Interview: Hanna Ali on Identity, Belonging, and the Storytelling of Somali Diaspora
The poet, writer, and researcher explores the nuances of humanity in migration, language, and the search for home.
This interview also appears on MVSLIM.
Hanna Ali is a poet, writer, researcher, and advocate. As a Teaching Fellow and PhD candidate at SOAS University of London, she focuses on migration and Afro-Arab identity. Born in Mogadishu, Somalia, she and her family were forced to flee the civil war that gripped the nation throughout the 1980s and beyond. By age five, she had migrated to Sweden, and then years later to the United Kingdom.
Sheekadii Noloshayada (The Story of Us), published by Market FiftyFour, is her short story collection that features the perspectives of women in the Somali diaspora and their experiences with themes of identity, belonging, and the challenge of searching for meaning in an uncertain world. First released in Somali, the stories are a modern creative work that directly explores the impact of struggle, taboo, and trauma across generations.
In discussion, Ali shares her perspective on the realities of forced migration, politics in language, the nuances of identity, and the need for direct action to create social change.
“People are changing, people change all the time — this idea that you are this one thing, is very much something that I write against. I think that you are constantly evolving, changing with your life experience.”
What’s the importance of being able to face taboos and controversial subjects in literature and media? What impact do you hope to have by exploring these themes?
The importance of that is that it exists. This idea that women are multifaceted creatures, multi-layered. I don’t really believe in this idea of “good people, bad people,” or “good women, bad women.” I think that we as human beings and as women in particular in this context, have several layers to us, different experiences that shape us. I think we all carry a level of experiences that perhaps we’re not 100% proud of, and experiences that we are proud of.
Those things, obviously, from person to person, differ in the extremity of it. But I think that it is really important to talk about these “taboo” subjects, because it actually exists, and it’s not a rare occasion. I think that a lot of people are struggling to come to terms with what it means to be a woman, to be a Muslim woman, what it means to be, for example, a Somali that’s growing up outside of Somalia and in the different cultures of Europe, America, wherever you find yourself in the West.
All of those things come together to a certain type of person that perhaps already has a very unstable foundation, meaning they are somebody that was part of forced migration and has perhaps experienced a lot of trauma from that as a child. And then how do you move on from childhood trauma and then come into adulthood with this emotional baggage, and then how do you unravel that? That’s why I think it’s important: because it exists and these women are not just mythical creatures — they are amongst us. They are everyone that I know, parts of me, parts of friends.
It’s important to face taboos in particular, I think, because the Somali culture, in terms of its creative side, which is mostly poetry, doesn’t really deal with taboo subjects. I think that it’s really important to talk about difficult things under the umbrella of creative writing — to understand that also, when you look at Somali people, and you look at Somali experiences — if it’s violence, full of trauma — then that’s not necessarily always just gonna be through the eyes of the news or facts, but that can also come to you via a creative platform.
How are the stories shaped by combining elements of fiction and reality? For example, the use of the first-person and letting readers have a variety of interpretations.
The reason why I use first-person is because I started off writing as a poet. I was very much influenced by the poetry that I saw around me, a lot of stand-up poetry, this style of poetry that dealt with first-person and felt very raw and very personal — “I experience this.” That really helped me to see myself through somebody else talking about something through a first-person perspective. I found that much more personal and hard-hitting in a way. That’s why I chose it, because that’s how I write my poetry as well. These stories are an extension of my poetry — they’re direct quotes from my poetry. I’m hoping that it will help people to take from it what they want.
I think the importance of literature and creative writing, short stories, poetry, whatever — is that if you find something between the lines or a direct line, and you think, “wow, that’s how I feel, that’s my experience, that’s how I felt in that moment.” This idea that, “I didn’t know that this happened to other people.” Not necessarily the event, but that other people experienced hurt in this sort of way, through these types of descriptions that really echo how it felt in that moment. That’s what I’m trying to do.
