Reviews of What Was Never Said
Efforts by a school and charity in Bristol to educate pupils about female genital mutilation have inspired a novelist to do the same, writes Richard Brooks
Emma Craigie researched What Was Never Said with the help of pupils at City Academy, many of whose families are from Somalia (Francesco Guidicini)
‘The Cutter came last night. I recognised her: her black clothes, her narrow face and the yellow whites of her eyes.”
The Cutter haunts the nightmares of 15-year-old Somali-born Zahra, the heroine of What Was Never Said, a new novel for young people by the teacher and writer Emma Craigie.
The teenager thinks she has escaped when she and her family move to Britain from Mogadishu, where her elder sister was subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) and died as a result of complications. Yet Zahra soon realises she must protect herself and her younger sibling from a trio of elderly Somali women in Britain.
FGM might seem an unlikely topic for Craigie — white, middle-aged and middle class — to tackle. The daughter of the former editor of The Times, William (later Lord) Rees-Mogg, and sister of the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, Craigie, who used to teach religious studies and English, and now teaches creative writing, has already penned one successful young-adult novel, Chocolate Cake With Hitler.
“Until about three years ago I knew very little about FGM,” confesses Craigie, who has four children. “But I was intrigued when I heard about work going on at City Academy in Bristol and a local charity called Integrate Bristol.” Craigie lives in Somerset, not far away from the city, which has a large Somali community.
She started researching further with the help of the academy and Integrate, which, as its name suggests, arranges the integration into British life of young people and children from other countries and cultures.
It has recently been working in the area of FGM, supporting those who are trying to eradicate the practice, as well as pushing for changes to policy in Britain.
The charity and the academy, which has many Muslim pupils, have staged plays and created poetry about FGM, as well as making a documentary. Representatives have also been on the BBC’s Newsnight and Woman’s Hour.
Gill Kelly, left, principal of City Academy, with Fahma Mohamed, a student campaigning against FGM (Adrian Sherratt/REX_Shutterstock)
Last year one of the academy’s pupils, Fahma Mohamed, along with Integrate’s project manager, Lisa Zimmermann, met Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, in New York. The school also persuaded the then education secretary, Michael Gove, to visit to see their work on FGM.
At the time Gove gave the impression that he wanted pupils to be taught about FGM, to educate and help those who had either had the operation or who might be returning during the long summer holidays to the countries of their origin, where the cutters were practising. However, Gove’s wife, the newspaper columnist Sarah Vine, seemed to disagree with him in an article in which she argued against teaching about FGM in schools. She wrote: “Immigration may have brought this abomination to our shores, but it must not bring it into our classrooms too.”
Zimmermann, who also teaches at City Academy, says too few children are being taught about the practice.
“Part of the trouble is that PSHE [personal, social and health education] has not been mandatory under the Tories in secondary schools,” she says. “So, many schools don’t do the lesson, because they are either keener on simply getting good grade results in mainstream subjects or worried about the issue of disclosure of a pupil having had the operation.”
As a result, Integrate has sent its own young volunteers to half a dozen schools in Bristol to talk about FGM, as well as visiting two all-girl Muslim schools in London. It has also given lessons in a mosque.
It is even trickier to get the message across in primary schools, despite the fact that most girls who undergo FGM do so between the ages of 6 and 12. Integrate Bristol has collaborated with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children on a short animated film about FGM and has also staged a drama at a primary school, St Werburgh’s, in Bristol.
Nimco Ali, an FGM activist who was born in Somalia, where she and her sister had the operation before coming to Britain, has read Craigie’s novel, which is published by Short Books.
“I just wish my generation had had this book,” she says. “It is both very readable and understandable, and, while it will probably be read mainly by girls, I hope boys do too. It heals my heart that somebody from Emma’s background has written this.”
The adult misery memoir boom has dripped down into the young adult fiction market, which is heaving with novels dealing with teenage suicide, anorexia, self-harm and rape. Quality is variable; some are more justifiable than others; occasionally you wonder if they’re a help or an incitement.
Emma Craigie, author of the excellent Chocolate Cake With Hitlerabout the last days of the Führer, and daughter of Lord Rees-Mogg, the late editor of this paper, is one of the goodies. She has written a fascinating, carefully researched story about female genital mutilation (FGM) — although you wouldn’t know it from its lovely shelf-friendly jacket.
Zahra, a 15-year-old Somalian girl, thinks she has escaped “the cutter” who killed her older sister Rahma, after her family move to Britain from Mogadishu. But then three familiar characters appear at the family flat and Zahra must protect herself and her six-year-old sister Samsam from the old lady with the skeletal fingers who approaches Sam with the deathly words, “Hello, little girl”.
Zahra must act fast and slips out with Sam in tow. With the help of her cousin Yas, who was cut the same day as Rahma but survived to become a university student in London, they find refuge until they can make their mother — herself in thrall to her own mother’s wishes — see sense.
There is some resolution, although Craigie is careful to make the Somali community, as well as white social workers and lawyers, part of it.
This may not be the sort of book you’d automatically slip into your daughter’s Christmas stocking, but it is an important, unsensational, beautifully written story that deserves to be read. The issue is dealt with head-on but the lack of explicit description of the act of FGM itself makes it just suitable for 12 plus. A good focus for teachers and students debating the issue in secondary schools.