‘When you have in­jus­tice, some­thing has to change’

Story takes place in So­ma­lia be­fore its civil war Thurs­day, Oc­to­ber 12, 2017

StarMetro Calgary - - BOOKS & GOSSIP - Sue Carter For Metro Canada

Far­tumo Ku­sow hadn’t been to So­ma­lia since 1991, when her fam­ily fled just be­fore the start of the coun­try’s civil war, which has killed more than half a mil­lion peo­ple over three decades. She wanted to re­turn, but as a sin­gle mother rais­ing five kids, there was al­ways the ex­cuse of money. Yet Ku­sow, who now lives in Wind­sor, Ont., had trav­elled as far as Nairobi, but couldn’t bring her­self to re­turn home.

But when the or­ga­niz­ers of the So­mali Book Fair in­vited Ku­sow to Mo­gadishu in Septem­ber with her first English-lan­guage novel, Tale of a Boon’s Wife, she had no ex­cuses left. Ku­sow ob­served the dev­as­ta­tion im­me­di­ately: one of her favourite cul­tural land­marks, the na­tional li­brary and archives, had been re­duced to a ghost of its for­mer struc­ture, sur­rounded by new build­ings con­structed in bombed-out ru­ins. “It was like a place that had been hit by an earth­quake that wasn’t too strong to de­stroy ev­ery­thing, but things had moved,” Ku­sow says.

Tale of a Boon’s Wife takes place in the years lead­ing up to that de­struc­tion, when clan mili­tia over­threw So­ma­lia’s dic­ta­tor gov­ern­ment. The story fol­lows Idil, the head­strong daugh­ter of an army of­fi­cer who falls in love with gen­tle, artis­tic Si­dow, a mem­ber of the lower-class boon tribe. Dev­as­tated by her par­ents’ at­tempts at se­cur­ing a more suit­able hus­band, Idil runs away, giv­ing up the com­forts of her life to be with Si­dow, a de­ci­sion that in­evitably leads to tragedy.

Ku­sow’s first novel ran as a se­ri­al­ized story in the So­mali news­pa­per Oc­to­ber Star. While not overtly po­lit­i­cal, she says both her books demon­strate “the sub­ju­ga­tion of women in so­cial roles and the ex­pec­ta­tions that are not equal for ev­ery­one.” Tale of a Boon’s Wife was ini­tially in­spired by a news story about sev­eral teenage boys who were sen­tenced to each lose a hand for steal­ing cell­phones. Ku­sow says: “I was look­ing at them phys­i­cally and thinking, ‘Would this have hap­pened if they were from a dif­fer­ent tribe?’”

When Ku­sow ar­rived in Canada, she didn’t speak any English, but planned to get her mas­ter of fine arts de­gree and con­tinue writ­ing. Per­sis­tent in her goal, she took ESL lessons and earned her un­der­grad­u­ate English de­gree from the Univer­sity of Toronto. But when Ku­sow’s mar­riage failed and she needed an in­come, she be­came a teacher, sneak­ing in early hours to write when­ever pos­si­ble.

Kosow was equally per­sis­tent in send­ing her man­u­script out to agents and pub­lish­ers. She re­ceived 104 re­jec­tions be­fore Toronto’s Sec­ond Story Press ac­quired the man­u­script. Thanks to her ed­i­tor’s feed­back, Ku­sow re­al­ized she had made as­sump­tions about read­ers’ un­der­stand­ing of So­mali cul­ture and its tribal sys­tem. Re­work­ing the story also helped Ku­sow give a more per­sonal con­text to the coun­try’s hor­rific past. “The war didn’t just hap­pen. I be­lieve per­son­ally when you have in­jus­tice, some­thing has to change,” she says. “This doesn’t have to be a So­mali story to ed­u­cate one to see the ter­ri­ble out­come of this whole con­cept of ‘oth­er­ing’ other peo­ple, whether it’s gen­der or sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion or skin colour or eco­nom­ics or, in this case, tribal af­fil­i­a­tion.” Sue Carter is the ed­i­tor at Quill & Quire magazine.

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