Giving Voice to Those Who Have Been Silenced
A Conversation with Mohammed Naseehu Ali about Translating Culture and Balancing Writing and Fatherhood
Mohammed Naseehu Ali is from Ghana. He is the author of The Prophet of Zongo Street, a short story collection. Ali’s fiction and essays have been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Mississippi Review, Bomb, A Gathering of Tribes, Essence, Open City and other publications. He was the recipient of fellowships from Yaddo and The Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. Ali lives in Brooklyn, New York, and teaches undergraduate fiction at NYU's Creative Writing Program. His short story "Ravalushan" was recently selected as one of The Best American Short Stories 2016.
On April 30th, 2016, fiction writer and Interlochen Arts Academy creative writing alumnus Mohammed Naseehu Ali returned to campus to take part in a mini-conference celebrating the Creative Writing department’s 40th Anniversary. After hearing him speak and read as part of two panel discussions, Interlochen Review editors Alexa Curnutte, Stephanie Bennett, Shaun Phuah and Sianna Flowers conducted an e-mail interview with Mohammed. They explored the themes of Ghanian culture and the alienation of outsiders in his story collection The Prophet of Zongo Street, as well as the ways Interlochen has shaped his life as a writer.
Shaun Phuah: How do you feel your experience at Interlochen Arts Academy has shaped you as a writer?
Mohammed Naseehu Ali: Heaven knows what would have become of my life if I didn’t attend Interlochen. One thing I am certain about is that I would not have become a writer. But my experience at the Academy didn’t only shape me into the writer I am today. It was a holistic experience, an education that not only nurtured the little talent I brought with me from Ghana, but went even further to mold me into the adult I would become. One incredible aspect of my experience at Interlochen was the level of seriousness in the Creative Writing department. It was something that changed the very idea of how I saw my myself and my writing. Before Interlochen I considered writing a hobby, and by the time I left I was calling myself a writer. And this largely had to do with the fact that the teachers, whom I idolized, were already calling me a writer, giving me no option but to believe that I was one.
Sianna Flowers: It’s come to my attention that your narratives are often driven by sensory detail and descriptive language—this definitely brings the world of Zongo, which is foreign to most, to life on the page. What choices did you make in The Prophet of Zongo Street that you think helped create verisimilitude, and a level of understanding within the readers?
MNA: Nothing brings a story to life, nothing makes a reader relate to a character, nothing makes a story’s universe believable and almost true-to-life more than the language of the narrator and the characters. Though I write in English, I knew and spoke two languages before I learned English, and for me the challenge has always been how to translate Hausa and Twi, the languages of the characters of The Prophet of Zongo Street, into English. Once a writer succeeds in getting her characters to speak in a language unique to their experiences, unique to their triumphs and tribulations, unique to their cultural identity and social reality, the story being told is felt by the reader irrespective of his social and cultural difference with the subject. A story becomes universal when the main character is steeped deeply into her environment and its language. A scream of joy or pain from a character, if captured in its regional form, communicates the character’s emotional state to the reader, even if the scream is a series of twaddle in the reader’s ears. So, in answer to your question, the most crucial choice for me while writing The Prophet of Zongo Street (and this, in fact, applies to everything I write), was the choice of language, the effort to get the diction and the syntax and vernacular to be as truly representative of the character’s world as it was possible.
Alexa Curnutte: The story “Mallam Sile” describes the life of a disrespected yet devout man named Sile, his tea shop, and his search for love. When his longings for companionship come to fruition through a woman named Abeeba, his whole world changes—he gains respect from the locals, business picks up, and customer debts diminish— all thanks to the brave and tough Abeeba. In many ways it seems that Abeeba becomes Sile’s protector, and compliments his gentle quiet ways with her strength and stubbornness. What inspired this story? What drove you to create Abeeba’s character, and how do you feel she helped create the story of “Mallam Sile”?
MNA: If there is one overarching theme emerging in my writing so far, it is the that of the treatment, or rather mistreatment, newcomers encounter in a new environment. This theme has subtly found its way into almost every single story I have written so far. A careful read of the ten stories in The Prophet of Zongo Street would reveal that almost all the main characters in each piece are, in one way or the other, newcomers struggling to thrive or seek credence in a universe that sees and treats them as The Other. Kumi, the prophetic character in the title story, “The Prophet of Zongo Street,” was an outsider, a member of a different tribe, perhaps one of the main reasons the street folks never took him seriously in the first place. In “Live-in,” a domestic worker finds herself thousands of miles away from home, in a culture and social environment she concludes is not only confusing and indifferent, but downright inhumane in the way it treats its senior citizens. In her case language becomes the main barrier. In “The Manhood Test,” Mr. Rafique’s semi-literacy and his use of alcohol make him a pariah in his own community, as his ways are antithetical to the social norms and religious tenets of his people. In the end he concludes it is not worth playing by the rules of that community and chooses to do as his heart and conscience will him to. In “The True Aryan,” two immigrants, outsiders, found themselves wondering about who they truly were. Even in “Faith,” the story that takes place on the day of judgement, the theme of the outsider or the other runs through it, and being the last story I wrote for the book, it is by no accident that the protagonist, The Other who is constantly being ridiculed and mistreated, ends up going to heaven. The newcomer, the outsider, The Other is finally redeemed, at the expense of his mockers. Mallam Sile and his wife also exemplifies my obsession with this theme and also my deep artistic interest to give voice to those who have been silenced simply because they look different, speak a different language or indulge in social practices we deem unacceptable.