I’m hoping that people will read these stories and are able to relate to them. These are not necessarily nice or easy things to relate to, but they’re important things, and I think the idea of hurt and trauma is universal — it’s not limited to the Somali story. I think that a lot of us growing up, when we reach a certain age, have had certain types of experiences, where we have probably, at some point, felt some sort of hurt. If somebody can take from it and relate to it and perhaps find some sort of comfort, then that would be great.
Can you expand on some of the defining elements of Somali poetry, its use of imagery and language, and how that influences your writing?
Somali poetry, as a genre on its own, is not something that I grew up reading, and that’s part of my frustration as being somebody who grew up in the diaspora, and part of my frustration as somebody who came to Europe as a refugee, and sort of being limited in my Somali. Somali poetry is incredibly intricate, detailed, intellectual, beautiful — it talks about love, religion, the homeland — things that I and I think a lot of second generation diaspora, or migrants in the West, feel frustrated that we don’t have enough language tools to be able to read Somali poetry to the extent that it deserves to be read.
One of the reasons I was really excited for working with Market FiftyFour and working with the translator who translated these books, is that it enabled me also as I’m helping the translation process, to actually learn a lot of Somali by myself during the process, because of course, I don’t speak Somali to the extent that I speak English. So when I write something that has multiple meanings and is really complicated in English, and I’m working with somebody who’s helping me translate it into Somali, that process helped me learn a lot of Somali that I otherwise would have never been able to learn because that’s not the language I would’ve used in my everyday Somali. I think it’s also really important to talk about the frustration that a lot of the second generation feels in their limited language skills.
What’s the importance of representing both Somali and African languages in modern literature and storytelling? How have readers reacted and engaged?
I think it’s hugely important to again and again promote and really shout as loud as we can, that African stories need to be told in African languages. The importance of that is, a lot of people that live on the continent — in my case, let’s say in the Somali region — a lot of them are young, keen to read fiction, creative work. So what I wanted to do was to bring them creative, brand new, original work that hasn’t been read by anyone else and give it to them first in their language. What that enables for them to do is to have fiction available to them, but fiction that’s relatable to them somehow.
When I grew up, I read fiction that had nothing to do with me. I was reading coming-of-age books that were talking about white girls in America or England. I sort of understood their problems, but I didn’t really understand their problems or, certainly, their problems were limited, and I had their problems plus my own cultural problems. I’m hoping that my stories will not necessarily be a coming-of-age, but a sense of enjoying fictional work they can also relate to.
The feedback that I’ve had from Somali people has been amazing. It forced a lot of people to admit that they are frustrated about their lack of Somali language. That’s a really hard thing — for somebody to come up to you and say, actually, I’m quite embarrassed, that it will take me a very long time to read this, and will certainly take me a very long time to understand the depth of what you’re trying to say in the Somali language.
It opened a conversation, really, about how good our Somali is, and what are you going to do about it. The amazing thing that Market FiftyFour did is also give the audio version of the stories, which was recorded by an amazing woman [Susu Amina], and it just sounds fantastic. Of course, for a lot of people that are not confident reading and writing in Somali, they understand the language, so they are able to listen to the audio, and actually, people have come up to me and said that, in listening to the audio stories, it’s taught them so much Somali. Just by hearing the words, understanding the context, and thinking, “that’s how you’d describe that feeling.”
It’s been amazing. It’s been a revelation for myself and other Somali readers, linguistically as well.
“…the four different stories then become four different examples of how somebody’s life can turn out after having experienced displacement at a very young age. And, of course, displacement physically will also affect you psychologically, emotionally, the rest of your life really. That’s why I wanted to engage with in these stories.”
How can translation in literature or otherwise be political? This is an area that many might think of as being apolitical.
From a researcher’s point of view, for me, everything is political and speaks to power. That’s something I probably take on with my creative work as well. It’s hard because my initial answer is yes, but I also want to really sort of stress this point, that in my stories, I’ve tried as much as I could, to make it more about the people rather than the place. I use the word Somalia, which is how I grew up to see the region.
