We were joined by Hassan Ghedi Santur (@HGSantur) for our April Book of the Month chat, to discuss his latest novel The Youth of God, where a sensitive, academically gifted teen living in Toronto’s Somali neighbourhood negotiates between the calling of his faith and his intellectual ambitions.
WOTS: Thanks for being here, @HGSantur! What kind of conversations have you been having with readers since the book’s publication? Have you sparked discussions you didn’t expect?
Hassan Ghedi Santur: Many readers have reached out to me via social media. Many want to know what happens to Nuur. Others have expressed their displeasure that I wrote about Islamic extremism especially Imam Yusuf. They say I’m giving ammunition to Islamophobes. As if Islamophobes need m[ore] encouragement.
WOTS: We appreciated the unresolved ending, and how it made us consider the possibilities along with Mr. Ilmi. And engaging with difficult subjects is why we love writers so much… [We felt] Nuur’s approach to his faith is a great foil to Imam Yusuf – especially the road-trip scene where Nuur questions and is uncomfortable with the things he is hearing from the imam.
HGS: That was actually one of my favourite scenes to write. It was one of the first indications we get that Nuur has a world view of his own. He has his own opinions and his own mind. It was great fun [to] show the wheels of his mind turning.
WOTS: As discussed, Nuur’s story has no clear resolution, making it feel all the more real and highlighting the complication of the choices each character has made along the way. What do you hope readers are pondering as they close the book?
HGS: More than anything, I want readers to ponder how extremists and would-be terrorists are made. No one is born that way. It just takes a few terrible events and choices. I want to demystify the notion of who is a religious extremists and what leads certain people down that path.
WOTS: Absolutely, and on that note, previously you have said your inspiration for this story was to attempt to comprehend the choices and circumstances it takes to become radicalized as a young Canadian – what did you discover through writing Nuur’s experiences?
HGS: Again, not to belabor the point, but what I discovered through the process of writing Nuur is how ordinary and human extremists & would be terrorists can be. Their actions might be extraordinary but their motivations, their needs, & wants in life are often painfully ordinary.
WOTS: As a reader, we were able to connect with Nuur easily – his story is one we have heard before, a fractured home life sending him in search of belonging and community.
HGS: From my research into young men who become radicalized, that was definitely a common theme in their lives. A deep sense of alienation and longing for belonging that takes a tragic turn. It’s all too common, unfortunately.
The kind of novels I love most are the ones where there are no purely good or purely evil characters. And as a reader, I respond to damaged characters, which is pretty much all of us.
WOTS: Realistic, human characters – Mr. Ilmi was the epitome of this for us in our reading. Fallible, but trying his best to do right in his life.
HGS: Thank you. In many ways, Mr. Ilmi was my north star of sorts throughout the writing of the novel. Whenever I got lost, I would go back writing his section and I would slowly find my way back home — so to speak.
WOTS: Does your approach to a narrative change when writing a journalistic piece vs. writing fiction?
HGS: Yes. A journalistic piece involves many interviews, a lot of research, a lot anxiety and lots of worries about making sure I get everything right. With fiction, while I do want to get it “right”, I have so much more room to play and invent and be free with my choices. This why I’ve pretty much given up journalism and want to focus almost exclusively on fiction. I find journalism was making me too anxious. It stopped being fun.
WOTS: Any writer out there needing permission to make sure their work stays meaningful AND fun – this is it!
HGS: Having said that, now more than ever, we need great journalists. So those you who still love it and are great at it, please don’t give it up. We need you!
WOTS: Some advice for the burgeoning young writers at home – what are some of your writerly habits that inform your process?
HGS: Read a lot. Read diversely. Take lots of long walks – it clears the mind. But above all, stay curious. Be curious about the world around you and most of all, be curious about human being. After all, human are the great subject of the novelist.
WOTS: On that note – which authors and writers inspire you? What is currently on your TBR pile?
HGS: That list is too long but here are a few of my favourites: Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, James Joyce, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Zadie Smith, Helen Humphreys, Adam Hochschild, Jhumpa Lahiri, Tony Kushner, and Pat Barker just to name a few.
The Idiot by Elif Batuma; Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy; Cleanness by Garth Greenwell, In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri.
WOTS: And before we let you go, we would love some insight – what are you currently working on?
HGS: I’m working on my third novel Other Worlds/Other Lives set in Italy. Like The Youth of God, it explores the immigrant/refugee experience but in a completely different cultural and political context.
WOTS: We can’t wait to read – thank you for your valuable work!
HGS: Thank you for the kind words. This was fun!