In the past several years, I’ve been particularly drawn to stories by and about Somali people. Admittedly, part of this has been inspired by the singer K’naan, whose music I enjoy. Whether reading memoirs or novels or shorter fiction, there is a growing number of authors with roots in Somalia. This week, Idman Nur Omar publishes her debut book, The Private Apartments, comprised of eight linked short stories about the Somali immigrant experience.
Special thanks to NetGalley and House of Anansi Press for providing me with an ARC of this book!
The Private Apartments follow a diverse array of Somali immigrants, and children of immigrants, living in different parts of the world. The eight stories take place between 1991 and 2020, during which time the Somali Civil War has been ongoing. Some characters were refugees; others left Somalia before the war fully broke out. Some moved to Europe, others to North America. Moving forward chronologically, readers get a look at how similar yet different these Somali immigrants’ experiences are. These are simple slices of life, yet they make for a nice tapestry of the characters’ day-to-day emotions and situations.
One of the strongest recurring themes across The Private Apartments is the depiction of mental health. In Welland, Ontario in 2000, we meet a mother who is depressed and experiences suicidal ideation. Later, in 2016, a young woman has had a mental breakdown (something her family thinks may have been a possession by a djinn); she visits family in Dubai during her recovery.
This relates to another thread running through these stories: Most of them highlight women who are self-reliant and are stronger when they can support each other. Several men here are shown in a negative light (cheaters, deadbeats, liars, and so on), though not all. However, even the “good” men seem to benefit from the strength of the women around them. Consider the elderly man in Amsterdam in 2008: He’s much better off after a mother and daughter take it upon themselves to help him out around his home. Even so, many characters (women included!) are morally gray or even just unlikeable. I usually preferred the stories with kinder or more relatable characters.
Some characters reemerge between stories, or their children may show up in a later story, but it’s done in a fairly loose way. You’ll have to pay close attention to see how these stories connect with the others! The only character who features prominently in two stories is Ladan. She stars in Rome, 1991 as the new immigrant and love interest for Raffael. Then in Amsterdam, 2008, she is a single mother to two kids, and her latest project is helping the elderly Somali refugee who’s all alone.
Among the eight stories offered here, my four favorites were Rome, 1991; Amsterdam, 2008; Toronto, 2011; and Dubai, 2016. Each was engaging, and I enjoyed the characters as well as their story arcs.
The Private Apartments is an interesting if somewhat distant look at ordinary people living their complicated lives. As different as they all are, they share their heritage and culture, whether living in Canada or Italy or the United Arab Emirates. It’s a thoughtful collection, and I look forward to reading more from Idman Nur Omar.
Get the Book
You can buy The Private Apartments here – it’s available as a paperback and ebook.
|The Private Apartments by Idman Nur Omar|
|Genre||Short Stories; Contemporary Fiction|
|Setting||Canada; Italy; England; The Netherlands; United Arab Emirates|
|Number of Pages||192|
|Format I Read||ebook (NetGalley)|
|Original Publication Date||May 2, 2023|
Moving, insightful, linked stories about the determination of Somali immigrants — despite duty, discrimination, and an ever-dissolving link to a war-torn homeland.
In the insular rooms of The Private Apartments, a cleaning lady marries her employer’s nephew and then abandons him. A woman accepts an opulent gold bangle from one man yet weds another. A depressed young mother finds unlikely support in her community housing complex. A failed nurse is sent to relatives in Dubai after a nervous breakdown.
Beginning in 1991, the year the Somali Civil War began, these eight articulate stories dwell in the domestic sphere — marriages, friendships, families — in high-rises and low-income neighbourhoods from Rome to Toronto. Resilient, resolved women do what it takes to thrive in new cities, while feeling estranged from a conflict-ridden homeland and grappling with the privilege of having the resources to facilitate such an escape. Recurring characters are delicate threads that eloquently showcase the intricate linkages of human experience and the ways in which Somalis, even as a diaspora, are indelibly connected.
About the Author
IDMAN NUR OMAR was born in Rome and immigrated to Canada in 1991. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Guelph and an MA in English Literature from Concordia University in Montreal. She lives in Calgary, where she teaches at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in the Communication and Liberal Arts Studies Department.
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