I was born in Mogadishu, the capital, so Somalia is the word that we use in my household, but of course we are now in a certain time where there’s a lot of momentum gathering for this mission of people that want a separate Somaliland and there’s regionalism going on — people wanting to separate. And I always think that people have a right to demand the space that they feel they belong in and I completely, sort of, think that’s great. But I’ve tried in my stories to stay away from that, perhaps by using Somalia, people might think that perhaps I’m more nationalistic in that sense.
In my creative space, I’ve tried to make it very safe, and about Somali people, rather than Somalia or Somaliland, or, you know, Puntland, what have you. That’s something I’ve been very conscious about, because I do work for this Somali organisation, and we try to bring together people outside of regionalism. My effort has been to keep it apolitical.
A Somali author writes about pre-marital sex and abortionwww.bbc.co.uk
In research and life, what nuances have you observed with how Afro-Arab identity is perceived? For example, you’ve previously discussed how spoken language influences the way people think of group membership.
It’s interesting that you should ask me that. I’ve had an encounter on Twitter awhile back, where there was some backlash from Twitter trolls, and I found myself being the center of one. When that happens to you, it’s quite incredible. You think, who am I to have this kind of dedication?
These people were talking really nasty about me — I think there was two of them — saying that, “here I am, another Somali girl who doesn’t think that she’s Somali anymore and studying Afro-Arab. Okay, so we’re now Arabs, is it? Here we go, another light skin girl trying to claim that she’s Arab.” That was a whole thing — they were having conversations with themselves, where someone talks to themselves, and then creates a conclusion. They blocked me as well.
So I made a tweet about it — what I wanted to say was: I keep my research about Afro-Arab identity from my Somali identity. I think that people think because I’m Somali and because I’m doing a PhD on Afro-Arab identity, the conclusion must be “Somalis are Afro-Arabs” in some type of way. As if there is a nationalistic, patriotic duty that you have — that when you do a PhD it has to be about your country because otherwise, what are you doing? But my PhD has nothing to do with Somalia, at all.
I have no interest in engaging with the idea that Somalis are Afro-Arabs — it’s a very conscientiousness subject; it’s something that Somalis get heated up about so quickly. I look at Sudan and Egypt, Zanzibar — things like that. I think it’s so annoying that people reach those conclusions by themselves.
I do think that the idea of identity is really important. Spoken language is a huge way that people think of group membership, for sure. Somali language is an integral part, I would say, in being part of the Somali community. Of course there are now so many of us who grow up here and certainly the generation after me — that’s born in the West — you’ll find people who can’t speak Somali at all. And then there’s the next level: people who can’t speak Somali at all and can’t understand it. Do we look at them as less Somali? Of course we don’t. It’s ludicrous that things should be connected, language and membership.
I do think that Somali language is a huge part of Somali identity and it’s the way in which Somali culture expresses itself the best. It’s massively important, but again, in my stories and others as well, what I want to look at, is people who don’t have that — who don’t have the language tools and skills. Does that make them less Somali? Questions like that.
“These are all very different women, but they are examples of how lives can turn out when your foundation as a child is that you come from hurt, from trauma — you’ve experienced a forced migration, a lot of violence — being a refugee.”
In a previous interview, you shared that researching identity enabled you “to realize you can’t tell people what they are.” Can you expand on this and the concept of lived experience?
I’m always massively amazed everywhere I go, no matter how much I read, that people are really hugely interested, if not obsessed, with this idea of culture and “who am I?” This idea of identity has always been really important and, to me, of course for my studies, I think the whole idea of lived experience is probably the best way to describe the reality of an entire people.
And the reality is that all of us have different life experiences, especially being scattered everywhere and living in different countries, speaking different languages, eating different foods. You really change according to the place that you’re in. Somalis living in Finland are going to be completely different from Somalis living in America, et cetera. But the common thread there is that their sense of Somaliness and their sense of who they are is a part of their lived experience, so there’s no box that you can fit int in.
