The story of the author of the execution of a black man, Nadifa Mohamed, could not tremble

On the bookshelf

“The men of fortune”

By Nadifa Mohamed
Knopf: 320 pages, $ 27

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Even before becoming a writer, Nadifa Mohamed knew she wanted to tell the story at the heart of “Men of fortune», His third book shortlisted for the Booker Prize (released this month by Knopf). In 2004, when she had just finished college, she came across a newspaper article about Mahmood Mattan, a Somali sailor who was hanged for the murder of a merchant in Cardiff, Wales, in 1952. Mattan’s conviction had been declared miscarriage of justice and “overturned” or overturned by a special appeals court a few years ago previously. “I had all these questions,” recalls Mohamed. “What happened? Why was he here? Why was he executed? None of this made sense to me.

Mohamed, 40, who was born in Somalia and arrived in England in 1986, soon discovered that she also had a personal connection: her father had known Mattan briefly when they lived close to each other in the city ​​of Hull. But as she began to question her father, Mohamed was distracted by his dramatic story of traveling alone across Africa as a child in the 1930s. His family history would inspire Mohamed’s debut in 2010, “black mamba boyAnd the 2014 follow-up, “The Orchard of Lost Souls”, loosely based on her grandmother’s experiences during the Somali civil war.

But Mattan’s case wouldn’t let her go. “I was trying to write something completely different when this book came along and said, ‘Remember me? It’s time to get back to me, ”Mohamed said with a laugh on a recent Zoom call from his home in London. “The Fortune Men” is a very different book for Mohamed: set in Britain, it draws on extensive research in the archives, including tons of court documents, rather than on family traditions. And, at least at first, it seemed particularly intimidating.

“I think I needed to learn these first two novels to be able to approach a story as sensitive as this one,” she reflects. “But because I had been thinking about it for so long, once the research and interviews were over, I sat down and it poured out: it was ready! “

In the center is the enigmatic figure of Mattan – “a nomad, a chancellor, a fighter, a rebel” – who, in his mid-twenties, had already crisscrossed the world by sea to find himself at Tiger Bay in Cardiff shortly after the Second World War. . Nicknamed “The Shadow,” he haunts shipyards, racetracks and breweries, bypassing the police as best he can. “He is a quiet man, always appearing and disappearing in silence, on the margins of sailors or players or thieves,” writes Mohamed. Living in a boarding house with a mix of African and Caribbean tenants, he is estranged from his Welsh wife, Laura, and their three young boys – and much of the local Somali community as well.

It is the private and provocative sequence of Mattan (“He can look them in the eyes and not back down,” writes Mohamed) that helps seal his fate when he is arrested and pinned down with the murder of Violet Volacki in March 1952. The prosecution case consists of circumstantial evidence and unearthed witnesses. Mattan’s defense team are no better, calling him in court a “semi-civilized savage” who freely distorts the truth. The authorities fear and despise him as much as Tiger Bay himself, who in their eyes “swarms with queers, darkies, thugs, communists and traitors of all kinds”.

Mohamed says she intended to capture the charged atmosphere of those post-war years, when “you have both this empire diminished and young men like my father, like Mahmood, who are not interested. to respect the colonial rules of the past. “These men were seen as a threat, and Tiger Bay – a multiracial melting pot and hotbed of anti-colonial unions and ferments – was a flashpoint of those fears.“ I wanted these things straightened out. I wanted to contextualize why Mahmood and why then, ”she explains.

But even as she delved into Mattan’s story, Mohamed felt the novel was too one-dimensional without also exploring the world of Violet Volacki, a 40-year-old girl living behind the store with her widowed sister. war and his teenage niece. “You have these two victims, the woman who was murdered and the man who was falsely accused of her murder,” Mohamed said, “and it was very uneven not to look at her and the pieces her family were picking up after. something like that happened. “

The Volackis, Russian Jewish immigrants, also struck a chord with Mohamed, who identified with being both initiates and outsiders in their adopted country. “I didn’t intend to write so much about the Volacki family,” she admits, “but the more I learned about them, the more fascinated I became. Although they are Jewish and originally from Eastern Europe, they seemed very familiar to me.

Understandably, the novel took on added resonance as she worked on it during the Trump and Brexit years, when the racial climate grew even more charged and conversations about systemic injustice more urgent. “From 2016 to today, this country does not feel the same. It was bad back then, but now it’s terrible, ”says Mohamed. The death penalty, banned in 1965, has once again become a possibility. “Now we have a government that is willing to bring it back despite the obvious disparities in the criminal justice system. We can go back to that brutality very quickly, and I think that’s what the last five years have taught me.

Mohamed had his own eye-opening experience this fall when she was in Tiger Bay for the UK launch of “The Fortune Men”. Inexplicably refused entry to two restaurants in Cardiff Bay, she ended up filing a formal complaint of racial discrimination. She was shocked, she said, even as she was warned that Cardiff remained “just as it was in the 1950s” – a city socially and economically separated from Tiger Bay. “I have lived in this country most of my life,” she said with a sigh. “Knowing that this was the same week that I was doing things for the Booker Prize was so strange and bewildering. But some parts of this country are still like that.

And yet, she knows that it’s thanks in large part to her appointment to Booker that the stories of Tiger Bay are now being heard far beyond its borders. It is especially gratifying for the people who have helped Mohamed get to know the area and who have played a “fatherly role” in the life of the book. People like the son of a socialite nightclub owner named Berlin, a confidant of Mattan who has become an important figure. “I was getting random calls from him,” she said, “and he was like, ‘How’s the book doing? I am waiting for it, I am waiting for it! ‘”

Because of the novel, Mohamed adds, “The things they have said for a long time are now gaining a wider audience. Because things haven’t changed, that’s what everyone kept telling me. It is not just a historical story, but a living reality for them.

Tepper has written for the New York Times Book Review, Vanity Fair, and Air Mail, among others.

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