Novelist Nadifa Mohamed Discusses Identity and Personal Narratives in Writers Speak Event


Somali novelist Nadifa Mohamed discussed her latest novel “The Fortune Men” at a Tuesday lecture in Sever Hall.

Mohamed joined Harvard History professor Maya R. Jasanoff ’96 in a conversation hosted by the Mahindra Humanities Center as part of the “Writers Speak” series, which was co-sponsored by the History Seminar at the Center for European Studies.

Mohamed’s 2010 debut novel “Black Mamba Boy” was awarded the Betty Trask Prize, and her novel “The Fortune Men” was a Booker Prize finalist. She was selected as one of Granta’s “Best of Young British Novelists” in 2013.

When asked about the inspirations that led to her writing, Mohamed shared her interest in studying true events and turning them into fictional stories. She said her father’s experiences as a traveler and adventurer inspired her first novel, “Black Mamba Boy.”


“It wasn’t until 2005 after my father passed away that I think I really wanted to reconnect with that world that he was part of. It was a form of mourning — a way of keeping him alive,” Mohamed said.

Mohamed explained that her father was acquainted with Mahmood Mattan, a young Somali sailor who was wrongfully executed for murder, leading her to base her novel “The Fortune Men” on the true story of Mattan’s life.

“I didn’t expect to immerse myself in the story, so I just read whatever the papers had said and what interviews I found and the newspapers, but I was lucky that in 2015 another researcher had fought for the National Archives to open the case,” she said.

Mohamed said she first found the archives confusing because of the framing used by police to create “this fiction that made you believe he was guilty.” She added that the documents showed how Mattan was “broken down” after his experiences being falsely accused for years in the U.K. and eventually stopped fighting for his innocence.

“I kept sort of thinking, ‘Why is he making this okay, why is he not telling the police where he was when he didn’t commit this crime?’” Mohamed said.

“I think physical change also reflects the psychological transformation of him losing his confidence, losing his ability to notice his self-respect, but I think he has lost his ability to protect himself, which is the worst thing to lose I think in the environment that he’s in,” she added.

Mohamed said she blended historical records and her own imagination to create the story and characters of “The Fortune Men.” She highlighted a part of the novel where the main character Mahmood was interviewed by a doctor.

“The details, including the last passage of what the doctor wrote down, is from the archives,” Mohamed said.

“I tried to think, ‘What would Mahmood think and what would his personality be like when he’s being interviewed by this doctor?’” Mohamed added.

Mohamed said including nonfiction in her work allows her to connect her writing to her identity and experiences.

“It’s me in these spaces, maybe with friends of mine, maybe with my nieces or people I take along with me,” she said. “So it’s also a way of me evaluating my life as a Muslim in the world right now. And I don’t think I'd like to do that in fiction.”

—Staff writer Christina M. Strachn can be reached at