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Ali, Mohammed Naseehu

Mohammed Naseehu Ali

1971—

Writer

The Ghanaian-American writer Mohammed Naseehu Ali has gained wide attention for his short stories, many of them collected in the 2005 book The Prophet of Zongo Street. Ali's stories are sharply etched vignettes of urban life in his native Ghana—or of his adopted home, New York City. He has also authored several high-profile nonfiction pieces exploring the complexities of his own background as well as the experiences of Islamic immigrants in the United States in a time of conflict.

Ali was born in Kumasi, Ghana's second-largest city, in 1971. He grew up in a predominantly Islamic neighborhood called Zongo where most male children were given the first name of Mohammed and a middle name describing an attribute of Islam's founder and prophet; Mohammed Naseehu means Mohammed the Sincere One. Zongo, Ali told Eloi Minka of the AfroToronto Web site, was "a neighborhood full of characters," and from an early age he wanted to write about them. Ali was creating both music (he was a drummer and singer) and fiction by the time he was nine. When he came to the United States in 1988 to study, however, he began to face choices: his father, an emir, or king, of the members of the Hausa ethnic group in Kumasi, steered him toward the worlds of economics and finance, but the school that he attended, northern Michigan's Interlochen Arts Academy, was focused on creative fields.

Ali's father, Ali wrote in the New York Times, "didn't mince words in phone conversations reminding me that, although he had let me attend art school, music and dance were professions for praise singers and storytellers, not for people who had royal blood running through their veins." But Ali had been entranced by the multiplicity of musical forms that surrounded him at Interlochen—not only classical music but also the jazz of trumpeter Miles Davis and the blues of singer Skip James. During his senior year he had a difficult visit home to Kumasi, where the clash of expectations came into the open. For one thing, he was dressed in casual American hot-weather clothes: light pants and a T-shirt. "You have to stop wearing these rags and dress heavy and nice," Ali's aunt told him (as he recalled in the Times), "so people will know you are a true Yankee man."

"But more important," Ali wrote, "I had discovered individualism—the celebration of the self as the most important force of nature. This was in direct contradiction to the culture of the Ghanaian Muslim community, where the determination of an individual to excel was seen as an attempt to ‘go beyond where God has placed you.’ They were like the proverbial crabs that pull down the ones that seek to climb out of the box." Ali was discouraged by the chaos of Ghanaian life, by his mother's death in childbirth a few years before, by coolness of former friends. He returned to the United States and began to avoid situations that put him in touch with Ghana or with members of his own culture. A two-year stretch went by in which he had no contact with his family.

Ali enrolled at and then graduated from Bennington College in Vermont. He moved to Brooklyn, New York, settling in the Prospect Heights neighborhood, where he continued to work at his writing. His family arranged his marriage to a Hausa woman, but Ali ignored it until 2000, when his father told him that he would never speak to him again unless it was face to face. He returned to Ghana, made amends with his family and married the woman to whom his father had engaged him. (The couple has had two children.) Shortly after the visit, his father died. Another trauma occurred on September 11, 2001. Ali was on a New York commuter train under the World Trade Center when a terrorist-piloted plane hit one of the twin towers. He was evacuated from the train and called his wife, but his phone went dead when a second plane hit. He joined the crowds running out of Lower Manhattan.

After these events, he lamented, the "Mohammed Ali" name he used in America began to inspire unease rather than pleased amusement. Strangers left hostile messages on Ali's answering machine. But Ali's writing career began to take a turn upward as his stories began to be published in such journals as the Mississippi Review. The appearance of Ali's story "Mallam Sile" in the April 11, 2005 issue of the New Yorker magazine marked his breakthrough. Funny and colorful, "Mallam Sile" told the story of a Ghanaian tea shop owner who has given up on the idea of marrying. His shop limps along, struggling financially because of his willingness to extend credit to non-paying customers. His business comes to life, however, when he marries a tough woman, Abeeba, who takes matters into her own hands.

Landing a spot in the New Yorker, Ali told Minka, "did more for me than the publication of my book," which followed three months later. That book featured other stories set in Ali's fictional but realistic Zongo Street, all of them tied together by a subtly sketched 14-year-old narrator who is a minor presence in many of them. Both the depiction of the narrator and the technique of introducing varied characters in a neighborhood setting were borrowed, Ali readily acknowledged, from the writing of Indo-Trinidadian writer V.S. Naipaul. "He is a huge part of why I tell stories," Ali explained to Minka. The specific model for Ali's book was a collection of Naipaul stories called Miguel Street.

At a Glance …

Born 1971 in Kumasi, Ghana; son of a Hausa king; moved to U.S., 1988; married; two children. Education: Graduated from Interlochen Arts Academy, Interlochen, MI; Bennington College, Bennington, VT. Religion: Islam.

Career:

Writer, 2004-; contributor to such periodicals as Mississippi Review, New Yorker, and New York Times.

Awards:

Quills Award nomination, Debut Author of the Year, for The Prophet of Zongo Street, 2006.

Addresses:

Home—Brooklyn, NY. Publisher—Author Mail, c/o Amistad Press, 10 E. 53rd St., 7th floor, New York, NY 10022.

Ali went beyond Naipaul, however, in transferring the settings of some of his stories to his new American homeland. "The True Aryan" describes a young African Web site designer and musician who tries to form a cross-cultural bond with an Armenian-American New York cabdriver. The Prophet of Zongo Street won positive reviews from, among others, Pam Houston of O, The Oprah Magazine, who called the book "a collection of rich and resonant stories, haunting and ultimately hopeful in their commitment to the truth." As he basked in the attention given his debut book publication, Ali was already looking to new work. He was committed to writing in English (English and French, he argued, belonged to Africans as well as to Europeans) and to representing the experiences of Africans abroad as well as of those in their own countries. One of the two novels on which Ali was at work in 2007 dealt with the subject of polygamy in West Africa. It was a phenomenon he knew well, for his own father had had many wives.

Selected writings

Books

The Prophet of Zongo Street (collected short stories), Amistad, 2005.

Sources

Periodicals

International Herald Tribune, August 20, 2005, p. 7.

New York Times, November 21, 2004, p. 6; September 17, 2005, p. A15.

O, The Oprah Magazine, August 2005, p. 146.

On-line

"Ali, Mohammed Naseehu," Biography Resource Center,http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (February 25, 2007).

"The Prophet of Zongo Street," AfroToronto,www.afrotoronto.com/Articles/Nov05/NaseehuAliInterview.html (February 25, 2007).

                                                                —James M. Manheim

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