In mid-May, I met Nimo at The Red Sea restaurant in Minneapolis’ West Bank. The West Bank being the official-unofficial hub of the East African immigrant community in Minnesota and a place that Nimo had called home once. It is a section of the city covered in colorful little cafes that serve proper black tea with milk, mini-malls and the colorful garb of Somali women in hijab. At the Red Sea, Nimo and I grabbed a table towards the back. We ordered injera and tibs, listened to the ice machine make too much noise next to us, and talked like old souls who’ve known each other longer than time can count.
What is your story?
I come from Adam and Eve (laughs). My mum has been called Eve, as in Hawa, because she’s a mother to many people. I grew up in a large household with biological and adopted siblings, uncles and aunts. Our parents were the first of their families to move to an urban city so relatives would be sent from the country to go to school or get organized. When we were in a refugee camp in Kenya, it was the same thing. We had a lot of displaced young people stay with us. Up until 1997, when my dad was reunited with us, we had a lot of people going through the house. I grew up with people, I love being surrounded by people noise.
Where was your dad during the period you were separated?
He was an economist in the military. When the civil war broke out, anyone that was involved in the government, if they weren’t part of the floating militia groups, had to get out. He fled earlier whereas we stayed within Mogadishu for about a year. My mum thought things would get better.
How old were you then?
I was six.
When I asked ‘what is your story,’ I was trying to understand how you identify. That you go back to the war, which I think helped define who you are, is interesting.
I’m not sure [that this was the defining moment in my life]. I feel like there are many moments and people.
What are your identities that you feel are politicized?
Everything about me. I’m juggling several identities. I identify as Muslim but at the same time, there is this journey I am on. Yeah, I’m fasting Ramadan but I’m going to go to meditation also. I can relate to somebody who is an atheist or agnostic and be really comfortable, so there’s that identity. Then there is being a woman and having the audacity to want for things and receive things without guilt: to take a leadership role and not feel any type of way about it, saying I don’t wanna have a child right now and I may one day, being a modern woman and knowing that I don’t really believe in marriage. The biggest thing for me is I am a free person. My personal identity is the one I feel the most in the world. I understand that there are many things that made me and birthed me, but if I’m supposed to be here, can I just be here on my own terms? I’m not a rope, stop tugging on me.
That’s one of the greatest revelations I’ve had - that I’m here to discover who I am. Whatever that means and whatever path takes.
Then some people are like, “Noooooo!” and they grab your leg, your arm, try to pull you back. That’s really the part of me that I feel most politicized. It’s not about colonialism, it’s not about feminism, at the intersection of all of those things, it’s about personhood. The person I got independence from, before anybody, was my mum. That’s really the hardest for an East African Somali Muslim woman.
As women of African families, it’s really hard to decide on personhood versus all the other things you’re told you should be responsible for.
I’ve done it in a way where I’m not trying to convert anybody to my beliefs. There are things that have always been inside of me, but I’ve had the privilege of meeting people to help me see them. It’s just part of me that’s been illuminated. There’s this Sufi concept that says it will take 40 people to come into your life to help you get to know yourself—to be your mirrors. For some people it might be a lot more than that because some people are more complex than others. I feel like I’m well over 40 at this point.
Do you ever feel exceptional in your experiences or the life that you live as someone in the diaspora ?
Sometimes I have to check my survival guilt. The word I would use is ‘privilege.’ I definitely feel a lot of privilege and that privilege leads to that guilt. But as far as being exceptional? Not at all. Everything that has happened in my life, so far, has been a lot of finding myself at the right place and being curious enough. Having the space to be introspective, to think and ask yourself questions even if they take you down the rabbit hole, there are people who don’t have that luxury. Even here. They haven’t been around the right people to self-interrogate. In that sense, I feel privileged. Then there’s this part of me that feels like a con-artist too! I feel like I’m stealing my destiny in some way, whereas a lot of people aren’t—and aren’t allowed to.
What is your definition of Home?
Home would be wherever my mum is. I feel like that’s the person that cares about me the most in the world and that’s the person I care about the most in the world. That’s one form of home, but it’s also just where my body feels most free.
I like that, ‘where your body feels most free.’ In the last few years, it’s become so much more apparent that I struggle with being free in a Black body outside of my home. What are your experiences of Blackness and what it means to be free?
The more that some of us intentionally deal with intersectionality from a place of understanding, the more we struggle with belonging and finding places where we feel seen and celebrated. For me, it’s been the internet era where I’ve met a lot of people that affirm the way I see the world and the friends that I’ve made. I don’t have to explain my Somali-ness or my anything to my close friends who are not Somali, they just get it. They’ll ask me questions here and there but we fit together. Often our struggles are sometimes personally and collectively different but there’s this thing that becomes a shared struggle when we think about brown people and the color of our skin. It’s so layered though, because some people carry more trauma in their skin than others. I feel like the trauma in my skin, is not that much. It’s not that heavy. It might be different if I was wearing a hijab because what I carry in my hijab may be heavier than what I carry in my skin.
I’m curious what other people are interested in remembering, whether that has to do with their present or their distant past.
Lately, I’ve been more interested in imagining than remembering. I know that memories are just something you were part of experiencing that had emotions and touched you. Regardless, I know it’s [the memory] going to be there. How I want to use it, is a different case. The memories I struggle with the most and that I feel a sense of urgency around are the memories of my parents. I want to know what they’ve experienced, especially now that I’m at an age where I feel like I can handle some of their life journeys. Those are the kinds of memories that I’m most interested in. The memories of my parents because they’re not mine, they’re not in my body. But they are in a way also because they created me.
Today I switched codes many times
Through clothing and words
I decolonized myself by speaking
Remembered my Ayeeyo
She once said to me
Myself is multiplying
So I gather my many selves.
Bio: Nimo H. Farah is an artist and activist that uses language to express things she finds too confusing. Her current undertaking is to develop her skills as an orator while blending Somali and English. She thinks herself charming and hilarious in the Somali language, but rarely does that humor translate into English. Her poetry and short stories have been published in Water-Stone Review, the Saint Paul Almanac, and the Loft Inroads chapter book. As a storyteller she has shared her words at the Black Dog Café, the Loft, and Pillsbury House. She co-founded SALLI (Somali Arts Language & Leadership Institute), a nonprofit organization promoting art and literature in the Somali community. She is a 2014 Loft Spoken Word Immersion Fellow, a 2014 Bush Fellow, a recipient of2015 Intermedia Arts VERVE grant, and a 2016 National Arts Strategies Fellow.
Read more Letters here.