Hibaq: I’m curious then, with recollecting memories being important to you personally – I wonder, what goes into contributing to the image of an exiled community? Or how it appears on the outside – we spoke before about the importance of accuracy, do you feel sort of conscious of this? Do you ever feel responsibility to ‘correct’ the way exiled communities look?
Sulaiman: When I write, I isolate myself totally. My community doesn’t even matter at that point. I try to be in a place where only my characters matter. I do that because otherwise you have all those voices around you and they become readers and how many readers can you satisfy? How many readers do you have to keep modifying a subject for their satisfaction? That’s why for me it’s important to have these two stages. During writing and after writing. During writing, I produce my work. After writing, it is really important to talk. For instance, there is a lot of discussions to have after writing. For instance, we have to talk about lack of diversity – why our voices are really important: it’s not just about black or white. A middle class nigerian or ethiopian isn’t the same as a somali refugee writer, we also need to pay attention to the gender diversity – how women are disadvantaged generally, we can’t just compare Amina Jama and me, just because we are both black. So, these two stages are completely different and I am really satisfied with how I have managed to exist with the two. Being in the isolation period of writing is good for me, no-one else matters in this stage. When I come out of this though, I want to be part of the society, part of the conversation and find ways that I can help. That’s why I founded the academy. I am a refugee, I came here seeking asylum, so I know the process and pain, but I also know the joy. So, sometimes I feel like yes, the community can be demanding of artists. To the point that artists give away art for the sake of satisfying the community.
Hibaq: I couldn’t agree more with that. I think that is happening a lot more recently – people producing work that is “trendy” as opposed to honest. But more recently, I’ve been thinking more critically about why this happens. We can’t just blame the artists. I wonder who has made them think that is all that they can write about in order to get an audience, you know?
Sulaiman: Exactly – so, we liked to be liked. It’s like on Twitter, you liked to be retweeted. It could be an egotistical thing, so one may think “I am able to write, therefore I can be the voice of the community” but to me, this is so wrong. Nobody is the voice for anyone – we all have the potential to be our own voices. We just need the support and for the system to be there for us.
Hibaq: It’s funny because I think even right now, as a black muslim woman – I’m often having conversations with editors/writers who want to hear my “difficult” expereince as a black muslim women, and it just sucks because we all have a different experience. There are so many layers to this. For me, I want to talk about my joy, all the love I experience. I love being a Black Muslim woman – it’s great! Not to dismiss the hardships, because we do have them. But do I want to talk about that every second I get? No. Would I, personally, prefer talking about the power I feel as a Black Muslim woman? Yes. My whole life isn’t defined by these trials. So, I think part of it is, yes – we like to be liked but we are also dealing with a group of people that are only giving us access to the mic when it suits their agenda, when it suits their story.
Sulaiman: I totally agree – that’s why you have to be prepared to walk your talk. One of the reasons why it took me 10 years to release this book is because I had agents constantly trying to censor me, trying to get me to suit western readers. So, I could do that and get a deal or I could do my own thing and just walk away and maybe suffer in the process – but art is suffering too right? The point is, you have to be truthful to the artist inside you.
Hibaq: Let’s talk a little about Saba and Hagos. The distinction between the two characters is striking – The Guardian called your novel “a feminist book” – would you say this is accurate?
Sulaiman: Both characters immediately started to develop as I started writing them and I just followed them. These characters are a reflection of what I’ve seen in my life. When I lived in a camp with my grandma, it was dominated by women. So, women were doing everything and it is beyond saying “women are strong”. That’s standard. It’s being truthful to the reality and as a realist writer, I am not imagining a woman like Saba. A woman like Saba exists in real life. With regards to Hagos, he deserves recognition.
Sulaiman: One thing I really wanted to say is that critics didn’t really get the setting in my first novel. For example, with Naser in the second section of the book – it was almost too sweet. My point was, that was what society makes out of men. Men are deprived of love, women almost become mystical figures in your life. You have to reimagine their existence as part of your life. So, the whole process your thinking changes along with your phrases. So your words change, you become like a poet – it becomes sweet. I wanted to look at how boys can behave in restrictive societies. In spaces where they want to make “men out of boys” instead it makes them men who are soft-spoken, soft hearts.