Ahmed Ismail Yusuf had no idea he would be a writer when he came to the United States as a refugee from Somalia. He had not finished high school and had not even read an entire book, but his cousin gave him a stack of books and he discovered a new life within. In The Lion’s Binding Oath Yusuf gives us several short stories that give some insight into life in Somalia and in the midst of civil war.
The first story is “A Slow Moving Night” about two goat and sheep-herding brothers. The younger faces down a lion to try to save a goat, scaring his older brother out of his skin. Then, when they are unable to locate their goats, the elder spends the night outside the village looking for the goats, hiding in a tree in hopes no predators find him. In what is surely a deliberate juxtaposition, the final and title story has a young man fleeing the war with his family and getting lost, wandering into the jungle and coming under the protection of a lion. The sources of safety and danger in the first have switched places completely.
There’s a novella of sorts, a collection of five short stories featuring Mayxaano through several decades. She is a compelling young woman who becomes a compelling teacher whose influence is far greater than she suspected. I did not find these Mayxaano stories compelling at all, though. The most disturbing stories are right in the midst of the civil war. “The Vulture Has Landed” is heartbreaking, a story of a woman saving her sister and then her sister saving her. “A Delicate Hope” condemns the tribal rivalries that were the rationale for the war.
The Lion’s Binding Oath has four excellent short stories. The novella is less interesting. I lost interest about halfway through that mini-collection and almost quit reading the book which would have been a loss. The four stories that are not part of “The Mayxaano Chronicles” are fascinating. All nine stories, though, provide a look at life in a country riven by sectarian violence and tribalism.
The short story collection would have been better with a stronger editor. Yusuf is writing in a language he learned as an adult. The only story he wrote in Somali and translated is “The Vulture Has Landed.” It’s not that it is full of errors, but that there are just some odd word choices. For example, “he put the ireful one in his place” and when a character grabs some fruit and throws them “down his gullet.” These are technically correct but awkward word choices. It doesn’t happen often, but enough to take me out of the story for a moment. Editors can and should play an important role in the final book released. Just compare “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “Go Set a Watchman” to see how critically important an editor can be. Editing is more than proofreading and a good editor would make this a much better book.
I like short stories and enjoyed The Lion’s Binding Oath and thought the arc of stories from the pastoral first story to the final story of the family fleeing Somalia was well thought out. It was disconcerting to see the people who represented shelter become the predator and the lion what was so fearsome become the shelter.
I received an e-galley of The Lion’s Binding Oath from the publisher through Edelweiss.