Nadifa Mohamed and Aleksandar Hemon are two authors with a background of displacement. Mohamed, a British-Somali novelist, was born in Hargeisa (now in the Republic of Somaliland) and moved to England as a child, staying permanently when war broke out in Somalia. Hemon left Bosnia in 1992, before the outbreak of war, for the United States, where he has lived ever since. His books include Nowhere Man, The Lazarus Project, and How Did You Get Here? Tales of Displacement.
Nadifa Mohamed: Can I ask you a question, Aleksandar? Do you still feel displaced?
Aleksandar Hemon: I do, yes, but I am also learning to live with it productively and, I guess, learning not to be traumatized by continuous displacement. One important thing in this whole equation is the distinct possibility that the sense of displacement is rooted in an experience that is inherently traumatic. This is clearly the case for refugees fleeing war, but I think that even voluntary emigration—that is, when people get up, sell their property and move to a new place—even that contains a certain amount of trauma.
Trauma is inherent in displacement; there are different degrees and intensities,and obviously for war refugees it’s the highest possible amount of trauma. I was not thrown out of my house, so violence, direct violence, is not part of my displacement—really in some ways I was never a refugee. One can sometimes overcome trauma and it was relatively easy for me to do so. So, I am displaced but I have found forms and ways, including writing, in fact primarily writing, in which that displacement is productive and not perpetually traumatic.
NM: You left on a pre-arranged trip to the US before the war, right?
AH: Correct, yes.
NM: Likewise, my family left Somalia two years before the war to join my father who was already living in the UK. So that idea of whether I’m a “real” refugee or not is something that comes up regularly—people want me to be a refugee sometimes because it brings a kind of romanticism to my life story. But I’m also quite insistent on being described as an immigrant, even though I was four years old when we moved and so I had no control over it, but I was joining my father who was already an economic migrant. I think that distinction is important. Still, you leave a place thinking it will still be there when you return, and that was something I strongly believed as a child. I thought we were only in the UK temporarily and then in 1988, less than two years after we left, there was no country to return to, and I guess it must have been a similar case for you, with Yugoslavia.
AH: It was, yeah. The difference between an immigrant and a refugee in my mind is the amount of agency that one has. The reason I couldn’t claim the status of refugee is because I chose not to go back, I chose to stay, just as I, under different circumstances, had chosen to leave. That difference was very stark in the 1990s when there were people being thrown out of their homes and killed. I had no right to claim that because I was able to make choices. I remember specific times and moments, indeed, when I had to choose whether to go back or to stay?
A refugee, a migrant who’s fleeing violence, doesn’t have that choice. When I left, Slovenia and Croatia were already independent, so although there was a state that called itself Yugoslavia, the original shape of it that I had grown up in had already gone. So, I was already making peace with that reality, and in some ways, I was leaving a country that didn’t exist yet, which is Bosnia. When I left, Bosnia was not independent. That took place while I was in Chicago, in the first few months of 1992.
This is not to correct what you were saying at all, it’s rather to point to the fact that it’s very hard to establish uniform molds for the refugee or displacement experience. Everyone has a different experience. Everyone comes from the same space, as it were, Bosnia, Somalia, but the experience is still theirs, and still they are so different and so particular, even in the tragic sense, that it really is difficult to generalize. I always have to footnote whenever people ask me anything about my experience of Bosnia, Yugoslavia and about my relationship with that—I don’t know what it’s like for you but I cannot give simple answers to any of those questions. To me it’s everything—I just keep talking because there’s always more to say. It’s more complex that anyone assumes.
You have to imagine that something is real for it to be real, and this applies to things as they are happening, because people think “this cannot be happening,” “this is not real,” and therefore they cannot see what is in front of them.
NM: Absolutely. When I went to Sarajevo over the summer for the book festival, it was upsetting to me; it was quite—I don’t want to say traumatizing—but it made me think about a lot of things that I hadn’t thought about for a long time.
