Monday, September 12, 2016

Don't Tell Me You're Afraid by Giuseppe Catozzella

Greetings from the occasional book reviewer!  I have been MIA for quite some time now.  My August reading (and blogging!) was pretty slumpy all around.  I blame myself and the many distractions life has to offer more than the books (or the blogs) themselves.  Nonetheless, I'm trying to shake off the cobwebs and get back down to reading (and blogging!).  I kicked off my September reading with Don't Tell Me You're Afraid by Giuseppe Catozzella, a book translated to English written by a white Italian guy from the novelized autobiographical perspective of a black, young, female would-be refugee from Somalia.  Somehow this seems both terribly diverse and also a bit wide of the mark as far as reading diversely goes.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book, found it simultaneously sad and enlightening, and learned a valuable lesson about not Googling the real-life subject of the book you're reading.

Samia Yusuf Omar knows she's an athlete from a young age.  Already at ten, she dreams of being the fastest and trains with a single-minded dedication on the streets of war-torn Mogadishu, Somalia despite the many dangers. In Mogadishu, a simple trip to the market can be a death sentence.  Not wearing the proper veils, stepping onto the city's beaches, or even being seen with her best friend and "coach," Ali, stand to put Samia in terrible danger. Samia finds refuge and support with her family in the relative safety of their home. Soon, Samia begins to win races, but as conditions in Mogadishu decline under the power of militant radical Islamist group, Al-Shabaab, the deadly risks of Samia and her sister Hodan's dreams strike too close to home. As tragedy strikes her family and the women of Mogadishu are forced to conform to the vigorous restrictions of Islamic law, Samia dreams not only of being the fastest but of making her family proud and being a beacon of hope for the subjugated women of her war-torn homeland.

The world saw Samia's potential at the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics where she represented her country in the 200m sprint.  While she may have lost the race, she won the support of an international audience.  Unfortunately, conditions are even more dangerous for her in the wake of her Olympic competition.  Being a picture of possibility for Muslim women makes her a target in her hometown. It's virtually impossible for her to train, and she cannot gain strength with the meager food her family can provide.  When her sister Hodan successfully makes the Journey, being smuggled across the Sahara and over the sea into Europe, Samia is heartbroken, but as conditions decline, Samia has to admit that the Journey is the only way she will ever realize her dream of being a champion.

Don't Tell Me You're Afraid is a compelling novelization of the true story of Samia Yusuf Omar's childhood, rise to running excellence, and eventual desperate journey to escape the war and poverty afflicting Somalia.  Told in an extremely readable first person, the novel immerses readers in the life of a young girl who dreams of being the fastest and dreams of being a symbol of what her country had been and could be.  I was, at the start of the book, very ignorant of the conflict in Somalia.  While I had been aware of the growing amount of refugees, this novel puts a human face on the horrible conditions facing those whose desperation to escape would have them put their lives in the hands of deplorable smugglers who transport refugees in the worst possible circumstances and use every opportunity to extort every last resource from the desperate. 

With Samia as the narrator, the ongoing tragedy of refugees is set in even more stark relief, knowing that this girl Somalia had paraded on an international stage was no better off than the least of these seeking asylum.  Don't Tell Me You're Afraid is a heartbreaking story that needs to be read.  While there are certainly some departures from the true to life sequence of events and a tendency of the author to wander into a sporadic second person narration that might bother the more discerning reader, Catozzella and translator Anne Milano Appel do a great job of bringing the heart of Samia's story to the page and making a hard to read account of  hardship and hope virtually unputdownable.

Thanks to Penguin Press for providing a copy for review.