Arts and Entertainment | Books

'Guban' burns away misconceptions of Somali culture in Ph.D candidate’s new novel

In Somali, “guban” means “burnt.” In Columbia Ph.D. candidate and teaching fellow Abdi Latif Ega’s new novel, “Guban,” the word takes on multiple connotations. Literally, the word refers to the volcanic region of northwestern Somalia, where the mountains appear physically burnt. But “guban” also resonates metaphorically throughout the work. Through his portrayal of Somalia between the 1960s and 1991, prior to its collapse, Ega explores what “guban” means for the people who have to “take the fire” of power imbalance, postcolonial modernization, Westernization, and proxy warfare.

“Guban” is a book that should be read—not just for its stunning imagery and language—but also for what it says about the human condition. Though Lit Hum professors often discourage students from taking the macro route in examining a text, “Guban” is a complicated, probing work that must be examined as such. The novel establishes context for Somalia that readers might be familiar with, all the while challenging that very image.

“The book goes beyond the nomenclature of pirates, warlords, terrorists,” Ega said.

Ega remarked that he wanted to write about Somalia’s collapse in 1991 but could not do so without first establishing context. He felt that the issue was too complex to approach without providing readers with some background of its history.

“I had to create a space where people understand,” he said.

He seeks to offer an alternate narrative to the way Somalia is portrayed by the media. “Guban” engages its audience, forcing readers to see Twosmo, whose journey the novel traces, as unequivocally human.

“The work should engage people and speak for itself,” Ega said.

At times the work’s exposé can be uncomfortable—but not in a bad way. Ega makes transparent a culture his readers are likely unfamiliar with. Yet woven into the cultural differences—which include a society premised on clan hierarchy and a currency system based on the exchange of camels—are subdued portraits of similarities in the human experience, such as a child’s fascination with nature or a woman’s devotion to prayer. And these moments, in which readers can see themselves, happen in sync with the corruption of a nation and Twosmo’s flight out of a broken Somalia.

Readers are challenged to ask themselves, “What if that were me?”

Ega accomplishes this humanization in a way that is both subtle and beautiful. The following excerpt is just one example of the stunning imagery that permeates the novel:

“It was evening in the capital and the colors of the women’s silk painted the scene around Beheyeah like a Cezanne. The multicolored pastels of the long translucent dears, and the beautiful head silks the women used to cover their hair—light blue, off-tan, turquoise, jade, meandering blue—all accentuated the tall and handsome chocolate brown of the Somal women as they walked the capital in groups.”

Ega, who is originally from Somalia, inserts his own memories into his text. The juxtaposition of alluring imagery with a deeply conflicted land creates images of a Somalia remarkably different from what the typical American might infer from watching the news.

“Guban” is the first novel in what Ega hopes will be part of a trilogy portraying Somalia from the medieval times to the present day. The book will be released in late fall.


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