Author of ‘Tale of a Boon’s Wife’ discusses colorism and Somalia


Taylor Shaw/Iowa State Daily

Fartumo Kusow reads the first scene from her new book Tale of a Boon’s Wife, a historical fiction about a young Somali woman’s life, at her lecture on Gender and Ethnicity among Somali Migrants and Refugees at the Ames Public Library on Nov. 8.

Mike Brown

An internationally acclaimed author and English teacher, Fartumo Kusow, came from Canada to the Ames Library on Thursday to discuss the modern day gender and power structures of her native country, Somalia.

Growing up, Kusow’s father forced her to stay in school, despite her constant protest and hatred of attending school.

Kusow recalled an instance where she was struggling to memorize a writing in school, her teacher told her that she did not have to stay in school because she was a woman.

Her father proceeded to visit the schoolteacher, and told the teacher to never speak with her in this way again, or he would pull his children out of the class.

“I was raised by a man who, from a young age, saw me as a child, not as a daughter,” Kusow said.

Kusow said she often struggled with social skills as a child, leading to an incident where she was suspended for saying schoolyard gossip in front of her teacher. Kusow explained that she did not understand which gossip was okay to say publicly and which was inappropriate.

To remedy this, Kusow’s father encouraged her to write down all of the gossip she heard on a daily basis, which her father told her was inappropriate to say. After enough time, Kusow said she decided she did not want to write about gossip anymore, and instead wrote a novel.

At age 15 her novel, “Amaran” was serialized, and in 1984 became Kusow’s first published novel. Kusow fell in love with and decided to fully pursue writing. Shortly after her novel was published, Kusow married, and planned for her husband to work and earn money so that she could write full time.

Somalia’s civil war disrupted these plans, and after learning English over the course of a few years, she emigrated to Canada in 1991. During this time, Kusow’s marriage came to an end and she made the decision to seek out a career to support herself.

Kusow studied biology and English, and began to teach English at a school in Ontario. It was at this time Kusow saw a broadcast where two Somali boys were accused, tried and sentenced for stealing a cell phone all in the same day.

Kusow said she reflected on the fact that if the boys were not of a lower class tribe, they would not have been punished in such a harsh way, and this inspired her in part to write her most current novel, “Tale of a Boon’s Wife,” which discusses the intersectionality of gender and tribe based discrimination in Somalia.

While the story is fictional, Kusow said that this classism still exists in Somalia, referencing the killing of a man who attempted to meet with a family of a higher class to discuss a marriage between their respective children, as they had developed feelings for each other.

“It’s not true, but it’s real,” Kusow said.

In the story, there are a variety of differences in the way men and women are treated in Somalia. Kusow gives an example where the main character’s father has an affair with another woman, and the mistress is the one who is blamed and punished, rather than the father.

Another example of gender inequality was offered by Kusow during a reading of an excerpt of “Tale of a Boon’s Wife,” when the main character complains about a dress that her mother wants to put her in. While the mother only wishes for the boys to dress simply, in normal pants and shirts, she attempts, and is unable to, tame her daughter in every aspect, trying to force her into certain dresses and even trying to “tame” her hair.

Kusow said an example of the class based discrimination between different tribes of Somalia comes when the main character falls in love with a boy of the Boon tribe, which is considered to be a very low class tribe by Somalians. The main character is of a much higher tribe, and the mother threatens to disown her if she pursues her love for this person.

Both colorism and and social status play a role in someone’s perceived social class in Somalia, according to Kusow. Kusow said that often times people with a darker skin color are considered to be lesser than those with lighter skin, and that many classes are determined through these physical characteristics. But an individual’s career also plays a role.

Kusow said that social class is determined by the class of the father, and this is why women marrying men of lower classes is heavily discouraged and leads to women being disowned from their tribe.

“If you marry somebody from the wrong tribe, you lose the right to be your father’s child,” Kusow said.

Oftentimes, Kusow said, Somalians of a lighter skin tone, or with “less African” characteristics, consider themselves to be of higher status and may separate themselves from being African, but may not necessarily identify as Arab.

Kusow’s statements about colorism and identity stood out to Lynette Kwaw-Mensah, a junior in sociology.

“I really liked when she started talking about colorism, and the discussion about how people are from Africa, but they don’t see themselves as African, because that hits close to home for me,” Kwaw-Mensah said.

When having discussions with friends from places like Egypt, Kwaw-Mensah said she often felt like they would identify themselves as not African, and felt that they may consider themselves to be better than her.

“I guess there’s just a negative conversation being associated with being African, and like [Kusow] said, the darker you are, people look at you like you’re less than,” Kwaw-Mensah said.

Kwaw-Mensah spoke to what she believes may be reasons for these attitudes.

“I think it has to do with the how the world depicts people who are African,” Kwaw-Mensah said. “Being African is seen as a negative thing.”

Depictions of Africans as poor and uneducated leads to people viewing being African negatively and dissociating, according to Kwaw-Mensah, who said this attitude and depiction of Africans plays into colorism seen both in Africa and in other parts of the world, including the U.S.

Luis González-Díaz, junior in political science and sociology, said he also found the points made about colorism impactful, and said he has seen these ideas within the Latinx community.

“That aspect of colorism, I really related to it because I’m part of the Latinx community, and we have this ‘ideal whiteness,'” González-Díaz said. “So when she spoke about how that dynamic is still in Africa I totally related to that, even though I’m another race and another ethnicity.” 

González-Díaz said he felt being able to attend lectures like this was very important for the Iowa State and Ames community, as it gives people an opportunity to hear perspectives and have discussions that they may not often be able to.