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The Story of Us

Hanna Ali is a teaching fellow and PhD candidate at SOAS in London, and the festival director of Somali Week Festival, a 10-day London-based festival during London’s Black History Month. She was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, which she was forced to flee for Sweden at the age of five. She moved to the UK ten years later. Her short story collection The Story of Us was published by marketfiftyfour in 2017.

The collection consists of four short stories: “Sharmarke”, “The Story of Us”, “Kind of Love” and “Bloated. While the last three form a continuity of sorts, the first is something of an outlier. It is named for the boy child of a seventeen-year-old mother who is forced to realise through his birth that it is her destiny “to be a breathing vessel steered by a man in order to bring more men into the world”. Married unwillingly to a man twice her age, she plans to take the child’s life, to free herself from her forced marriage, but finds herself unable to go through with it.

“The Story of Us” entails a double shift in perspective: to a first-person narrator, and a more clearly defined setting in a “Hampshire cul-de-sac”. Three generations of women live in the same house, which the mother claims is still “Soomaaliya”, even as the youngest, from whose point of view the story is narrated, plots her escape by going away for her university studies. The grandmother descends into dotage with her sense of humour intact, while the mother fails to understand her daughter’s desire to study literature and be a writer. The narrator imagines conversations in which her mother tries to explain her own incomprehension to others: “I don’t know where I went wrong with her… She’s fat, wants to become a writer.” Ali treads a compelling line in the way she describes difficult family relationships embedded in situations of ambivalent cultural ‘belonging’, managing to thread humour into her accounts.

“Kind of Love” seems to maintain a similar ‘I’ and tells of a love affair with Michael, a hash-smoking, pseudo-philosophising white boy with racist parents. Michael breaks up with the narrator, before she can tell him that she is pregnant. The final story juxtaposes a doctor’s visit, in which the narrator is reassured about the health of her pregnancy, with a reliving of various memories. These include a preoccupation with the narrator’s absent father, and describe the trajectory of her and her family from Somalia to Kenya to Sweden to Britain.

Ali’s writing is characterised by a felicitous turn of phrase. She has a way of buckling two or three words together in surprising but evocative ways, and a capacity for refreshing metaphor. Her stories are telling of the European border regime, the dangerous journey to cross the deathscape of the Mediterranean, the reasons why one might be forced to do so, and the ambivalent destination of (un)belonging that once sought-after Europe comes to represent.