A brutal confrontation on the eve of the Somali civil war in 1987 brings three women together, in Mohamed’s devastating second novel, The Orchard of Lost Souls.
You were born in Somalia in 1981. Were your characters drawn from memories?
Absolutely. The whole book is informed by the distant memories I have of the neighborhood we lived in, and by the stories my mother and female relatives have told me of that time. My own grandmother was already paralyzed when I left the country in ’86 and was one of the many disabled or elderly people abandoned when the war broke out.
What was Hargeisa like before the eruption of the civil war in the 1980s?
I can remember the world of children I inhabited, all of us fighting and playing in sandy streets, and the afternoon naps that my mother would trick me into. But talking about the dictatorship with my mother made me realize how hard life was then: curfews, police raids, conscription, health services so decayed that she would take us to a refugee camp miles away for treatment. Hargeisa is unrecognizable now—it’s like a woman liberated from an abusive marriage. There are still problems, but the dynamism and sense of autonomy that people have now is incredible.
Tell us about Kawsar’s orchard, which “grew from the remains of the children that had passed through her.” What is the meaning of the book’s title?
My grandmother had an orchard behind her house, and I visited it in 2008. It was just broken earth, debris, and weeds surrounded by the ruins of her still-booby-trapped home. I walked the perimeter trying to get a sense of my grandmother, the woman I had been named after, and I couldn’t; the war had destroyed even this aspect of her life. My grandmother, my mother, and I are all gardeners; we like to plant and nurture, and it seemed to me that Somalia had become a place where nothing could grow—the only seeds being sown were bullets. The title grew out of that feeling.
Do you draw from both African and Western storytelling traditions? What effect does writing in English have on your style and subject matter?
I think I have always enjoyed poetic language and being immersed in other cultures, but the next book I write will be set largely in London, so I’m trying to read books set there. Somali is a powerful spoken language, it allows anyone to speak like a character in a Shakespeare play—full of allusions and metaphors and grandiosity, I hope to write in Somali one day and capture that, but for the moment, I have to do a balancing act between how my characters would speak in their context and how I speak in mine. I often wonder what I would be like if we had stayed in Somalia. There is a good chance I would never have learned to read in all of the chaos of the war, and that is shocking. Not being able to read would feel like a kind of blindness to me now.