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don't tell me you're afraid

28 july 2017

Giuseppe Catozzella's Don't Tell Me You're Afraid is a 2014 novel, about events from 1999 to 2012, that has gotten steadily more topical since its publication.

The novel tells the story of Samia Omar, the 2008 Somali Olympic athlete who died trying to reach European asylum and the London Olympics in 2012. Catozzella did extensive journalistic research in order to tell his story, but chose the novel form instead of non-fiction. Doing so involved some tradeoff in terms of ethos. Fiction allows Samia's story to come through more vividly, and sidesteps the problem of strict documentation. It's clear that some of the events in Don't Tell Me You're Afraid are imagined, but imaginary is OK in novels.

On the other hand, choosing fiction and choosing first-person narration means that Catozzella, a fortyish Italian man, has to adopt the voice of a Somali girl from childhood to young adulthood. His voice disappears into hers, asking us to take the text of the novel as authentic, not appropriative. I am not sure what to think of that. On the one hand, the world-building in Don't Tell Me You're Afraid is excellent (a novelist must build a world even if he's writing about the real one), the story is compelling, and the political heart of the novel is very much in the right place. On the other hand, the book presents Samia's experience through a filter, even as it shows her vigorously demanding her own voice.

The core of Catozzella's story is too strange to be fiction. Samia, a talented and dedicated young sprinter, grew up living for the community races that remained a feature of life in Mogadishu even as Somalia descended into civil war in the 1990s. She became the winner of city races even at a young age – the novel is not entirely clear about whether she was winning in age or sex categories, or overall, but clearly she was one of the best young runners in her country. Even as her city fell into the grip of Islamist gangs who forbade her to practice openly, Samia drew the attention of Olympic officials in freer parts of Somalia, and after some regional successes, found herself on a plane to Beijing for the 2008 Games.

As really happened in China, Samia runs well behind the rest of the field in her races, but becomes a celebrity for finishing last. She cheekily tells the world media that she'd have been happier being cheered for winning, and vows to return in 2012 and do just that. But a succession of ill fortunes sends her first into the blind alley of exile in Ethiopia, and then on a fateful trip across to the Sahara, and her eventual death at sea.

Samia, in Catozzella's imagination, is in constant motion, continually adjusting to new challenges on the track and in society. She is metonymic for the great flood of migrants who reached Europe in 2015 and continue to arrive. But she is more than a symbol. Catozzella's fiction reminds us that every single one of the migrants who hope for a better life in the EU (or the US, for that matter) has a name, talent, and aspirations. So often demonized as a mass of brutish humanity, so often disparaged and feared, the migrants of the 2010s are above all individuals, each with his or her own past and story. Sport made Samia famous and provides a hook for readers to encounter her experience in more detail. But one could substitute any walk of life for sport, and imagine the story of a fully-lived life, with all its longing, flair, and fear. Don't Tell Me You're Afraid is a simple, straightforward illustration of that dynamic.

Catozzella, Giuseppe. Don't Tell Me You're Afraid. [Non dirmi che hai paura, 2014.] Translated by Anne Milano Appel. New York: Penguin, 2016.