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The Secret Language of Class

Commonwealth Writers Conversation – The Untold Story: The Secret Language of Class: the everyday crossing of boundaries


The February 2014 Commonwealth Writers Conversation took place in the beautiful city of Cartagena, Colombia, as part of the Hay Festival Cartagena De Indias. The BBC journalist Razia Iqbal spoke with authors Fred D’Aguiar and Nadifa Mohamed about issues of class, race, the shaping and the globalisation of the writer.

The authors began by talking about questions of identity, and the sense of being an outsider. D’Aguiar, growing up in Guyana and the UK, spoke of “being told in both landscapes that you don’t belong in either”.  It was when Mohamed was promoting, rather than writing, her first book Black Mambo Boy that she felt conscious of race.  She was not trying to describe Somali dress, food and tradition but “ordinary people sometimes in extraordinary circumstances”.

Thinking about where class intersects with the identity politics of race, Mohamed spoke of her experience of going to Oxford, where she felt curious rather than threatened by the unfamiliar. She didn’t encounter racist attitudes but felt the weight of the very English, Harry Potter-ish tradition, and felt like a tourist much of the time.

Both writers spoke of the presence of the black person as an absence in white writing. D’Aguiar described the big gap which cries out for authentication. Mohamed spoke about how she writes what she wants to read, and how she is motivated when she finds nothing like that out there. Her first novel celebrated ‘a man who no-one would notice”, her father, “an old man with a stick”.

Mohamed and D’Aguiar spoke of what gave them the confidence to be writers. D’Aguiar mentioned reading Wilson Harris and Nuruddin Farah, and drew attention to Farah’s quote that ‘writing has nothing to do with language’: the novel is already in your body as an emotional construct. In his work D’Aguiar tries to make that emotional construct a reality in a kind of language that resonates with race and class. Mohamed agreed, she feels that in her books there is a “skeleton of something I was trying to understand”.

D’Aguiar spoke of growing up in Guyana, the UK and the US and how globalization has structured his life, and how international relations are part of his heritage. The novel allows him to write about history and storytelling. Mohamed spoke about the nomadic quality of Somalis, how they explore new territory and stake it out, and are, to an extent, globalized by nature. London is “where my new roots lie. I can feel them sinking further and further in.” She feels England is home, and that now she can be much more critical. Mohamed’s identity as a writer, her mixture of identity, gives her permission to travel and be a citizen of the world. As D’Aguiar concluded, “your narratives have to be multiple, able to cross divides and close the gap between you and the sceptical reader”.

Razia Iqbal

Iqbal_CartagenaRazia Iqbal works as a Special correspondent and Presenter for BBC news; she is one of the main presenters of BBC World Service’s flagship current affairs programme, Newshour. She presents Talking Books for BBC World TV and the BBC news channel, a half hour interview programme with leading writers. She also presents documentaries and interview programmes on Radio 4 and World Service. Before that she was the BBC Arts correspondent for seven years.

Professor Frederick M. D’Aguiar

D'Aguiar_CartagenaFred D’Aguiar was born in London of Guyanese parents and grew up in Guyana before returning to London for his secondary and tertiary education. His twelve books include novels, poems and plays with some essays in journals and magazines. His latest novel, inspired by events at Jonestown, is Children of Paradise (Granta, February 2014). The Longest Memory won the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1994 and along with Feeding the Ghosts (which won the Guyana Prize in 1998) was translated into Spanish and eleven other languages. After a number of UK writing and teaching residences, including the Judith E. Wilson Fellow at Cambridge and Northern Arts Literary Fellow at Newcastle and Durham Universities, he is now teaching in the Masters of Fine Arts Program at Virginia Tech in the States.


Nadifa Mohammed

Mohamed_CartagenaAuthor of Black Mamba Boy and The Orchard of Lost Souls, Nadifa Mohamed was born in Hargeisa in 1981 while Somalia was falling deeper into dictatorship. In 1986 she moved to London with her family in what she thought was a temporary move but two years later it became permanent as war broke out in Somalia. She was educated in London and went to Oxford to study History and Politics and she finally returned to Hargeisa, now in the new Republic of Somaliland, in 2008. She lives in London.

Follow us on Twitter @cwwriters where we tweet details of the Commonwealth Writers Conversations as they unfold, and you are invited to join in  #cwconvo #HayFestivalCartagena