I went to a museum that had an exhibition on the Srebrenica massacre and seeing all of the names listed, one after the other, so many family names connected to each other, made me think about my family and the uncle I lost in the war—the only one who died violently—but also about the others who died because of epidemics in refugee camps and other stupid, awful reasons. Experiencing it all vicariously from the UK, I didn’t understand it at the time, and the easiest way was just to not look at it. But what I found in Sarajevo was that there is a huge desire to look, to keep looking, to not look away, while in Somaliland it’s the complete opposite—there’s one kind of shabby memorial in the city center of a plane that was shot down during the war and is now on a plinth—but otherwise there are no museums and no-one talks about the war. The only real thing to mark the war is the number of mentally ill people and private clinics to deal with them. So, seeing Sarajevo respond to that trauma made me think more clearly about the trauma that my family have experienced.
AH: That’s very interesting. I’m not sure why there was that response. I know that as soon as Sarajevo came under siege, there were already people, including some involved in the government, thinking ahead, collecting data and recording what was happening with a view towards the future.
They were already thinking what Sarajevo would look like after the war and how the war would be remembered. They were collecting evidence to document what were self-evidently war crimes and they were already preparing for the future history and the future legal redress.
NM: So that started immediately?
AH: In some ways. The Srebrenica massacre of course happened in 1995, by which time the world had been watching what had been going on in Yugoslavia. So, it was at this stage shocking to many Bosnians—this was the privilege of Bosnia being, at least geographically, in Europe. People believed that the world would not let something like this happen in Europe.
The Sarajevo Olympic Games had happened just eight years before. There was a sense of Sarajevo being a worldly city. Bosnia is in Europe, but the victims were Muslim and so they were not quite in Europe.
The Bosnians were watching themselves through other people’s eyes to some extent, and as a result they were keeping those records. They were already invested in the images of the city before the war.
I watched it, a lot of it, I mean not the killing obviously but the siege, the diplomatic games around it, the reports, it was all on TV all the time.
NM: And how aware of the build-up to war were you, the build-up to it when you were there?
AH: Well it’s a strange thing. I worked as a journalist and that was all we covered, though I was a culture editor. A lot of my friends—to this day they are my friends—were straight-up journalists who would go and report on political issues, including the war. My roommate, a very close friend, went to report on the war in Croatia when it started and as a result was detained and nearly killed. I remember the magazine I worked for activating their journalistic association in Bosnia and sending faxes to save him. When he came back a few days later he had bruises all over his body from where they had beaten him.
The larger picture was horrible. As more things were broadcast, it was easier to see what was going on. At the same time, the strange thing is—similar to our experience in the United States right now—that people will not believe what is happening as it is going on. What I learnt is that you have to imagine that something is real for it to be real, and this applies to things as they are happening, because people think “this cannot be happening,” “this is not real,” and therefore they cannot see what is in front of them. I think it’s partly a mechanism of self-protection; we do not want to imagine our death every day of our life because if we did, we’d go crazy. I kept thinking, “This cannot happen, because what would I do if it happens?” It’s hard to imagine an alternate reality from within our present reality, and the total disintegration of reality is difficult to imagine too.
NM: Personally, I find such things very easy to imagine. I think I’ve always lived on high alert. I’ve always believed that my life is precarious, my existence is precarious, and that’s something I’ve inherited from my mum, who didn’t want to leave Somalia, war or anything, she didn’t care. That was where her roots were and she had no desire to leave them, so when she came to the UK, she felt like her life would disintegrate here. I had a strong sense of that too, and with the situation in the US today, I think it’s affected me so deeply that I’ve hunkered down—I know what this is and I know how much it threatens me and it’s one of the reasons I’ve not been back to the US for two years. I’m too frightened.
For migrants, displaced people, the question, “Who are you?” cannot be asked without asking, “How did you get here?”
