Skip to content


July 14, 2015



The cutter came last night. I recognized her: her black clothes, her narrow face and yellow whites of her eyes.

15-year-old Zahra has lived in England most of her life, but she is haunted by memories of her early childhood in Africa: the warm sun, the loud gunfire, and happy days playing with her older sister before “the visitors” came.  It is hard for Zahra to make sense of everything that happened, and the terrible events are impossible to talk about, but when three familiar women arrive unexpectedly for tea, Zahra realises that the dangers of the past could still destroy her.
What Was Never Said is the powerful story of a girl navigating the demands of two very different and conflicting worlds; a tale of surviving loss and overcoming fears. 
What was never said is very different from the book I set out to write. I was exploring the idea of witting a novel about teenage girls from different cultural  and religious backgrounds and I was thinking of setting it in Bristol, which is our nearest big city, but I didn’t have a personal route to make contact with anyone in that community. Someone suggested that I approach City Academy Bristol as it has a lot of Somali students. I googled the school and I knew immediately that I had found an important story. On the home page thee was news that a group of students who belonged to a club called Integrate Bristol had just one prize for their film The Silent Scream. The film had been made as apart of a student campaign against FGM. There was a short clip of students, modestly and traditionally dressed, receiving a prize for work which protested a traditional practice they were clearly extraordinary young people managing to negotiate conflicting values.
To my amazement, an email to info@theschool, brought an immediate response, and before long I had been invited in to meet the campaigning students. I know from my work for a literary festival that it is usually very hard to get a response from schools unless you are contacting a named person. I couldn’t believe my luck.

In the following two years I visited the school regularly and, in the final months of writing the book , red chunks of it to kind and patient girls who answered all sorts of questions about learning Qur’an, making Somali tea and, in some cases memories of life before they came to England. There many amazing people in Bristol’s Somali community. They are bridging different cultures questioning and respecting the traditions of their parents and grandparents whilst questioning and respecting the challenges of contemporary British culture. Their thinking is nuanced. They are taking care to keep hold of the baby as they throw out the bath water.
The students of Integrate Bristol have achieved a huge amount, since I first met them in May 2012,  in terms of getting the abuse of FGM into public consciousness. Some of them have been on Newsnight, lobbied Michael Gove in person, met Ban Ki-moon and shared a stage with Malala. I am really inspired by them, and by their creative approach to the challenge of making the world a better a place. But What Was Said does not tell the story of any girls I met, rather it imagines the situations of a girl who doesn’t have the support of the campaign. And there are many. UNICEF estimates that 133 million women have undergone FGM worldwide. In Britain, mandatory recording of FGM cases started on 1 September 2011.



From → book review

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: