Courtesy of Somali Semantics
Courtesy of Somali Semantics

Culture | Not your sad East African girls

Somali Semantics zine reclaims narratives, transforms conversations

This past summer, McGill students Sumaya Ugas and Yasmin Abdulqadir Ali started making art that is revolutionary in its aims to foster transformative discussion. Their zine, Somali Semantics, is an edifying form of empowerment that shifts the authors from object to subject in a discourse that refuses to lend them agency as Black, Muslim, Somali women. Somali Semantics is first and foremost a set of personal narratives that stem from the traditional oral art of storytelling.

Their art is also a rumination and dissection of a violent, racist, Islamophobic, misogynistic reality. Throughout this zine, they reject the relentless gaze of a world that constantly seeks to reduce and constrain them. If you were looking forward to reading Somali Semantics in the hopes of finding the often repeated narrative of sad East African girls, you would realize your mistake through seeing the creators talk, as their faces are almost constantly lit up by a contagious laughter. Their work gives insight into key places and spaces that have helped shape their multifaceted identity.

The Daily interviewed Ugas and Abdulqadir Ali to find out more about their project.

The McGill Daily (MD): You are very upfront about who you consider the target audience for this zine: how do you see the importance of Somali girls making art for Somali girls?

Sumaya Ugas (SU): Well this zine was born out of a strong desire to see ourselves represented in ways that went beyond the typical sad diasporic narratives; beyond the nostalgia of an ocean many of us second generation kids have never really seen, and especially beyond being used as “visible minorities” by a country so bent on proving its ‘tolerance’ through its ‘multicultural’ social fabric.

Yasmin Abdulqadir Ali (YAA): Yeah, exactly. Also, most Somali girls exist at a really complicated intersection of Muslimness and Blackness that we really wanted to explore.

This zine was born out of a strong desire to see ourselves represented in ways that went beyond the typical sad diasporic narratives.

MD: Throughout your art, you use varied media to convey intent and a variety of topics and tones – these touch on the tragic natures of xenophobia, sexual assault, family tragedies, and the more lighthearted music playlists. How did the use of media help you convey these emotions ?

YAA: For me, the use of different forms of media really helped us capture the full complexity of our identities – especially as Black women. So often, we are put into a box and are only allowed to be one thing – happy Black girl; sad Black girl; et cetera – and we really wanted to use media to deconstruct that idea. The reality is, as living , breathing human beings, our lives are tinged by an array of emotions – and we wanted to honour that truth through our work.

MD: The Soomaali language’s recurrence throughout the zine seems to tie the various narratives together. How are your thoughts formulated in Soomaali versus in English or French?

YAA: This is actually a recurring conversation between the two of us. Whatever language you are speaking, I think it’s always informed by all the different languages you are thinking in, or know. Often, I find myself trying to say something in English, but being stuck because my entire thought process in that moment is happening in French. This is why we chose to keep Soomaali in our zine. Because so much can be lost in translation, and because our main audience (we assume) has a minimal understanding of the language in ways that enables them to get the references we make throughout the zine.

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MD: Are you reading, or have read, anything in particular that has inspired you in your writing?

SU: I’ve recently gone back to reading Diriye Osman’s short story collection, Fairytales for Lost Children. He’s easily become a writer whom I admire on so many levels, and his words often feel like he is writing into existence so many realities – on being young, queer, Muslim, Somali, displaced, et cetera – that have been denied.

YAA: Last year, I read Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism (edited by Bushra Rehman and Daisy Hernandez) and it really inspired the hell out of me. More than anything, it drove home the fact that women of colour should take autonomy of their voices and their narratives.

MD: There’s a very purposeful focus on place and space in Somali Semantics. How do you define “home?”

YAA: I would define home as this weird grey space between Toronto and Mogadishu: classic diaspora-kid floating. As time has passed, I’ve come to realize the beauty of existing in this grey space, and the power that lies in the ability to mix and borrow aspects from different cultures.

I would define home as this weird grey space between Toronto and Mogadishu: classic diaspora-kid floating.

MD: Sumaya, there’s a sentence that you use that seems to brilliantly summarize what this zine is really about; “I am tired of talking about identity for the sake of talking about identity, it’s exhausting.” Where do you see the role of lived experiences in artistic creation and where do you see academia in this picture?

SU: That line you quote came from a place of refusing to write about our identities in ways that are devoid of feeling and of reality. I wrote this during a semester where I was increasingly alienated by all the discussions that were happening around me when it came to identity – how everything felt so dry and compartmentalized, even conversations about intersectionality.

Audre Lorde once spoke on fear, visibility, and silence, saying she was a “Black woman warrior doing [her] work” and that “your silences won’t protect you.” I think the need to write those words down came from a place of refusing to give in to the fear and exhaustion. Academia is useful in so many ways, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how it gives voice. Academia and knowledge production have always been sites where certain experiences, realities, et cetera, are given importance. Basically what scholars choose to study [and] write about […] is not objective and us deciding to write our own lived experiences in this way is us reclaiming that voice.

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MD: Both of you put great emphasis on parental narratives and how, as first generation Canadians, your sense of identity is necessarily formed differently than your parents’. Are those narratives worth reclaiming, and what emotions stem from this process?

YAA: I love this question. As children of the diaspora, I think parental narratives are so important to reclaim. Despite the fact that our identities are conceptualized differently, our parents’ movement and migration stories are directly linked to why we were born in North America, why we speak English and French. That being said, it’s impossible not to reclaim these narratives, because they are intertwined with our own. Also, so many of our parents have also experienced incredible trauma in the process of migration and resettlement – and I believe it is valuable and necessary to honour those lived experiences.

As children of the diaspora, I think parental narratives are so important to reclaim. Despite the fact that our identities are conceptualized differently, our parents’ movement and migration stories are directly linked to why we were born in North America, why we speak English and French.

SU: Yes! I mean, we are born out of the lived experiences of our parents. We are hybrids and aliens in this Canadian space that is either constructed as white or as ‘multicultural’ and devoid of any real meaning. We, as children of immigrants, often inherit this reality of parents who’ve abandoned everything to build a better tomorrow for us.

At the same time, for many of us born and raised here, Canada is all we know. These realities are in constant communication with one another. My father is the best storyteller I know, and I wouldn’t have this love for words and stories if it weren’t for him and how he talks about Somalia.

So in terms of reclaiming our parents’ narratives, for children of immigrants trying to make sense of who they are and where they come from, while [also] figuring out how they fit into this “new” space, I think nothing is more important than being aware of how the realities of our parents influence how we exist in this world.


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