AH: I understand. I think that people negotiate their reality depending on how or where they are and how they are exposed to it and where they might be in their life or geographically and socially. I often think about how I called my parents in Sarajevo a couple of weeks before the siege ended. While talking to my mum on the phone I would hear shooting and my mum would say, “Well, they are already shooting less than yesterday!” She kept expecting things would return to normal, that there would be a correction, but, of course, it cannot happen. The thing that is most frightening to me in the United States in many ways is this perpetual, vast, public hankering for a correction—that somehow Trump and Trumpism will be corrected by an investigation, or an impeachment, or whatever, some kind of correction and everything will go back more or less to how it was before. It is a total fantasy.
NM: Yes, and I think that is what is different having come from a place like Somalia where things have been bad for a long time, but everything has had a short life. So, the dictatorship had a relatively short life.
The colonial period was relatively short, so there is a sense that everything eventually collapses. The US hasn’t had a collapse like that since the Civil War. I think that people don’t realize that there is more violence in America than there is in Somalia. The number of mass killings in America completely exceeds anything that people would associate with the most war-torn parts of Africa. So, if that’s your normal, where do you go from there?
AH: What I’m worried about is not actually a civil war here in America, but the displacement and violence in society, and the disintegration of societal infrastructures. Society increasingly functions as a bunch of bubbles, which undermines the whole civic project, in which some kind of common civic order is imaginable. But this is reaching the point, and this is familiar to me—I don’t know what your experience of Somalia was—where people’s agendas are mutually exclusive.
There is no way to negotiate a shared outcome. I do not negotiate with fascists personally. I don’t advocate that.
NM: There’s a really nice passage in your piece about Kemalemir Frashto where you say, “What literature does, or at least can do, is allow for individual narrative enfranchisement. The very proposition of storytelling is that each life is a multitude of details, an irreplaceable combination of experiences which can be contained in their totality only in narration. I take it to be my writerly duty to facilitate the telling of such stories.” That really resonated with me. I don’t think of myself as having a particular goal with writing but this feels close to it.
AH: Thank you for saying that.
I mean, this project that I’m doing, it’s really a justification. Because, I’m sure, you meet Somalis all over the world, I meet Bosnians . . .
NM: Yes, this completely felt very familiar, this conversation you had with Frashto.
AH: . . . and I asked him, “How did you get here?” I was asking him just as conversation . . . so, tell me about yourself. For migrants, displaced people, the question, “Who are you?” cannot be asked without asking, “How did you get here?” People who have always lived where they are, in their native space or home space, you don’t ask them, “How did you get here?” You don’t ask that of a Brit or of an American.
NM: How did your paths cross?
AH: Someone told me about him when I was talking about the idea before it was a project, they gave me his contact details and I called him. What I discovered in doing this project, and it does support the passage that you read, what is really fascinating to me is the desire of people to tell their story. It’s happened more than once, including Kemalemir, that people would say to me, “I’ve never told the whole story to anyone,” or, “I’ve never told anyone this part.” Because a lot of people would tell parts to various people but they would never achieve a complete narrative.
Traumatized people hang out together because they can understand one another better, but it also means that they can never escape from their traumatic states because everyone is telling the same stories.
I don’t know if his was complete but, for him, there was this desire to complete the story—I had to do very little prompting—and every once in a while he would say, “I forgot to tell you this,” and then he would fill in that part. Sometimes they would leave things out because they were uncomfortable or private and personal but they had that part in their head, I could see. There is a basic narrative structure to a migration story: you start over there and then you end up over here. So, people often told me what happened chronologically but even with that they would skip a part and then go back to it because they would have a sense of incompleteness of the narrative.
To me it always meant two things: one of them was this desire, even if it had to be controlled or checked, to complete the narrative, to tell the whole story, and also, in relation to that, that it was a form of agency, that telling the story and telling the whole story, was at least an imaginative attempt to own it. To me, everything we’re talking about—the difference between immigrants and migrants and refugees and people who are in their home space—I think it can be measured with levels of agency. To think of a war refugee as someone who has the smallest amount of agency—that’s someone who cannot choose when to leave, how to leave, what to take, how to stay alive, because someone is trying to kill them.
