The Iliad all over again?

Nadifa Mohamed’s Black Mamba Boy
Harper Collins, 2009

“…and it’s a story that I think hasn’t been told before…” That’s how Nadifa Mohamed describes her first novel, Black Mamba Boy in this video.

Maybe that’s a tall order for a novel in 2010. And, then again, maybe not.

Consider this. In 1990, the Columbian Ministry of Culture set up an itinerant library, whereby donkeys carted practical tomes on agricultural techniques, water filtration, veterinary medicine, and sewing patterns to serve distant rural populations. The books were made available centrally to villagers and, after a time, they were swapped out for new selections.

Each of these loaned books was returned properly when it was time for the exchange, until one village refused to return one book: The Iliad, which, eventually, was given to them to keep. “They explained that Homer’s story exactly reflected their own: it told of a wartorn country in which mad gods wilfully decide the fate of humans who never know exactly what the fighting is about, or when they will be killed.”*

Maybe the characters in Black Mamba Boy would believe Homer’s story exactly reflected their own. In fact, you can easily imagine Nadifa Mohamed’s characters in Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan making the same claim that the Columbia villagers made. And certainly this debut novel tackles epic themes (although I haven’t read The Iliad straight through, so I can’t offer more direct parallels than the villagers’ comments).

Nadifa Mohamed tells her father’s story through Jama: “I am my father’s griot, this is a hymn to him.” A griot is a wandering poet and storyteller, who is considered a repository of oral tradition in African countries, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Mohamed’s tale begs to be read aloud from the first page.

The attention she pays to descriptions that encapsulate a scene, the scarce bits of direct dialogue, the long phrases that follow one another like bread crumbs through the woods: I read more than half of this novel aloud, which also slowed me down, and I think that’s a good thing because despite the swath of time this novel covers, this prose doesn’t want to be rushed.

You would want to take your time anyway if the setting was unfamiliar, and there’s a map at the novel’s opening to help you place the characters and the events of the story. (Actually, I would have found a glossary helpful too, but I realize it would have put off some readers, and I managed okay without it.) Here’s a sample of the way that Nadifa Mohamed brings the land to life:

Djibouti was low-down and hot, it looked even more barren and fearsome than Somaliland and the few trees that dared exist held up their arms in defeat. Rocks cracked open in fifty degree heat. The earth was bleached white and the few comforts that the Somali desert shyly held out, blossoming cacti, large matronly bushes, lush candelabra euphorbia, were here maliciously denied. The air had a corruption to it, a mingled scent of sleaze, sweat and goat droppings. (79)

In some ways, however, the novel’s themes traverse geographic and cultural boundaries. For instance, above all, Jama longs for his mother and father, for a place to belong.

“Jama looked up at the sky, beside the moon was a bright star he had never noticed before, it flickered and winked at him. As Jama squinted he saw a woman sitting on the star, her small feet swinging under her robe and her arm waving down at him. Jama waved to his mother and she smiled back, blowing shooting star kisses down on him.”

“All those promises his mother had made about him being the sweetheart of the stars looked to him as if they would finally come to pass. He was going to be a normal boy with a real father, he wanted his father above anything else in the world, he was becoming a man and needed a father to light the way. Jama had so many questions for Guure. Where did you go? What have you being doing in Sudan? Why did you not come back for me? Jama felt ready to explode; his sentence was finally over.” (99)

But Jama’s sentence is not over; one hundred pages — one third of the way — into the narrative and, really, his search is just beginning. And, although it is epic in nature, although the tale strikes universal chords, what Nadifa Mohamed says is true: Jama’s story has not been told before. She explains that experiences like her father’s are “often written about but very rarely have their perspective represented” and she has brought that to Black Mamba Boy.

* This anecdote is relayed in Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night (230), based on a personal interview conducted in Bogotá May 25, 2001. If you have one (a library), and don’t have a copy of this one (Manguel’s book), you should get one (978-0-676-97588-8). Right now.

