Nadifa Mohamed: The First Somali-British Novelist to hit the Booker Prize Shortlist
By Caitlin Evans and Thomas Caldow
The Booker Prize has been awarding grand monetary prizes and honourable literary prestige to great writers since its founding in 1969. It rose in popularity and reputation to soon become the most anticipated and followed literature award each year. However, it wasn’t until last year, its most diverse year yet, that the Booker Prize began receiving praise for its diversity.
Whilst this was a great success, the celebration and strive for a reflectively diverse society doesn’t end with one instance of improvement. A key element in propelling true social change is the lifting up of those people who are helping to create a more diverse literary scene. We must explore them in personal depth, and not skim over their individual success by using the umbrella of diversity.
This is why we have decided to focus on Nadifa Mohamed’s achievements in the 2021 Booker Prize line-up. With her novel The Fortune Men, Mohamed has succeeded in becoming the first Somali-British novelist to reach the Booker Prize shortlist. In fact, she is also the only British writer among the shortlist of South African, Sri Lankan and US writers, beating the other four Brits on the longlist.
Mohamed was born in Somaliland, an autonomous region of northern Somalia, in 1981. She lived her early childhood there with her working parents before they moved to London in 1986 as a result of the Somalian Civil War. She has lived in London ever since, and this presented her with numerous academic opportunities that she seized wholeheartedly, going on to study history and politics at Oxford University.
However, her family ties remained a strong driving force throughout her life and career. Indeed, her first novel was inspired by her father's life in Yemen during the colonial period of 1930s-1940s. The novel, titled Black Mamba Boy, began as a desire to learn about her own roots and escalated naturally into a wider story of colonial history. Her second novel, The Orchard of the Lost Souls, followed the same passion for cultural history and is set in Somalia, on the cusp of the civil war that changed the course of her family’s life forever.
The Booker Prize is not Mohamed’s first experience with the literary awards scene. Alongside a host of nominations, Mohamed has won the Betty Trask Prize (2010, Black Mamba Boy), the Granta Best Young British Novelist award (2013), and the Somerset Maugham Award (2014, The Orchard of Lost Souls). Such acclaim and success led to much anticipation for her next novel, The Fortune Men, and it did not disappoint.
Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, the novel is set in Tiger Bay, Cardiff, home to a melting pot of cultures, ethnicities and, crucially, Mahmood Mattan, the novel's main character. Like Tiger Bay itself, Mahmood is a mix of traits and identities: a loving father and boastful gambler, a firebrand revolutionary in one moment, a petty thief the next. What he is not, and this he believes is obvious, is a killer. Yet, when the day-to-day life of the community is shattered by the brutal murder of a local shopkeeper, the rest of Tiger Bay is not so sure.
Mohamed's novel is not a work of pure fiction. Instead, The Fortune Men tells the true story of a real man named Mahmood Mattan and what befell him. Mohamed offers us a compassionate and unflinching vision of the cruelty and injustice of a system that preys upon the Black man, and asks us to see Mahmood Mattan not as simply an afterthought of history, but as a living, breathing man.
The author Sathnam Sanghera describes The Fortune Men as “shining an essential light on a much-neglected period of our national life.” While this is undoubtedly the case, it is also clear that prizes such as the Booker Prize have the opportunity to help brighten this light.
It can only be hoped that the Booker Prize and others can take on this responsibility to continue sharing voices as vital, stirring and human as Nadifa Mohamed’s.
We will find out if Mohamed has won the Booker prize (and £50,000 award) on 3 November, 2021. A prize ceremony will take place at the BBC Radio Theatre, and the five other shortlisted authors (Patricia Lockwood, Damon Galgut, Richard Powers and Anuk Arudpragasam) will also be in attendance. In the meantime, you can get your hands on a copy of The Fortune Men to celebrate Mohamed’s success in becoming the first Somali-British writer to make the shortlist.