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The story of a Black man’s execution author Nadifa Mohamed couldn’t shake

Nadifa Mohamed, author of "The Fortune Men."
(Sean and Seng)

On the Shelf

'The Fortune Men'

By Nadifa Mohamed
Knopf: 320 pages, $27

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Even before she became a writer, Nadifa Mohamed knew she wanted to tell the story at the heart of “The Fortune Men,” her Booker Prize-shortlisted third novel (out this month from Knopf). In 2004, as a recent college graduate, she came across a newspaper article on the case of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali sailor who had been hanged for the murder of a shopkeeper in Cardiff, Wales, in 1952. Mattan’s conviction had been declared a miscarriage of justice and “quashed,” or rescinded, by a special appeals court just a few years earlier. “I had all these questions,” Mohamed remembers. “What happened? Why was he here? Why was he executed? None of it made any sense to me.”

Mohamed, 40, who was born in Somalia and came to England in 1986, soon found she had a personal connection as well: Her father had known Mattan briefly when they lived near each other in the city of Hull. But as she began questioning her father, Mohamed was sidetracked by his dramatic story of traveling alone across Africa as a child in the 1930s. Her family history would inspire Mohamed’s 2010 debut, “Black Mamba Boy,” and 2014’s follow-up, “The Orchard of Lost Souls,” loosely based on her grandmother’s experiences during the Somali Civil War.

But the case of Mattan wouldn’t let her go. “I was trying to write something completely different when this book came knocking and said, ‘Remember me? It’s time to get back to me,’” Mohamed says with a laugh during a recent Zoom call from her home in London. “The Fortune Men” is a very different book for Mohamed: Set in Britain, it draws on extensive archival research, including reams of court documents, rather than on family lore. And, at least at first, it seemed especially daunting.

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“I think I needed the apprenticeship of those first two novels to be able to tackle a story as sensitive as this,” she reflects. “But because it had been on my mind for so long, once the research and interviews were done, then I just sat down, and it poured out: It was ready!”

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At the center is the enigmatic figure of Mattan — “a nomad, a chancer, a fighter, a rebel” — who by his mid-20s had already crisscrossed the world by sea only to end up in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay soon after World War II. Nicknamed “the Shadow,” he haunts the dockyards, racetracks and beer halls, skirting the police as best he can. “He is a quiet man, always appearing and disappearing silently, at the fringes of the sailors or the gamblers or thieves,” Mohamed writes. Living in a boarding house with a mix of African and West Indian lodgers, he’s estranged from his Welsh wife, Laura, and their three young boys — and from much of the local Somali community as well.

It is Mattan’s private, defiant streak (“He can look them in the eye and not back down,” Mohamed writes) that helps seal his fate when he is picked up and pinned with the murder of Violet Volacki in March 1952. The prosecution’s case consists of circumstantial evidence and dredged-up witnesses. Mattan’s defense team is no better, demeaning him in court as a “semi-civilized savage” who freely bends the truth. The authorities fear and despise him as much as they do Tiger Bay itself, which, in their eyes, is “crawling with queers, darkies, hoodlums, communists, and traitors of every description.”

"The Fortune Men," by Nadifa Mohamed
(Knopf)

Mohamed says she was intent on capturing the charged atmosphere of those postwar years, when “you have both this diminished empire and young men such as my father, such as Mahmood, who aren’t interested in abiding by the colonial rules of the past.” These men were seen as a threat, and Tiger Bay — a multiracial melting pot and home to trade unions and anti-colonial ferment — was a flashpoint of those fears. “I wanted to get those things right. I wanted to contextualize why Mahmood and why then,” she explains.

But even as she delved into Mattan’s backstory, Mohamed felt the novel was too one-dimensional without also exploring the world of Violet Volacki, a 40-something spinster living behind the shop with her war widow sister and teenage niece. “You have these two victims, the woman who was murdered and the man who was falsely accused of her murder,” Mohamed says, “and it felt very uneven to not look at her and the pieces her family was picking up after something like this happened.”

The Volackis, Russian Jewish immigrants, also struck a chord with Mohamed, who identified with their being both insiders and outsiders in their adopted country. “I didn’t intend to write so much about the Volacki family,” she admits, “but the more I found out about them, the more fascinated I became. Despite being Jewish and from Eastern Europe, they felt very familiar to me.”

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Naturally, the novel took on added resonance as she worked on it during the Trump and Brexit years, when the racial climate became even more charged and conversations about systemic injustice more urgent. “From 2016 to now, this country does not feel the same. It was already bad then, but now it feels terrible,” Mohamed says. The death penalty, outlawed in 1965, has again become a possibility. “Now we have a government that is amenable to bringing it back despite the clear disparities in the criminal justice system. We can return to that brutality very quickly, and I think that’s what the past five years has taught me.”

Mohamed had her own eye-opening experience this fall when she was in Tiger Bay for the British launch of “The Fortune Men.” Inexplicably denied entrance to two restaurants in Cardiff Bay, she ended up filing a formal complaint of racial discrimination. She was shocked, she says, even as she was warned that Cardiff remains “exactly how it was in the 1950s” — a segregated city separated socially and economically from Tiger Bay. “I’ve lived in this country for most of my life,” she says with a sigh. “To know that this is happening in the same week I’m doing Booker Prize things was so strange and discombobulating. But parts of this country are still like that.”

And yet she knows it is thanks in great part to her Booker nomination that the stories of Tiger Bay are now being heard well beyond its borders. This is especially gratifying for the people who helped Mohamed get to know the area, and who played a “paternal role” in the life of the book. People like the son of a worldly tavernkeeper named Berlin, a confidante of Mattan’s who developed into a significant character. “I would get random calls from him,” she says, “and he would ask, ‘How’s the book coming? I’m waiting for it, I’m waiting for it!’”

Because of the novel, Mohamed adds, “Things they’ve been saying for a long time are now getting a wider audience. Because things have not changed — that’s what everyone kept telling me. This is not just a historic story but a living reality for them.”

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Tepper has written for the New York Times Book Review, Vanity Fair and Air Mail, among other places.


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