People are changing, people change all the time — this idea that you are this one thing, is very much something that I write against. I think that you are constantly evolving, changing with your life experience. Your identity — in terms of your Somali identity, religious identity — those type of things can either play a huge role in your life or they can’t. That’s really up to you, in terms of the value you put on that. Those are the types of things I mean by lived experience, in the sense that you see yourself to be a certain way, that’s what you believe, and how you live your life and what you value. Those things are important to you.
I don’t believe in this idea of, “you’re only Somali if you speak the language,” or dress a certain way. Or that you’re only Muslim if you wear hijab. I think that we are, as people we’re are much more than that, and the whole judging aspect is not ideal in any way.
“…encourage people to write, to create websites, create blogs, to write that story that’s in your head — to tell your life story, write poems… to get your word out there…to really engage. Because nobody is going to tell your story better than you.”
How does feeling between identities and seeking belonging affect young people and children in particular? You’ve discussed previously how trauma and struggle can be passed across generations through diaspora and beyond.
When I look at these questions about lived experience and identity and displacement and trauma — all of that — my stories, I think, are perfect examples of that, because my stories in the collection are talking about four different women who are all Somali and who have had completely different experiences.
We’ve got one who only sort of really knows life with her grandmother at home, doesn’t really leave the house, is about to go off to university for the first time. We have another woman who is much older, goes from man to man, is desperately trying to get one of them to get her pregnant, so she can have something to hold onto, and goes through domestic violence.
We have another story about a young teenage girl who is in a sexual relationship with a guy whose family is extremely right-wing, actively in the far right-wing community. Then we have another story about a girl in Somalia who is in a forced marriage and coming to terms with that. These are all very different women, but they are examples of how lives can turn out when your foundation as a child is that you come from hurt, from trauma — you’ve experienced a forced migration, a lot of violence — being a refugee.
My personal childhood experience of being a refugee at a very young age, and the things that I witnessed has definitely influenced the foundation of these stories. But then the four different stories then become four different examples of how somebody's life can turn out after having experienced displacement at a very young age. And, of course, displacement physically will also affect you psychologically, emotionally, the rest of your life really. That’s why I wanted to engage with in these stories.
Representation in media is an ongoing problem. Can you speak to the importance of proactively supporting content creators and the impact of entrepreneurial thinking?
Honestly, as much as you can tell people that we are underrepresented, that there’s not enough Somali voices out there, Black voices, Muslim voices. Of course being Somali, we tick all three of those boxes, so we really feel that marginalization or underrepresentation. Not saying that we feel it more than others, but that it definitely exists.
The best way to tackle that, rather than just saying this is what’s happening, is to encourage people to write, to create websites, create blogs, to write that story that’s in your head — to tell your life story, write poems, enter competitions, to get your word out there, to release your work into different online journals and what have you, to really engage. Because nobody is going to tell your story better than you. You can be out there on Twitter all day long and say we’re underrepresented, but it’s really your responsibility, to a certain extent, to be part of what represents you. I think that so many of us can do that. You don’t necessarily have to have a creative interest like me — you can create an app, a website, you can do so much — you just need to get yourself out there.
I think there’s a lot of lazy activism going on — lazy protesting in the sense of, “yeah, we need that, but I’m not gonna do that.” You actually need to get out there. These stories, I’ve had them inside me for so long. My biggest regret is that I didn’t share my poetry — I could’ve done this 5, 10 years ago — but I was always afraid of what people would think. I didn’t want them to think this was me, or I was talking about myself , or what if it’s bad — what if I actually discover I’m a terrible writer? Isn’t it better if I just hold it for myself? I don’t believe in that — just get it out there.
