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The stress of a shepherd's life, and other Somali stories

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Ahmed Ismail Yusuf, author of 'The Lion's Binding Oath and other stories'
Ahmed Ismail Yusuf, author of "The Lion's Binding Oath and other stories" at his Minneapolis home.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Minneapolis writer Ahmed Ismail Yusuf has just published one of the first collections of short stories written in English by a Somali author. He hopes the book, "The Lion's Binding Oath," will offer insight into his culture.

For example: Although he began life as a nomadic herdsman in northern Somalia, he dispels any pleasant pastoral images of a simple life tending to the family animals.

"I say I have a post-traumatic stress disorder [from] herding goats and sheep, because you are always thinking you may lose part of them," he said.

Or all of them, he said. While he worried about leopards, he feared hyenas. One species was infamous for systematically massacring entire flocks, simply for the sake of killing.

'The Lion’s Binding Oath and other stories' by Ahmed Ismail Yusuf
"The Lion's Binding Oath and other stories" by Ahmed Ismail Yusuf
Catalyst Press

"If the sun goes down before you get your animals into your fold," he said, "you are going to lose them all" — and with them, the family's food supply and economic support.

The opening story in Yusuf's collection is about two herding brothers. One tends the family sheep. The other cares for the goats. When one brother gets into a tug of war with a leopard over a prized ram, the other is immobilized in terror. 

"That one is almost autobiographical," Yusuf said.

Yusuf said his grandfather and his uncle both died after being attacked by lions. That was before he was born. But the stress of the herder life eventually led him to decide he had to leave home. It's realities like these that he hopes people will learn from his stories. He wants to answer questions about Somalis and Somalia.

"In other words, what do we share with the rest of humanity?" he said. "Have we ever been happy, to some extent?"

Yusuf's stories touch on life before and during Somalia's civil war. He writes of how people were cast to the winds and spread across the world. It's a subject he knows well. He wrote the book "Somalis in Minnesota" and the autobiographical play "A Crack in the Sky," performed last year at the History Theatre in St Paul. 

He writes in the lyrical Somali style. He believes he was lucky to come of age in Somalia when poetry and singing blossomed as the nation found a sense of itself.

He wrote almost all the stories in English, despite its being his second language. He said he finds it easier to develop a plot in English. Using his mother tongue gives him too many options, too many ideas.

"If I try to write in Somali, it is just as though I am actually psychotic," he said with a guffaw. "There's so many ideas, and sometimes, it's just which one do I adopt?"

The way he tells his stories in "The Lion's Binding Oath" is to focus on individuals. He writes glowingly of their love of family, poetry and song, of soccer and of their homeland. But he also wades into less comfortable topics.

"I am taking on taboo subjects like the caste system," he said.

Yusuf said he finds the social stratification in Somali society abhorrent. Several of his stories are about a young woman called Mayxxano, a brilliant scholar, teacher and athlete who is shunned by many because she was born into the wrong caste. The collection's title story, "The Lion's Binding Oath," is an allegory about a child who befriends a feared predator. Why, Yusuf asks, if a child and a lion can coexist, why can't humans?

Now he's taking the book on the road. Monday night he'll read at Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis. On Saturday he'll be at the Zenith bookstore in Duluth. Next week he'll read in Northfield, Park Rapids and St. Paul.

Yusuf said he expects his stories will upset some in the Somali community. The book just came out, so he's heard nothing so far.

"Somalis are very critical," he said. "So I am waiting! I will make sure my door is locked." He laughed like a lion.