To me, migration is really driven by a desire to move into spaces where people will have greater agency. You’re trying to survive—but not only to survive but go to a place where you would have a chance and space and ways to make a decision about what you want to do in your life, about what to do with your children. To me, this striving to me is the most fascinating and poignant and tragic thing in describing what is happening to migrants. But some of that agency is reimagined by people by telling their stories. They were recalling their choices, they owned their agency in their narratives. At the time it might have looked like they had no choice—it was random, it was just luck. But when we narrate, we make choices, what to tell, what not to tell, how much to tell.
NM: What do you think about how those experiences are translated between writers and readers who have never experienced anything like that? What happens to the writer who’s trying to mediate that?
AH: Well, it’s tricky. In the 1990s, when I lived in Chicago, there were a lot of Bosnians who arrived, serendipitously, in my neighborhood, so I would run into them.
I also met people who were involved in a project at the University of Illinois that was dealing with trauma and addressing trauma by way of testimonial. I’m paraphrasing a vast project by experts, you know, but basically the idea, as I understood it, was that for traumatized people, whether individually or collectively, one of the symptoms or situations common in that trauma is a very strong sense of disconnection from the outside world, from the world outside of the trauma. In a very basic sense, that is, no one who has not experienced what they had gone through could understand what that experience was like.
And the consequence of that, and I’ve seen it, was that traumatized people hang out together because they can understand one another better, but it also means that they can never escape from their traumatic states because everyone is telling the same stories about rape and murder and shelling, different in details but not structurally. So, this whole project was trying to help those people get out of their trauma, as it were, by providing them with a space or way to testify about what happened.
Not just for legal purposes, but to tell someone outside the space what happened and to allow them to develop a belief, a sense, that someone outside the space could begin to understand and would care. Now, it’s very possible that no one could ever fully understand what happened to someone who was inside that space but the leap between total inability to understand, to someone who might be able to at least try to understand, is huge. So, I had to deal with that leap from inability to being able to listen. I understood the language, I knew the people, I knew the geography, I knew the details of the war. I was as close as can be to that space and yet I was outside. One of the things I learned—this was in my twenties—I learned to listen to people, which I wasn’t good at when I was young.
NM: What you are saying makes me think about one of my recent obsessions, the Grenfell Tower fire. You have this tower of social housing which was 80 percent Muslim, 90 percent immigrant, it was a tower of displacement, of people displaced from other parts of the world.
One of the funny things about the process of becoming a refugee is that it often throws in the victims of violence with the perpetrators of violence.
I’ve been going through all of the witness statements for the enquiry—there are dozens of them, of people who lived in the tower and survived the fire but lost family in the fire. They range from a man who had fled from Eritria and had multiple degrees but was now living and working in London as security guards. There was another guy, from Afghanistan, who had been a high-ranking army official and had fled the Taliban. There were all of these incredible narratives, mostly ending in tragedy, in London, in the richest borough in the country.
One thing that comes through in a lot of the narratives is a strong sense of survivor’s guilt, of people who kept thinking, “I should’ve knocked on more neighbors’ doors, I should’ve rung when I left,” people who had really little agency in that moment but are now destroying themselves because of the guilt that they still carry. The sort of space Grenfell represents I’m very familiar with, it’s similar—I didn’t grow up in such an international place, I was on an estate in South West London which was very English—but it still feels very familiar to me and as an adult it’s definitely been my world.
And I notice that we’re not writing about that—I’m not writing about that world, I’ve been concentrating on what happened in Somalia and have been going through these old wounds and ignoring what’s been happening right in front of me in London, where people can burn to death in a tower because they’ve been neglected and they’re neglected because of who they are and because of the narratives told about them. So, I feel a real discomfort now with literature, with the way I’ve been working, with the way that I’ve been understanding things—it’s felt like a real shock to the system.
