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Edinburgh International Book Festival

EIBF 2022: Nadifa Mohamed, For Whom is Justice Served?

For whom was justice served on the 3rd of September, 1952? Not for a soul, Nadifa Mohamed declares in her novel The Fortune Men. Released in 2021, the book focuses on the infamous case surrounding Lily Volpert’s murder in 1952, but in her talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Mohamed also reveals its greater purpose of acting as the requiem that the victims of the case were denied for decades. As a work of fiction sewn together with thick threads of history, The Fortune Men follows two individuals who were lost to the injustices of the English legal system in the post-war era.

In her talk at the Book Festival, Mohamed explains how she came across Mahmood Hussein Mattan’s case in 1998, when it had been identified as flawed, and Mattan declared an innocent man forty-six years after his execution. As the case was brought back into the light, her own father revealed that he had in fact been an acquaintance of Mattan as a fellow Somali sailor in the 1940s. With a desire to write about the post-war world for Somali sailors, this connection, along with the faults and lapses she perceived in Mattan’s public story, compelled her to explore the case. She soon discovered the irreversible consequences that befell the convicted, and all too many immigrant men like him, at the hands of an inherently corrupt and biased justice system.

Speaking about the background work for the novel at the festival event, Mohamed recounted how, though the story had intrigued her from the start, she was discouraged by the tremendous responsibility that accompanies controlling another person’s story, especially when the material on both Mattan and Volpert was meagre. For her to feel justified in writing, she felt obliged to have access to more background content on the involved individuals, and so the idea was let go of with a whispered promise of return.

As the years went by and she focused on her other works, The Orchard of Lost Souls, loosely based on her grandmother, and Black Mamba Boy, a biographical work about her father, Mohamed recounts how Mattan’s story persisted in her ambitions, increasingly encouraging her to write it as new information surrounding his case surfaced. In 2014, when the archives opened the Mattan case file, the author felt that the time had finally come for her to commence on the long haul of research that would finally give the world The Fortune Men.

More than a case study, Mohamed’s novel is a study of people. With what she had from transcripts, case files and oral interviews with acquaintances of Mattan and Volpert in Cardiff, Mohamed says she gained a foundational understanding of whom the two individuals were and what their lives in Tiger Bay had been like. And the result is more than a remembrance piece, for in the liveliness, depths, but also ambiguities of her characters, Mohamed brings the dead and forgotten back to life.

Mahmood Mattan is naturally at the centre of this resurrection. The sole persona that Mattan was left with on his forced deathbed was that of a desperate, violent, gambler; in the words of his own barrister, he was “a semi-civilised savage”. Through The Fortune Men, returned to him are not only the lost phrases and sentences that the author recalls finding in court transcripts or letters orated by him, but also the tender love and adoration for his family that Mohamed found completely dismissed by the court in the remnants of the trial. Though the author admits to a great reliance on fiction and her own creativity in the telling of Mahmood’s story, it is nonetheless a tale that revives the humanity of a man condemned by those unwilling to hear him.

In a parallel narrative, the author traces the lives of the Volpert family both before and after the murder of Lily, unexpectedly shifting the focus from the executed Somali. This inclusive narrative is perhaps the noblest aspect of The Fortune Men and an aspect that Mohamed rightfully emphasised in her talk at the Book Festival. Giving notice to the traumas and tribulations of a family where the deceased member was treated as a mere body of evidence by both media and the police, Mohamed attends to the fact that neither side (Volpert or Mattan) returned from the damning trial of 1952, victorious. While Mahmood Mattan was hanged as an innocent man and his wife left widowed with three young children, Lily was brutally murdered only to be swept aside, while her family was left without closure, never (due to a lack of certainty) publicly recognising Mattan as guilty.

The novel then, in my own humble opinion, was rightfully shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Nadifa Mohamed began this story with an interest in a flawed case and the story of a Somali sailor, but the final product has proven much more than a retelling of a criminal case. Besides the provocative examination of injustice in a society formerly acclaimed for its justice system, Mohamed writes with words full of soul. As the pages turn, I, the reader, am mesmerised by the humanity that seeps through her writing as she recreates authentic identities and the intimate encounters of human beings facing traumatic events.

Image ’Nadifa Mohamed’ by Sabreen Hussain is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.