Snapshots of rural and urban life in Somalia, written by a refugee and concerned with the “morality that’s long been dead” there.
In the late 1980s, Yusuf fled his native country for America, where he learned English and began writing nonfiction, plays, and short stories. This debut collection has some flat plotting and clunky lines, but Yusuf is unquestionably talented, with a knack for stories focused on injustice and the anxiety of separation, be it over time or distance. In the fablelike closing story, a young man who’s separated from his fellow refugees in the midst of Somalia’s civil war is given unlikely safe harbor by a lion, with the implication that the dangerous animal has a more honorable moral system than the human leaders who’ve splintered the country. Yusuf delivers a similar point in a more realistic form in “A Delicate Hope,” about an aspiring writer who’s given an opportunity to move to Saudi Arabia and escape his country’s degradations (rampant violence, innocent youth pressed into military service) only to watch his hopes get dashed catastrophically. Five linked stories featuring a woman named Mayxaano focus on Somali life more removed from military strife: She grew up an outcast (“Midgaan”) before becoming a teacher eager to speak up against the country’s caste system and misogynist culture. (“Men had claimed exclusive ownership of Somali poetry, although throughout history women had played a pivotal role by actually composing it,” Yusuf writes.) Each story individually has an instructive tone, but taken together the cycle has a more complex perspective on how people are inspired or damaged by social forces. Lives are lost to “an accumulation of social illnesses,” Mayxaano says, and these plainspoken stories are laments for their consequences.
Informative and direct storytelling from a corner of Africa that’s poorly understood in the West.