Writer, musician Mohammed Naseehu Ali '95 and the stories he needs to tell
“Zongo Street isn’t actually a street,” Mohammed Naseehu Ali ’95 confesses. “It’s any place where Muslims gather. It’s the place where the stories are that I need to tell.”
Ali’s debut collection, The Prophet of Zongo Street (Harper Collins/Amistad, 2005), makes him the first published writer in the Hausa Muslim community of Ghana,West Africa. And although he left his homeland at 16 for a “very different life”—attending private high school in Michigan—Ghana is forever with him. “I want to document the history of the Ghanaian people, so that civilization doesn’t only see Africa and African people as an exotic people—but as normal people,” Ali says. Since he was a boy, Ali has done just that, blending the characters from his own world with the fictional gifts that have garnered rave reviews, including one from The New York Times describing his book as “moving, subtle, and ingeniously constructed.”
When a story of Ali’s appeared in Bomb Magazine in 2001, it was noticed by a senior editor at Vintage-Random House, who contacted him and asked to see more. Two weeks later, he landed a book deal. Ali is the first to admit that his wasn’t the usual literary scenario. Soon The New Yorker also sought him out, and published one of his short stories entitled “Mallam Sile”. “The day that issue came out,” he laughs, “is a day I’ll never forget: April 11, 2005.”
The grandson of an emir (a Muslim political and spiritual leader) who had 33 children, Ali comes from an extended Hausa clan. His father was also an emir, who had 4 wives and 16 children. Visits to Ghana allow Ali to reconnect with the stories of the elders, young children, and tea sellers who populate his familial and neighborhood heritage—and which ultimately populate his fiction. “Since I was a little kid in Ghana, I scribbled poems while I was at soccer practice,” he says.
One story he recalls, about first love, grew out of an innocent walk home with a girl when he was 10. “The mother was very strict. She showed up on a corner and threatened me with a whipping,” he remembers. “The moment was so vivid—the smell of fried yams and kokonte from the vendors were all around us. I had to go home and get it down on paper.”
As his passion for writing developed, Indian novelist V.S. Naipaul and Polish-American writer Isaac Bashevis Singer were major influences on Ali because they wrote stories about one people, one community. Another inspiration was Ali’s father, who put classics like The Prophecies of Nostradamus into his hands early on. “As a self-educated man, he knew the value of education,” Ali says. He avidly researched high schools in the States, and was the motivating force behind his son’s crossing the Atlantic. “I became as American as any kid,” he says. Although he read American books, watched American movies, and listened to American music, Ghana is never far from thought. “I agree with the Czech novelist Milan Kundera. He says your life up to about the age of sixteen is the formative stage, and you will keep revisiting it—because it affects every aspect of who you are.”
The two disparate chapters of his life, one in Ghana and one here in the United States, have greatly enlarged Ali’s storytelling universe. Some of the pieces in The Prophet of Zongo Street relate the myth and the often magical mundanities of the Zongo Street gatherings, while others tell of transplanted Ghanaians like the hip musician Felix, forging his identity in downtown Manhattan, and the live-in housekeeper Shatu, trying to make sense of her life in the wealthy watering hole of Southampton, New York. “I like to write about characters who come from Ghana, but who have been thrown into the mainstream of America,” Ali notes. The one thing all the stories have in common is a sense of the characters’ shared experience. “They get their confidence, their hopefulness, from each other,” he explains. No matter how alienated they might find themselves in their day-to-day world, they know their salvation is in the soul of their own people.
Now living in Brooklyn, New York, with his Ghanaian wife, Fawzy, and two young daughters, Ali has found his own Zongo Street in the cafes there. He mingles with yuppies, street people, and artists, and grabs time from his day job (in publishing operations and page design) to write “guerilla style”at his favorite coffee shop, Ozzie’s.
“Bennington is where I totally opened up as a writer,” he says, adding that four of the stories published in Zongo were written at the College. He remembers long, undisturbed stretches of writing on his vintage Macintosh SE computer, and the devoted support of literature faculty members. Ted Hoagland told him that even if he wanted to quit writing, “I wouldn’t be able to,” Ali laughs. James Lasdun taught him how to take risks—“to break away from my traditional mode of writing.”
Living in Noyes, a house at the edge of campus, Ali found a pastoral view, and most of the time, complete quiet—the perfect setting for writing. But complete quiet by no means defined his total Bennington experience. He was also an accomplished musician, which meant composing, drumming, and performing at parties. Currently, he’s part of a jazz band in New York City; he created the original score with Takuya Nakumura for the film Harwood, written and directed by Morgan Roberts ’92, which screened at the Reel Bennington Film Festival in fall 2004.
“I just keep writing. That way, when somebody comes knocking at my door and wants to see my work, I’m ready.” Ali has had stories and essays published in Mississippi Review, Gathering of the Tribes, and Essence. In one of his tales in the Zongo collection, a mentor says to the boy narrator, “Our egos may reside in our minds, but it is the mouth that makes them known to the rest of the world.” The words surely speak to the larger vision of the author who wrote them—and his commitment to sounding the voice of the Ghanaian people.
—Joan Taylor is a freelance writer from Stockbridge, Massachusetts. This article first appeared in Bennington magazine, Spring 2006.