I wrote about Somalis because I met some inspirational Somalis.
A few days ago I got a facebook message in response to a blog I’d written for the Guardian, about my book What Was Never Said.
The message asked a very important question:
Hello, I am wondering why the Somali community was chosen as the subject of this book? Are you concerned at all that this book might contribute to the false narrative created by the media that reduces us to nothing more than pirates, terrorists and those who practice FGM?
And my answer was simple. Yes.
Yes, I am very concerned about adding to prejudice about Somali people. Yes, I understand that all too often Somalis are presented as pirates, terrorists and practitioners of FGM, and yes, I did think twice about setting the novel in the Somali community. I even created an entire draft of the novel which was completely decontextualized. All mentions, all details of Somalia, Bristol, England were removed. The novel was, briefly, suspended in a universal no-man’s-land. It didn’t work. It was as if the life and colour had been sucked out of it. My editor agreed. And I threw the novel back into the world, and among the people, that I had originally envisaged it.
So why did I envisage a novel about FGM in Bristol’s Somali community? It is not because this is the only community which suffers from the ancient practice of FGM. As I said in the Guardian piece, UNICEF estimates that 133 million worldwide have undergone FGM; UNICEF statistics suggest the practice is concentrated in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East.
Any of these 29 countries could have been my starting point. But they weren’t. My starting point was a group of students in Bristol – members of www.integratebristol.org.uk – who were mainly, but not exclusively, of Somali origin. These young people could not have been less like pirates, terrorists or cutters. They were – they are – campaigners for human rights, campaigners for an end to child abuse, campaigners for an end to violence against women and girls and campaigners for an end to FGM. I wrote about Somalis because I met some inspirational Somalis.
What Was Never Said does explore the terrible issue of FGM that affects the Somali community, but the whole structure of the book, the turns of plot, the development of the characters, reflect the fact that this community, like all others, contains good and bad. There are abusers and there are strong, powerful individuals who are striving to make the world a better place. I’ll finish by posting one of the videos which the young people of Integrate Bristol have made: