write. Because of the magnitude of what happened in Somalia, I felt that I had to write about it all the time, especially in Italian context, where colonialism was something that um, people don’t talk about colonialism in Italy, they don’t talk about it. And I think the reason why they don’t understand migration now and they are not able to deal with it is because they have forgotten what happened during the colonialism.
MERRILL: The role they played in the destruction of society, right?
ALI FARAH: Right, exactly. I hope also that stories, then, are universal, so what you dream is always to reach a wider audience, but not because of vanity but because you want to be understood from everybody, yes.
MERRILL: I had the good luck in the Daadab refugee camp on the Somali-Kenyan border to hear a tribal elder recite his poems for me, almost singing them, and I know that Somalia is known as a “Nation of Poets”, and there’s a lot of strong oral tradition with folklore, and they are the carriers of meaning and tradition, right? And so you have that as one point of your life and at the same time, you have the entire Western literary tradition in mind. So you could say you’re a recipient of both literary cultures, or a worker in both literary cultures and that gives you a pretty interesting position from both to write and observe what’s going on. These days in Europe with the influx of refugees from Syria, it must seem like a familiar story to you, the outlines of which you know in your bones.
ALI FARAH: Right, yes. So at the beginning, I was insisting, I often insist especially when I am in Italy that my formal education has been in Italian, because I remember when I started writing in Italian, I had a conversation with an Italian writer who was a friend of mine. At the time, they were labeling me and other writers as ‘migrant writers’ and she said, “It feels like you’re obsessed with your original traditions, but you are not very interested in Italian tradition.” And I said, you know, my position, positionality is very different. You know, I’ve been educated in Italian, I studied Dante, I have all this literary tradition with me. But what happened, when I moved to Italy because there was not a huge community. At the beginning there was a Somali community in Italy, but then they all left and they all went to countries where being a refugee was easier. I wanted to keep this country alive also in the most beautiful way I could, and so I started to fill out my cultural gaps studying Somalian poetry, looking for tales, but not because I wanted to be nostalgic, but just as a tribute, to mix this kind of traditions and to make them alive in a new way, because they had never been together. So often in the writings, for example in the first novel, I used three poems that were written because there is this time frame in the novel that the independence period, the civil war, and the diaspora, and I used these three poems and I rewrite them in the novel, just as a tribute to these poets.
MERRILL: So you bring them alive not only in a new context, but in a new language.
ALI FARAH: In a new language, exactly.
MERRILL: Which is how writers have revitalized literary traditions from the beginning, right?
ALI FARAH: Right, yes.
MERRILL: So before we wrap up our conversation, could you tell us about what you’re working on now?
ALI FARAH: So I have done for my PhD dissertation, I did my research on Somali theatre. Somali theatre was a new genre that corresponded exactly to the anti-colonial fights and so it was used as a tool to fight against the Italians, the colonialists, but there is a contradiction here because somehow it was a genre that was introduced by colonialization. So they are using a tool as a way to talk about what is happening because in the city, especially in the city, it was really appreciated and so on. So I collected a lot of stories from actresses and I wanted to talk about this very period, from the fifties to the sixties, when there was the Italian trusteeship in Somalia. So there was not a colony any more, but there were preparing Somalia to be independent somehow. And collecting stories from Italian magazines of the everyday stories of Italians. And I would like to write a story about that, about this period that was not explored yet, I think. Has not been explored yet.
MERRILL: That seems like a wonderful place to end our conversation. Thank you so much, Ubah Cristina Ali Farah.
ALI FARAH: Thank you, Christopher, thank you so much for having me here.
The International Writing Program is a nonprofit organization supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. To donate to the IWP or to support a writer, please visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.
Origins is edited and produced by Kathleen Maris Paltrineri, with research and editing by Ashley Chong, design by Donna Brooks, and production by Todd Johnson; music composition is by Noel Nissen with pianist Trevor Polk and music production with Brandon Darner and Micah Natera. I’m your host Christopher Merrill. For a transcript and more information about this episode, please visit us online. Stay tuned to our next podcast available September 15, 2018 on ApplePodcasts and SoundCloud where I talk with Singaporean writer Sharlene Teo.