SF: In the short story Faith, towards the end of the story, the protagonist’s alcoholic uncle is allowed into heaven, and the protagonist himself who ate pork, and was a non-believer was also allowed into heaven. You also made fun of and denounced radical Islam. Are you ever worried about religious backlash in writing a short story like this?
MNA: Frankly I have been worried about a backlash not only from my Ghanaian Muslim community, but from outside. It is something that is constantly at the back of my head, and I have actually found some ways to confront it. For instance, the name choice of the prophetic character in The Prophet of Zongo Street, is one of the many ways I make a point without causing an uproar in my community. To expose an issue in a non-combative way, to use a different aesthetic, a different craft choice, that would have otherwise appeared insulting. To a Western reader Kumi is just an African name, but any Ghanaian knows that the name is a non-Muslim name, belonging to the animist tribes of the Asantes. By getting a fictional character who is non-Muslim to rail against Islam I have saved myself some trouble, as folks from my community have seen and heard that sort of rhetoric from street preachers before. But had I given Kumi the name of a Muslim, say Abdul or Hussain, the reaction against me would’ve been entirely different; folks in the Ghanaian community would’ve had every reason to believe that I was the one saying all prophet Kumi says, but indirectly. This is a sentiment that has been communicated to me by many readers from my community, though they would still say something like, “Even though we know he is crazy, you shouldn’t have had him saying all those things about us and Islam,” completely ignoring the fact that we are still talking about a work of fiction.
Stephanie Bennett: The story “The True Aryan” seems to tackle the idea of differing cultural hierarchies between the Armenian taxi driver and the black man who gets in it. The story is so interesting in the sense that even though both characters have their set ethnicities, and are talking about these histories explicitly, the concepts can really be interchanged with other cultures as well, which is a point that is brought up in the story when they’re talking about human nature and war. The story highlights the pride one can take in their culture, even if that history and culture doesn’t necessarily make logical sense to others, as well as finding understanding in those other cultures. It’s because of this rather philosophical concept and resolution in the exchange of pain that I couldn’t help but wonder if this was your original intention, and what inspired this story to be written in the first place?
MNA: Though I wrote this story without any philosophical allusion, I understand how you arrive at that conclusion. Perhaps it is because both characters, despite their differences in race and culture, ethnicity, in the end realize that they are both human animals, and, like the rest of their ilk, cruel and loving and needy all at once. At that moment in the taxi, both the Armenian cab driver and his African passenger are the same at their core; they are immigrant, outsiders, in a foreign land, with their eyes on the American dream. By the end of the taxi ride, they appear to have more in common than they would ever expect. They are two human beings with historical baggage which they are struggling with, in search for credence and understanding from another human.
AC: In your recent visit to Interlochen, you spoke to us about wanting to find a balance between being a writer and a family man. You said you were ‘cheating the gods’ by living both lives. Can you speak more about this stereotype that writers must be crazy, and how you’ve moved beyond it?
MNA: I was showered with lots of love as a child, and naturally I want to do the same to my children. I want to do the same with people around me. And growing up among sixteen other siblings has created the need for me to have a lot of people around all the time. Perhaps that explains why I have three children, a very high number considering that I live in “ever stressful” New York City and also that I am a writer. I must mention that my mother had eight of my father’s seventeen children, the remaining nine split among his three other wives. But back to the core of your question, about the crazy writer stereotype and my determination to not follow that trajectory. It all started in Mr. Terry Caszatt’s workshop class during my years at Interlochen. He used to talk to us endlessly about the need to avoid falling into the stereotypical pit of the disagreeing, and egotistic writer. He would cite Hemingway as an example of the crazy writer type and offered the Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer as the antithesis of that stereotype. Singer lived a simple, long life in New York City and continued to write well into his eighties before he died in 1991. Of course, Mr. Caszatt offered many examples of such literary figures, but the one message he wanted to get across to us was to not buy into the myth of the crazy writer/dysfunctional family person. He challenged us to be humble and simply let our work, our writing, do the job of narrating the story of our lives, instead of the histrionics associated with drunken, undisciplined writers. By the time I left Interlochen, armed with the wise counselling of Mr. Caszatt and my admiration for Singer (his short story, “The Spinoza of Market Street,” which I recommend for every student of fiction to read, was the inspiration for my short story, “The Prophet of Zongo Street”), I was determined to cheat the gods and live a life as a writer and also as a husband and father.
SF: Can you tell us what writing projects you are working on currently?
MNA: I just finished a novel, my first, with two working titles: American Burger or Getting Papers. I completed the “dirty draft” last October and I’m working on a hopefully decent first draft by summer’s end.