Based on a true story, Giuseppe Catozzella’s third novel Little Warrior (Faber & Faber, £12.99) tells the story of the late Somali runner Samia Omar, who died at the age of 21 after trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
How did you first come across Samia Omar’s story and why did you decide it was an important one to tell?
It was August 2012 when I “met” Samia’s life. It was my first time in the Horn of Africa. After that, and after being nominated Goodwill Ambassador UNCR, I went there many times to understand what that war is, what refugees think and feel, and how their lives are. I was there doing my research on the fundamentalist world and on the refugee world. I was there to see with my eyes and feel with my heart what I consider to be the centre of the world in which I live. I went there to hear the story of a guy who used to be a fundamentalist and then decided to leave the armed group of Al-Shabaab. On the last days I heard Samia’s story and I knew at once that I had to write it as soon as possible. It was such a strong and powerful story, I kind of already had it inside me. It only had to come out through Samia’s relatives.
How did you go about piecing together her story?
I met her relatives. I met her sister Hodan, her auntie, a friend of Samia’s who stayed with her in her last house in Tripoli and I talked to Teresa Krug, the American journalist who had the chance to meet Samia and become her friend. I was there to try to understand the reasons of two enormous phenomena of our time – fundamentalism and migration – and to transform them into stories, just like literature always did. In order to tell Samia’s story I met around 35 refugees in Italy, and I asked them to tell me their stories, the story of their lives and the one of their long journey across Africa and across the Mediterranean Sea.
Why did you choose the novel form to tell it and how much is fiction?
I chose the novel form because I could not do otherwise: this is my way of dealing with writing. Novels are much more powerful, they can make you understand things that essays could never do. And they reach more readers. The only honest answer to the second part of your question could sound a bit mysterious, but it is the only real one: everything is real as it was told to me and at the same time everything is invented (or re-invented) though literature. It is the only way a single story can become universal, and make real miracles. Little Warrior will also become a movie. The direction is the same: transforming reality into its opposite in order to make it easier to understand.
Was Samia’s story unique or has sport offered hope to many Somalis during times of conflict?
Samia was the first and still is the only female athlete in Somalia. Not many young people decide to do sport in a place with war. Samia’s story is very special.
How does Little Warrior offer an alternative narrative to the many tragic stories of migrants drowning, read too regularly in the media currently?
Little Warrior is a novel, and the only real field of novels is our soul. This is why Samia’s story will live forever though literature – news lasts inside us the minute we hear it and then it is forgotten. News deals with quantity, novels deal with soul.
How do you feel about Italy’s response to the current migrant crisis and the EU as a whole?
Italy is in a very exposed and delicate geographical position; this is the reason why Italy is trying to seek more help from the rest of Europe. Italy cannot deal with this epochal issue alone. The sad fact is that Europe is closing more and more. The only way countries have found to deal with 60 millions of refugees seeking asylum is by building walls. Even a child can understand that this is not an appropriate solution. A wall will not stop millions of refugees. Escaping from a war is something too strong to be stopped and these ways look too similar to what happened in Europe during the Nazi occupation.