The Languages that Made Me A Writer:

A Somali-American Writer’s Experience with Multilingualism and Poetry 

By Sahra Ali

Edited by Kayla Byrd & Seyeon Hwang

Published on Nina 30 November 2020

Sahra Ali is A nomadic freelance writer and a Diversity and Equity consultant currently on sabbatical in the Southwest of the U.S. Ali is based in Vermont and working on her first poetry collection.

I was born in Bhadan, Somalia in 1989.

My country was on the brink of a devastating war. Thankfully, my family resided in a small village, so while there was war, we did not have to encounter it on a daily basis.

I was a precocious, gentle child. I can still recall the days I would timidly follow my grandmother around as she visited friends. I listened to their spirited debates of politics before I could even understand the nuances of  East African socio-political dynamics.

I remember my time in Somalia well. We are a mostly oratory culture so I heard lots of stories. Love stories. War stories. Stories of the mundaneness of life. Sometimes the harshness of the situation in these stories did not match the effortless, poetic manner in which they were told.

I suppose my first encounter with the written word was in spoken form. I remember feeling into the sounds of each word in Somali. Somali language is composed of other languages, a blessing of lyrical sounds that tease the senses.

Arabic has a large influence due to our Islamic faith. As a result, my siblings and I attended Arabic school and recited the Quran. Arabic was my first direct experience with the written word.

When I was eight, we left Somalia and emigrated to Jersey City, New Jersey. My father worked at Penn Station and loved having his young family accompany him in America.

Assimilation and American Poetry

I entered the first grade shortly after our arrival. P.S 42. Soon, we would move and attend P.S 6, J.W. Wakeman Elementary.

When I arrived at school, I spoke Somali and wrote and read in Arabic. Naturally, English was an aspiration. One that I intended to learn well.

We kept up with our Quran and Arabic classes at a local mosque near Journal Square on the weekends. In Somalia, whenever we were memorizing the Quran, my sister and I would write the verses in Somali. It helped with pronunciation and recitation.

The Quran is meant to be memorized so we used creative alternatives to make sure the words stuck. It went like this: we would go into the mosque for our lesson and our teacher would give us our homework for the weekend. We would be responsible for memorizing either part or a whole surah (chapter in Arabic), depending on the length, by our following lesson.

At any given time at the mosque, you could hear fellow students, spread out, reciting their surahs out loud. It sounded like a symphony of sorts. After a while, my sister and I learned to translate the surahs in English to help with memorization. This happened naturally. Unbeknownst to ourselves, we were putting our ESL lessons to productive use.

In theory, English was not too difficult to learn. The colloquialisms and euphemisms were tough to decipher. When you’re a kid, you just want to make friends. It was tough when you didn’t understand the social sayings that your peers subscribed to.

Then I was exposed to poetry. I remember the day our teacher told us we were going to write a haiku. Counting syllables, putting words together without having to worry about sentence structure or periods? I was over the moon! It gave me license to play with language in an unlimited way. I had so many words in me. In Somali. In Arabic. In English. My fluency was all over the place.

Once I discovered poetry, there was a release. A way to link all my thoughts without having to compromise on my understanding. Through writing poetry in English, I was able to write what I felt. Then read it out loud and felt the sensation as each word entered me. For a child of two worlds, this was a bridge. And I used it to master English. I mastered it so well, I pursued it in college. Inevitably, this bridge would lead to my professional career as a writer.

Sahra in her ESL class in the second grade.

Writing for Equity

When I was sixteen years old, I taught myself how to read and write in Somali. I used the back page of  my grandmother’s social security benefits as homework. There is a large Somali population in Columbus, Ohio so the social security office translated one side of the benefits in Somali to accommodate the diaspora.

When 9/11 happened, I was 12 years old. I had a full shot view of the towers in my 6th grade classroom. We all watched as the teachers frantically put down the blinds. Most of our parents worked in the city. I can only imagine how those teachers felt that day. A room full of sobbing, confused children while the whole world fell apart before our eyes. We were released from school. A cloud of smoke hovered over us for days.

The next year would prove to shake up our existence as little Muslim kids. Our hijabs were suddenly a symbol of something far more dangerous. People moved away from us on the train. Our mother held our hands everywhere we went. We used to ride our bikes, roller skate and walk the streets freely. No more of that.

Before I could make sense of the trauma that transpired, my father moved us to Columbus Ohio summer of 2002. My little sister was born that fall. It would be another eight years before those memories would come back to me.

Childhood trauma is like this. And contrary to my Somali parents who knew how to adapt so well, I began to unpack it all. I am still unpacking it all.

After college, I began doing copywriting for marketing firms. This eventually led to my decision to join the freelance sector. For years, I had worked full time and wrote on the side so when I was finally able to obtain a writing job, I was delighted.

In late 2016, following the election, I began weaving diversity and equity within my activism. Later, I would begin working with organizations and universities to help further the discussion of equity and inclusion. It was interesting to witness my passion for equity intertwine with my writing in such a meaningful way.

I was interested in telling the stories that were not usually told. Making the invisible visible.

The immigrant narrative is nuanced and requires flexibility in diversity of thought. I utilized my writing skills to have my voice reflect these intentions.

Writing has always been a means of expression to me. I journal almost everyday, which leads to a full journal every two months. I write essays and poetry.

My writing process has developed through my own personal journey.

Every now and then I look back at an old journal to revisit an old me. I read it aloud as if I am reciting the Quran and I witness the words enter me. It mimics a religious experience.

These days, I have become enamored with studying and reading Somali texts. As I release my writing onto the world. As I watch my voice gain traction during uncertain times, I am actively fascinated with the writing of my people. Knowing Somali to be a poetic language has me wondering how my poetry would translate in my native tongue.

I have been reflecting on how my Somali voice translates into English text. While some may find this to be disturbing or white-washed, I do not. The West is not the most friendliest place but it has allowed me to bridge the many languages that made me who I am. It feels good to interrogate this. It feels even better to be able to use my writing in different modes to help dispel stereotypes and educate others.

In the beginning, I needed to write for myself. As an outlet. These days, I revel in developing my craft. Searching for my evolving voice. Speaking on behalf of other girls that look like me. But mostly, working to create an American narrative where we weave rich stories under the cloak of humanity. I am still working on that part of my craft and revisiting my roots, in the process.

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