Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali is a remarkable writer and his first book, Angry Queer Somali Boy, is what Germans might call a Badbitchbildungsroman. A Somali-born, Muslim-raised, trilingual, street-involved Torontonian, Ali’s years of reading Richard Wright, J.G. Ballard, Nella Larsen and the Marquis de Sade prepared him well for what turned out to be an accidental opportunity to tell his story.
How did you come to write a memoir?
It kind of fell into my lap. I’d been writing for a while, for my own pleasure, and I was approached by the University of Regina Press through a friend who’d seen my writing to help edit a book from a series dealing with African Canadiana.
So I sent Bruce Walsh, the publisher at the time, an essay as a sample of my work and he said, “You know what, forget you editing anything, why don’t you just write something entirely your own? Maybe put together a proposal.” This was in February of 2017. And starting in March, every day I took out a notebook and sat out in my front yard when it wasn’t too cold and just wrote. I got my first draft together in October. It poured out.
What else was going on in your life?
Oh, a whole lot of mess.
I started writing in March and by June I was on the street. I couldn’t scrape up the money for rent. I had just lost my job dishwashing at one of those meal-delivery services and I didn’t have any prospects on the horizon. I just felt kind of aimless in life and so this book was a godsend. I used to talk to myself while I was washing jars and pots and pans, I would imagine situations like this, getting a book deal. It took quite a while and a lot of terrible things happening before I arrived at a moment like this.
You write that you’d been homeless before.
In my late teens, I was made homeless as a result of coming out. This time, it was a slow burn, two weeks on the couch, calling shelters every day, and finally one had a bed. You had to be out at 7:30 a.m. and couldn’t come back till eight in the evening. I just sat around in Christie Pits [a park on Toronto’s Bloor Street West] most of the time. Libraries have always been a refuge for me, so if it was raining outside, the Gladstone library is right here, the Palmerston library is right there, so I made use of those places.
I just wanted to get things on paper. I would write on paper and transcribe it into Google Docs at the library. Every day, I told myself I’d write five to 10 pages.
Was it tough?
I’d go drink after, every time, and I’d lose a notebook, or I’d get robbed. Hanging with homeless men will get you robbed. Or it’ll get you some sex, either/or. Sometimes it was sex and robbery.
You're frank about sex in this book, and you say the Marquis de Sade has been your biggest literary influence.
[Laughs] I feel like I’m going to live to regret that.
[Former editor of the New York Review of Books] Ian Buruma is not a popular person these days, but he said once that de Sade represents the other side of the enlightenment. De Sade is still a revolutionary writer to me. I think a lot of people get squeamish about the sex, and as a queer person I can’t afford to be squeamish about sex. People already feel squeamish about the kind of sex that I have, so I can’t be squeamish.
You also write about Richard Wright’s memoirs, Black Boy.
I don’t want to equate my own experience as a Black person in Canada today to that of Richard Wright as a Black boy in the American South pre-civil rights, but I can relate to always having people watching you, having only the library as a refuge. He goes to the library and he falls in love with H.L. Mencken and devours him, becomes enamoured of ideas, then falls out of love with them and has these heart-wrenching dilemmas to face. I’ve had quite a few of those over the course of my not so long life [Ali is 34]. We would all like to imagine we’re heroic, but there are conditions that humble us, that put us on our knees, and I think the truly heroic thing is to write about those moments and to write about them as objectively as possible.
Are you working on anything else now?
I’m working on a novel. Fiction is where I live. To be honest, I don’t even know how this book came out like this, but fiction is where I feel I’m most prosperous.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
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