A Writer’s Role Isn’t to Answer Questions but to Ask Them–Abdul Adan

Abdul Adan is Somali American writer. He grew up in Kenya and later moved to the US where he studied literature at Washington University. His fiction has appeared in several journals including Kwani?, African-Writing, and SCARF. His short story The Somalification of James Karangi, was published in GAMBIT: Newer African Writing, an anthology by The Mantle Books. His passions include chess, fiction, and Eurasian languages. The African Book Review had a conversation with Abdul Adan about The Somalification of James Karangi and his role of as an African writer.

ab pinABR: What inspires your writing?

ADAN: Very often the stories I write, and end up liking, are not born out of incidents, or places and people, but out of something I have come to call “the what if factor.” I look at reality as it is, and ask myself, what if it were otherwise? What if a man chased a dog down the street and bit it? Lately, the new “what if?” in my mind has been, “What if we had tails?” Perhaps, touching a lady’s tail, would be punishable by death, regardless of the circumstances under which the contact occurred. I hope a plot will come out of this.

ABR: Your story, The Somalification of James Karangi included in Gambit deals with the ‘somalification’ of a character, turning him into a real Somali man worthy of a Somali bride. While slightly comic, it’s an interesting idea that one can morph identity from one thing to another. What was your inspiration for it and to what extent do you think identity is a fluid, adjustable thing?

ADAN: The Somalification was inspired by an incident in High School. A friend of mine, a Kikuyu boy, tried to pronounce Somali words, and ended up choking. He probably exaggerated whatever irritation was in his throat, but at the end he did say that he suspected Somali children was strangled for weeks to enable them to speak their own language correctly. Almost a decade later, I decided to try it out in a short story. I have since thanked him for the idea, and he was greatly flattered. Everything else in the story was written to make the ‘choking scene’ possible. I speak about my own identity, which has shifted a lot over the years. I am now undergoing a third metamorphosis, learning to speak and think in Kazakh. So far it is going well. I will soon write about my Kazakhanization. Honestly though, I have no idea what drives me towards this theme. It keeps coming back. Some forces in the universe want me to keep changing and force identity changes in fictional characters.

ABR: Did you set out to accomplish a point through the story and do you try to accomplish something through your work in general? If so, what are you trying to accomplish?

ADAN: Often I aim to invite curiosity and conversation about the tackled subjects. In this, I am a follower of Anton Chekhov, who said

a writer’s role isn’t to answer questions but to ask them

I want to have readers lean back after a story and say, ‘come to think of it….’

ABR: As a Somali writer, how has Somalia, and more specifically being from the Gedo region which has Kenyan influences, influenced your works and what do you think the future of Somali writing will be?

ADAN: I must admit that Somalia’s role on me has been minimal. I have been an external observer for as long as I can remember. The Somali people, on the other hand, have had a great influence on my work. You have seen this in the Somalification story that you read. Being from Gedo, (part of Gedo is in Kenya), has made me more conscious of how outsiders (especially fellow Eastern Africans) view Somalis. There’s so much that can be done with the Somali story I think. Unfortunately, much of the English language writing about Somalis out there isn’t up to the task. Not many have been strong enough to capture the active, ever changing Somali spirit with precision. I worry those of us writing in English aren’t good enough to adequately tell the Somali story with all its colors. I hope to see writings that are innovative, both in subject and style, works that attempt to paint the Somali national and ethnic character. Giving characters Somali names or dressing them up as Somalis isn’t enough.

ABR: Do you have any favorite African novelists or writers?

ADAN: Chuma Nwokolo, Chika Unigwe, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Mehul Gohil, Dango Mkandawire, Zukiswa Wanner, and Okwiri Oduor.

ABR: What are some of the projects you are currently working on?

ADAN: I am working on a bunch of things. A short novel and two essays about Kazakhstan, where I live now. The essays explore what’s perhaps the oldest of the Turkic languages, Kazakh, and compares it to Somali and certain variations of Oromo. We have been learning European languages and ideas for too long, and ignored nearly everything else. Being in Kazakhstan has been an educating and entertaining experience.