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An interview with author Hassan Ghedi Santur

1 March 2011 No Comments

Hassan Ghedi Santur

By Adebe DeRango-Adem

When did you first discover the power of words? Did you write as a child?

Unlike a lot of writers, I didn’t write little short stories or imitations of famous fables as a child. In fact, I didn’t write anything until I was a high school freshman and my ESL teacher asked us to write about our journey to Canada. I remember writing, in my broken English, a dramatic, but completely fictional account of my family’s trip. In a way, this was my first introduction to the power of words, albeit untrue words, because I ended up getting an A on the assignment.

What initially prompted you to write Something Remains?

I had no intension of writing a novel at first. Although I loved novels and dreamt of writing one someday, I was far too intimidated by the form. I had this false notion that people like Henry James and Edith Wharton wrote novels. A young man from Somalia who learned English at 14 had no business writing novels, I thought. I was working on a book of short stories and I started deleting stories that weren’t central to the major characters. And without even being fully conscious of it, I ended up with four stories that were so connected they started to read like a novel. So I went for it. I am glad I did because I was able to overcome that intimidation. (Read a review of Something Remains)

How has the experience of moving from Somalia to Canada factored into your work?

To learn English, I pretty much devoured any book I could get my hands on, which eventually inspired me to write. So had I not moved from Somalia to Canada, I would never have become a voracious reader. All the major decisions of my life seem to have an origin in my leaving my home country and settling in a foreign nation whose culture I tried to make sense of through the act of reading and writing.                                                  

From the book, there is a sense that we are all haunted by the past, that the past is always on the cusp of coming into view. Is there anything productive about being haunted by the past?

One of the saddest truths about the human condition is our inability to not let the past sully our present. No matter how hard we try, our past has a way of seeping into our present and more often than not sabotaging whatever joy and happiness we might experience in the present. On good days, when I feel fortified by hope for the future, I say, yes, go ahead, use the past to inform and even inspire your work.  But on bad days, I feel the past is this giant storm whose sole purpose is to rain on my parade.

You are a freelance producer at CBC. How do you see the role of broadcast journalism within the larger project of recognizing, preserving and promoting the contributions of people of African ancestry and their collective histories?

CBC has over the years made a concerted effort to celebrate Black History Month with special programs that showcase the stories of African Canadians as well as events. Having said that, there is always room for improvement not only in the quantity and quality of African Canadian stories in mainstream broadcast journalism, but also in the creation of shows and other platforms in which Canadians of African ancestry can celebrate their heritage and tell their stories not just one month of the year. My dream is that someday in the near future we won’t have just one month in the year to remind ourselves of the value and contributions of African Canadians to our country.

What books are on your quintessential Black History Month reading list, for readers seeking to widen their understanding of the Black literary tradition?  What are some memorable books by Black authors that hold a special place on your shelves? 

I think any reader interested in the African experience would find these books hugely informative not to mention a great read. Beloved by Toni Morrison is one of the best novels I have read about the African American experience. It’s an intimate exploration of the emotional and psychological scars of slavery. It’s also just about one of the most beautifully written books in the African American literary canon.

Another is Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. This is one of my favourite novels of all time . I particularly love it for its focus on the interior lives of African American people, especially Black women without any overt reference to or reliance on white oppression to tell their dramatic story. In fact, white characters are incidental, almost irrelevant. These characters (especially Janie and Tea Cake) are full, complex characters onto themselves. They don’t need white society or the struggle against racism to define the value of their lives or validate their existence.    

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin and The Classic Slave Narratives, edited by the great academic Henry Louis Gates Jr. , are also great works. Although completely different, they nonetheless offer great insight into the souls of African Americans and their struggle for self-actualization in two very different time periods in American history.

Often known as the Blood in the Sun trilogy, the novels Maps, Gifts, and Secrets, written by award-winning Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah, are three books that I think are a great introduction to contemporary African literature. Farah has cemented his reputation as one of Africa’s most respected writers and is often championed for a Nobel Prize for Literature. Farah has given himself a literary mission: “To keep my country alive by writing about it.” His novels examine the pain of cultural uncertainty in postcolonial Somalia as well as what has been lost as a result of a brutal 20-year civil war. These three novels show a writer at his best. His rich, fantastical and often wild prose, his commitment to writing about the formidable women of Somalia and his keen eye for the politics of post-colonial Africa make Farah a must read for anyone interested in contemporary African Literature.

What advice would you have to writers who are just starting out?  

Write everyday or at least try. Writing is like a muscle, it atrophies without consistent use. Also, try different forms. If short stories feel too restrictive, try a novel. If a novel feels too loosy-goosy, try plays, which provide a great sense of structure that most young writers find helpful. I have tried screenplays, plays, novels and short stories and all of them have taught me a great deal. I have even tried poetry to disastrous results. But that’s part of the fun, figuring out what works for you and what suits your sensibilities. Also, join a writing group. Mine was hugely rewarding. The Toronto Public Library has a great Writer-In-Residence program, so submit your manuscripts and get valuable feedback from published authors. But most importantly, just keep at it.

What are you reading right now, or planning to read in the near future?

For the past several months I have been reading a lot of books about Islam for work, books such as Reza Aslan’s wonderful No God but God and How to Win a Cosmic War. But on the fiction front, I recently finished reading James Baldwin’s novel Another Country, which has whetted my appetite not only to reread Go Tell on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, but also make a dent in his mammoth collection of essays.

Are you currently at work on any new projects? Where can we go to hear or find your work?

I am currently working on a book of short stories titled Home/Stories. It’s a collection of seven linked stories about Somali Canadian men who live in Toronto who are in search of that elusive sense of home. People can find my novel at all major bookstores across the city and my radio work can be found on the websites of CBC shows such as IDEAS and TAPESTRY.

Hassan Ghedi Santur is a Somalian-born Canadian author and graduate of the B.A in English Literature and M.F.A in screenwriting programs at York University. He lives in Toronto where he works as a freelance radio producer for CBC. To read more about Something Remains, visit the Dundurn Press website. Or go to Knowledge Bookstore in Brampton to pick up a copy.

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