AH: That’s difficult. But there’s always a sense of obligation and duty—the ethics of writing that you are now expressing—that to me is familiar. It doesn’t come to fiction writers naturally. When I wanted to be a writer in my twenties in Sarajevo, I wasn’t invested in finding ethical ways to engage with the world by way of language and literature. At the same time, I had read writers for whom the ethics of literature was really important. Those were not the only writers I read but it was part of the literary culture in eastern Europe. Dissidence and, you know, the politics of it was always present. Then that was all reactivated by the war in Bosnia. I started thinking about it in that present context. The point being, and I don’t mean to be presumptuous about your work in any way, that you could think about Grenfell Tower because you were thinking about Somalia.
NM: Yes, I think they’re closely connected.
AH: As regards this ethical question, the ethical issue, the ethics of literature, what it does and what it doesn’t do, what it can do, what it can’t do, you are nowhere near failure in that respect. People have extremely productive and fruitful lives without ever addressing the actual ethics of literature. For us, it seems to me, it’s ever present, inescapable. It’s not something you wake up in the morning and think: now I’m going to do ethics.
NM: One of the funny things about the process of becoming a refugee is that it often throws in the victims of violence with the perpetrators of violence, so that’s why in the US there’s been a long-ongoing case of a torturer from the Somali dictatorship who moved to Minnesota where many Somali refugees are, and so former political prisoners brought a case against him. It became a very high-profile case because it had an impact on what might happen to other such people in the US. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I am particularly interested in societies that have ruptured. So even with my first novel, without knowing, I was actually kind of trying to map all of the ruptures that had happened to Somalia because of colonialism, because of the Second World War, and the second one was set just before the Civil War and the first few days of it in Somalia. The novel I’ve just finished now is set in Cardiff in a part of the docklands, which were completely demolished in the late 1960s and don’t exist in the same way at all any more. There’s something in me that keeps going back to those societies that are on the edge, I think, and that has definitely contributed to my feeling that the society I live in, the one that is familiar to me, is also very fragile and could disappear.
AH: Well yes, there are fewer people in that society who actually know that because they believe in some kind of inherent property of society that is going to keep it stable forever, despite all historical evidence and the evidence they have right now.
It leaves me feeling that if you’re a refugee you’re only good for filling in the gaps that society wants you to fill in—as cheap labor, as someone to feel good about, as a receptacle of mercy and charity.
NM: Yeah, and I think Britain is particularly bad for that. All of the jingoism, the whole national myth is that we could never be anything but great.
AH: I suppose. I also think that with societies like the British and American ones—so dependent on the belief in their special value and exceptional qualities—what they are becoming incapable of is changing before it’s too late. Because they think this everlasting constitution, this everlasting quality of our people, will just correct everything. Whereas we know, one way or another, that it can all just collapse, just like that, because it can. There’s really no rational reason to believe that it can’t. So, the question is how long it will take and what it will take. People think and everyone thinks and I think that way because the constitution of human psychology is that you imagine only what is the extension of this reality, or you’re more likely to imagine the extension of what you already know.
To imagine the unimaginable is obviously not possible but it is the unimaginable that changes the world, not the imaginable. It’s the discontinuity that’s frightening and discontinuity is what is going to end Great Britain, not the continuity. It becomes kind of a logical, conceptual paradox. To imagine a different place, you have to imagine a different place, not this place just slightly different. For some reason that’s very difficult for people and I think this is where fiction comes in—the perpetual practice of the imagination. We live as humans and as writers, not only past lives and present lives but also our possible lives. We edit possible lives. I don’t want to be presumptuous but you have your character or situation thinking maybe he or she could do this, or that, and then you make choices, you make ethical and narrative and imaginative choices based on what hasn’t happened yet. So, in that sense, pushing the society to its limits is often done, usually done, imaginatively, in narratives. That is the exciting thing about writing. I think people like us, who are displaced and also coming from somewhere else, are not in awe—I have never been in awe—of that great stability of American or British society and Western civilization. To me, that was never self-evidently present.
