Sometimes a story comes to an author nebulously, over years: a character floats together, a composite of people they’ve known and read about and imagined; a story comes together slowly, inspired partly by real-life events or a historical moment. Nadifa Mohamed’s third novel, The Fortune Men, came to her a bit more quickly than that: one morning, in 2004, the man who was to be the main character of her book was literally looking her in the eye from a newspaper photograph.
What sprawled from that moment is the tenderly written and captivating story of Mahmood Mattan, a smooth-talking petty criminal and chancer who resides in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay in the earlier 1950s. When a local shopkeeper is murdered, Mahmood becomes a primary suspect, but he has faith that his innocence will prevail – the UK is a land of justice, after all. What follows is a story of conspiracy, prejudice and cruelty that will shake any reader naïve to the workings of a world that feared people like Mahmood.
Here, we asked Nadifa about how her new novel’s inspiration came to her, the themes that came to define it, and the research that brought the headstrong Mahmood Mattan to colourful life.
The idea for The Fortune Men is closely based on a real-life miscarriage of justice in 1950s Cardiff. Very uncharacteristically of me, I happened to be reading The Daily Mail in 2004 when they published a double-page spread on the Mahmood Mattan case, with a photo of him looking forlorn in jail splashed across its usually hostile pages. It struck my imagination enough that I spoke to my father about this mysterious Somali man who had been executed in Britain long before I imagined any Somali community living here.
My father told me that he had, in fact, known Mahmood in Hull, when they were both living there in 1950, and had long known about his wrongful execution. This was my first moment of uncomfortable intimacy with this tragic case, and I think it sparked not only the desire to know more about it but also to write, to create, to animate a part of myself that had long lain dormant. I began interviewing my father, recording him on what seemed at the time a very modern minidisc player, about what kind of man Mahmood had been. My father’s reply? Ordinary. A very ordinary man, who dressed well and married a Welsh woman. Over the next two decades, as I learned that Mahmood had not been ordinary at all, the beautiful way he dressed always came up quickly, his danger and his attractiveness intertwined. He dressed to avenge himself of a world that kept him poor and despised, that refused him decent housing and a free life with his wife and children – a world that feared his beauty.
It took me many more years to realise that there was a shadow story to that of Mahmood’s; a 40-something year-old Jewish spinster who had been murdered while her family ate dinner in the next room. A tragedy just as deep as one of wrongful execution but sadly more common; a woman killed by a man, her name quickly forgotten, her story subsumed by the manner of her death. How could I lay a claim on either of these stories, never mind both? How could I allow myself to step into the grief and trauma that still haunted both families?
Over many years I cautiously paced around the story, checking in on new developments but not allowing myself to dive in. It was only when I was deep in grief myself, for my father who had passed away quietly, safely, softly at the age of 89, that I not only gave myself permission but also submitted to the gnawing fascination I had with this long-forgotten case.
In grief I went to Cardiff and sat in the cosy front rooms of Somali sailors and the white women who had married them, in the meeting halls and old people’s homes where the last badmarin had washed up, in Wally’s deli in one of Cardiff’s fancy shopping arcades to speak to the murder victim’s niece, who had witnessed the aftermath of her aunt’s murder and lost most of her childhood memories due to the shock of it.
The lonely figure of Mahmood Mattan started to reanimate in my mind as a man deeply woven into the carnivalesque world of post-war Tiger Bay, a man who liked a gamble, who was a soppy romantic, who had seen much of the world by his early twenties and could speak five languages. A man I slowly began to fall in complicated love with. I found him first of all in the spiky words he left in the official archives, his bitter jokes and radical independence jotted down by men who were plotting his judicial murder, then in the reminisces of the people who had loved him, fought him, fought for him.
I think that sooner or later writers know what their themes are, the ones that they will return to again and again, and in The Fortune Men they coalesced in a way that my previous novels hadn’t allowed: isolation, injustice, politics, the adamant refusal of the weak to submit to the powerful, the many small moments that shape the epic shape of our lives. In a strange way I found much of myself in Mahmood, this citizen of nowhere whose first instinct was to do the opposite of what he was told to do, but also in the women whose lives were so brutally marked by that rainy night in March 1952. The women of this story were just as stubborn and fierce as Mahmood, they were left broken but what luminescent shards they left behind. This novel is for all of them. May their memory be a blessing.
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Where do authors get their ideas from? In the case of The Metal Heart and Dangerous Women, two gripping novels out this spring, inspiration came from a prison ship and an isolated island chapel.
Hafsa Zayyan managed to write her debut novel in six months, while working full time as a lawyer. Here the winner of the Merky Books New Writer’s Prize discusses the hours of research and late nights it took to produce her brilliant first book.