On Mondays and Thursdays, in April and May, I am Buried in Print.
Bookchatted so far, 9; Reading, 2; Still to read, 5; Can’t find 4.



  1. Buried In Print May 3, 2010 at 11:48 am - Reply

    Heh, Kat: I wondered if I’d hook you with that one. I think you’d appreciate Manguel’s book in all its bookishness.

    Good luck with your re-read, Matt: making book-plans is one of my favourite hobbies.

    Victoria, I agree that the author is insistent on her own story on its own terms, and I admire that too. I’m quite keen on reading more African writers, and I’ve started collecting some of those vintage Penguin paperbacks with that in mind, but it’s a fledgling reading project for sure.

  2. Victoria May 3, 2010 at 9:32 am - Reply

    Oh, that is a very interesting thought, that BMB is in an ‘African literary tradition’. Given the way it was written, the inspiration from the life of Mohamed’s father, I suppose it is very much in the oral tradition often associated with the continent. But like you I don’t know anywhere near enough to take the idea further. Maybe you’re right and I’m judging it too harshly from the POV of a Western tradition of mimetic fiction.

    I can say that I enjoyed the book most when I felt it was situating itself culturally and geographically in Africa. I liked, for example, the way that Jama moved through life with a clan at his back, but without any attempt to explain it to the reader; and I loved the mostly matter-of-fact evocations of the places he lived and worked. It was alienating at times, but I liked that Mohamed didn’t make me feel like a tourist, didn’t make it seem as though she was accommodating Westerners.

  3. Matt April 30, 2010 at 7:23 pm - Reply

    I have made plan to re-read The Iliad this year; a modern assertion of the classics would be an appropriate (and welcoming) companion.

  4. Kat April 29, 2010 at 10:14 am - Reply

    This sounds like a great book! I’ve never heard of it. Any references to the Iliad and I’m there.

  5. Victoria April 29, 2010 at 8:34 am - Reply

    I love the anecdote about The Iliad, and I agree with you that Jama’s story is one worth telling. But unfortunately I don’t think that Mohamed has done the telling in the right way. There is a great creative non-fiction book in Black Mamba Boy crying to get out, but I think it underperforms as a novel.

    For a start, the shape of the story is wrong so that the momentum is often lost or non-existent (with the natural dramatic climax of the book coming, as you say, a third of the way through) and there are lots of meetings and happenings that are entirely incidental. This is because life is incidental; it doesn’t move like a story does. I completely appreciate that these things happened to Mohamed’s father, and that they have interest in themselves, but I don’t think they translate well into a narrative, not if we are meant to conceive of Jama as a fictional character on a fictional journey. I’m afraid I also disliked the prose. It was fine in places – like the Prologue, which I loved – but I thought it felt overworked and overworded for the most part. And there were some truly awful similes – the missile approaching the ‘ovum of extermination’ like a ‘spermatazoa’. *shudder* Wrong on so many levels.

    • Buried In Print May 3, 2010 at 8:33 am - Reply

      Thanks, Victoria: I love of idea of discussing some of these novels in more detail! In the context of the Orange Prize list, which we’re both aiming to read, I agree that Mohamed’s novel has a different shape and feel than the majority of the novels on there, and I think a lot of readers would be put off by the sentence structure (long, clause-soaked) and the kinda meander-y feel of the narrative overall.

      It doesn’t have the same kind of momentum that appears in Attica Locke’s and Monique Roffey’s novels. But, then again, I don’t think it aims for that kind of narrative structure, and I’m willing to accept that at least *part* of that’s due to Jama’s situation, his disconnection, his sense of being “swept along”.

      And I think another part of it is due to a different set of literary conventions, that I don’t understand fully because I haven’t read very much African literature. I hesitate to introduce the complex-and-possibly-inherently-flawed-idea of ‘national’ literatures (and of course we’re not just talking countries here, but an entire continent’s worth of countries), but perhaps someone else who has more familiarity with African literature could respond as to whether that might have impacted our experience of reading this novel?

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