Somewhere there is somebody who really, really needs to hear what you have to say and really needs somebody to unpack some of the issues that they’re dealing with, that they haven’t quite found a place or person or piece of writing that has described it as they know. My advice is that people need to do more and by people, I mean those who feel underrepresented need to not be part of what’s creating the problem.
You’ve discussed being inspired upon discovering postcolonial studies. What about it activated your interest?
When I then discovered postcolonial literature it was like, oh my god. It was this idea of — when you grow up as black girl in Europe, everything that you read, you read it as you learn to identify with the hero, and you learn to identify with the heroine an the protagonist and think, “yes, she’s like me, she fell in love, I fell in love.” And the reality was that nobody in those books looked like me, spoke like me, had my religion, my language, my culture. It was literally something else completely that I had learned that that’s who I was.
When you see somebody who was of a minority or black or what have you, they were just the little token character in the book to go from point A to B — they were never going to be a part of the story. Their voice never mattered. And of course I learned to believe their voice doesn’t matter, because I don’t care about them, I care about the white protagonist — “oh my god, I don’t want the savage to kill them” — that sort of thing instilled in you from a very young age. I think it’s only when you grow up, you realize.
When I did my university degree, it was only in the third year, after I’d done a gap year, and during my gap year I’d discovered postcolonial literature and my mind was blown about all these African protagonists, and the white man was literally like a token person — it was amazing. I look back at that and I feel really embarrassed that I was so old — I was 19, 20 when I discovered postcolonial literature properly, and that’s a really, really old age, to have spent 20 years of your life having read yourself to be the savage, and then realizing the other side.
So, postcolonial literature is amazing. It’s the reason why I did my Master’s in postcolonial studies and decolonizing academia is something I’m heavily interested in and work towards. Just having a different point of view, just looking at the world from different eyes than just what we’ve been told over and over again. I think it’s fundamental. If I could go back and do it again, I would’ve learned and read better and realized that there was more out there at a much younger age. Postcolonial studies changed my life and it’s the reason why I’m still in academia and trying to do my research in a way that’s very non-Eurocentric and looking at a different way of looking at research and theory, rather than just from the Western point of view.
How did language learning become a passion? How did that shape the way you learned about and interacted with those peoples and cultures?
I speak three languages. On a good day, I could probably say four. I can probably claim Arabic, though my Arabic is a bit rusty now. Language is something that’s been a big part of my life. I think it’s something that a lot of us, growing up in different countries like I did — I lived in so many different countries, and each one changes you in a different way. Perhaps I don’t see it myself when I’m doing it, I know through the eyes of other people when I speak Somali, I sound really different, really aggressive, and I become louder. When I speak Swedish, I speak more quietly and the words are really dragged. It’s different parts of me that I don’t even think about it, but from the outside, they think, “oh my god, you sound really different.” And then when I speak English, it’s just the language I use the most.
Each one is really different, and it’s always interesting when people watch you use different languages and react to you. I think that each language for me brings out a different, not necessarily different personality, but it certainly brings about a different memories, feelings. Somali is a very important language to me — it’s my mother tongue, the one I learned first. It’s the one I always associate with home. I speak Somali to my mom. For example, we never speak Swedish or English to each other — we exclusively talk in Somali. So it’s always something going to be connected to my family, my home.
Swedish is always going to remind me of my childhood and those early experiences that were good and bad. And English is the language that I sort of became intellectual in. When you bring all these together, I think it’s quite interesting to see how language brings about different personalities within you. That’s something I explore in my stories as well, about people who speak different languages — in one of the stories in particular — and looking back at that language.
I think it’s in “Bloated”, where the protagonist talks about how, in hindsight, the Swedish language must actually sound and the difficulties of learning it when we were living there because of course, if you didn’t speak Swedish by the way, you weren’t going to get the nationality. It was one of those things that as a refugee you had to take Swedish classes to eventually get citizenship. Language is massively important and it’s something that I think can connect you not only to people but also certain moments in your life that you’ll always connect to that specific language.