NM: To me neither. It’s interesting because for Somalis in the 1990s, it was much easier to get asylum. You could fly here, you didn’t have to cross the Sahara or risk your life across the Mediterranean, people just landed at Heathrow and gave themselves up as refugees. There was a huge influx and my family were on the fringes of it because most of the people settled in East London or North London and we happened to live in a place where other Somalis didn’t. I’ve been looking at it now and it was such an incredibly traumatic time. There were many suicides, there were people living on 30 pounds a week and then sending 15 pounds of that back to their family, wherever they might be. It’s not a surprise to see various dysfunctionalities within second-generation and third-generation Somalis and I do believe that it’s because of the trauma of that period. The whole idea of refugees being accepted I think was a bit more popular in the 1990s but was still very marginal.
I grew up in an area where you would see far right stickers and graffiti and the rest of it. It’s easy to really think of the past as being simpler than it is now but it wasn’t. This whole idea that Britain, I think, has an open hand towards refugees, that’s not true. The US as well, when there were Jewish refugees in the 1930s and 1940s, most of them were not allowed in. Some of them were sent back. It leaves me feeling that if you’re a refugee you’re only good for filling in the gaps that society wants you to fill in—as cheap labor, as someone to feel good about, as a receptacle of mercy and charity. That’s not enough to build an identity on and I wonder about young people who seem very keenly aware of the fact that they don’t belong here and they reach for Islam, they reach for other things but there’s nothing that can really assuage that feeling that, deep down, they’re not wanted here.
AH: For a lot of immigrants and migrants and refugees—there is this trauma that they were expelled from one place because of who they were and now they are not received in another place because of who they are. Even if it’s relatively welcoming, the wound of trauma is so sore that it’s very difficult to just settle into this, which is so different, we have to constantly explain ourselves to other people and justify our presence here.
And I am white, I am a man, I speak English, I write in it, and still I have a constant need to explain myself to people who do not know me. To this extent, I do not belong here, I am not self-evident here. For someone who comes from a different background—I mean, I could fit, I could somehow merge, but I could never be self-evident.
NM: You could be invisible.
AH: What happens to African refugees coming in now or people coming in from Guatemala—their children’s children will have to be explaining themselves.
NM: Yes, and I still feel like I’m explaining. My family have been in the UK since 1947 and I still feel that I’m marginal, that my grip on society is still very tenuous. It’s a scary thought.
AH: I think it’s productive intellectually and for a writer, but it really is difficult. I, for one, I have an outlet in which I can address that. I have a domain of agency.
NM: Yes, me too.
AH: But there are people who don’t—the people in Grenfell Tower.
Aleksandar Hemon is the author of The Making of Zombie Wars; The Book of My Lives, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; The Lazarus Project, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and a New York Times bestseller; and three books of short stories: Love and Obstacles; Nowhere Man, also a finalist for the NBCC Award; and The Question of Bruno.
Nadifa Mohamed was born in Hargeisa, Somalia in 1981 and studied History and Politics at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford University. Her first novel, Black Mamba Boy, won the Betty Trask Prize, was long-listed for the Orange Prize, and was short-listed for the Guardian First Book Award, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize, and the PEN Open Book Award. In 2013 she was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists and in 2014 as one of Africa 39’s Best of Young African Novelists. Her second novel, The Orchard of Lost Souls, was published in 2013 and won a Somerset Maugham Prize and the Prix Albert Bernard, and was long-listed for The Dylan Thomas Prize and short-listed for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Her work is translated into fourteen languages. She is a recipient of an Arts and Literary Arts Fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.