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Author Fartumo Kusow recalls Somalia's horrific past in Tale of a Boon's Wife

Fartumo Kusow's first English-language novel takes place before Somalia's decades-long civil war.

Tale of a Boon’s Wife is set in author Fartumo Kusow's native Somalia.

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Tale of a Boon’s Wife is set in author Fartumo Kusow's native Somalia.

Fartumo Kusow hadn’t been to Somalia since 1991, when her family fled just before the start of the country’s decades-long civil war, which has killed more than half a million people over three decades. She wanted to return, but as a single mother raising five kids on a teacher’s salary, there was always the issue of money. Yet Kusow, who now lives in Windsor, Ont., had travelled as far as Nairobi, but couldn’t bring herself to return home.

But when the organizers of the Somali Book Fair invited Kusow to Mogadishu in September with her first English-language novel, Tale of a Boon’s Wife, she had no excuses left. “I had in my mind a beautiful city, but intellectually I understood there would be some destruction,” she says. Kusow observed the devastation immediately: one of her favourite cultural landmarks, the national library and archives, had been reduced to a ghost of its former structure, surrounded by new buildings constructed in bombed-out ruins. “It was like a place that had been hit by an earthquake that wasn’t too strong to destroy everything, but things had moved,” Kusow says. “It’s almost like the city itself doesn’t know itself anymore.”

Tale of a Boon’s Wife takes place in the years leading up to that destruction, when clan militia overthrew Somalia’s dictator government. The story follows Idil, the headstrong daughter of an army officer who falls in love with gentle, artistic Sidow, a member of the lower-class boon tribe. Devastated by her parents’ attempts at securing a more suitable husband, Idil runs away, giving up the comforts of her life to be with Sidow, a decision that inevitably leads to tragedy.

Kusow’s first novel ran as a serialized story in the Somali newspaper, October Star. While not overtly political, she says both her books demonstrate “the subjugation of women in social roles and the expectations that are not equal for everyone.” Tale of a Boon’s Wife was initially inspired by a news story about several teenage boys who were sentenced to each lose a hand for stealing cellphones. Kusow says, “I was looking at them physically and thinking, 'Would this have happened if they were from a different tribe?'”

When Kusow arrived in Canada, she didn’t speak any English, but planned to get her master of fine arts degree and continue writing. Persistent in her goal, she took ESL lessons and earned her undergraduate English degree from the University of Toronto. But when Kusow’s marriage failed and she needed an income, she became a teacher, sneaking in early hours to write whenever possible.

Kosow was equally persistent in sending her manuscript out to agents and publishers. She received 104 rejections before Toronto’s Second Story Press acquired the manuscript. Thanks to her editor’s feedback, Kusow realized she had made assumptions about readers’ understanding of Somali culture and its tribal system. Reworking the story also helped Kusow give a more personal context to the country’s horrific past. “The war didn’t just happen. I believe personally when you have injustice, something has to change,” she says. “This doesn’t have to be a Somali story to educate one to see the terrible outcome of this whole concept of ‘othering’ other people, whether it’s gender or sexual orientation, or skin colour or economics or, in this case, tribal affiliation.”

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