VICE caught up with Safy over the phone to talk about her inspirations, growing up Somali-American in Minnesota, and Somali futurism.
Monday February 19, 2018
By Eve Peyser
Safy Hallan Farah's '1991' zine will feature beautiful images and writing culled from the brightest young minds across the Somali diaspora.
Image by Ikran Abdille via 1991
Safy Hallan Farah didn't think there were enough images of Somali people in media, so she took things into her own hands. In the summer of 2017, she conceived of the 1991 zine to "create the images" she wanted to see in the world. Farah, a writer who's been in published in The New York Times, Vogue, Nylon and Paper, will release the first issue of 1991 later this year. She co-founded 1991 with Mia Nguyen—"even though she's Vietnamese, she’s really passionate about the project," Harrah explained—and is working on the zine with former VICE writer Sarah Hagi, model Miski Muse, Hadiya Shirea, and other Somali writers and artists.
"1991 is a Somali culture zine," Farah told me in an email. "The name comes from how 1991 was the year the civil war broke out in Somalia, ushering a new beginning for Somalis everywhere. My collaborators and I would like to curate and edit work that plays with time and memory. From collage art that explores forgotten vestiges to writing by modern storytellers, 1991 will be at once a time capsule and an exploration of a Somali futurism that reconciles with the tumult of its past all while highlighting the creativity, style, resilience, and tenacity of Somali youth across the diaspora."
VICE: Why did you title the zine 1991?
Safy Hallan Farah: I didn’t want people to project onto the name. I also didn’t want to marginalize the project by giving it an obscure Somali word as the name. And I like numerals. When things are in order, they tend to come first. 1991 is a palindrome, so it’s very stylistically interesting to look at. I was keen on not having something look ugly on the magazine because I think some words are ugly, some words won’t look beautiful to the wrong audience, and we want to cultivate a diasporic audience that isn’t necessarily Somali. Having it be called 1991 would be an interesting way to get a message across and have people ask us [about it instead of asking], “What does that word mean?” They’ll ask, “What is the significance of 1991?”
What is the significance of 1991?
We had this dictator named Siad Barre and he was ousted by people who were really mad at him, for good reasons because he sucked a lot. Then a civil war broke out, and that’s why there are so many displaced Somali refugees in countries like the United States, England, Australia, and pretty much everywhere. Somalis are everywhere.
Why is it important for you to have a zine that represents Somali voices?
It’s about [Somali] images. There aren’t images of Somali people that I want out there in the world. A magazine project can help create the images I want to see. Something I’m always thinking is, “Where are the Somali photographers who shoot in the particular styles that I happen to gravitate toward?” Through 1991, I’ve been able to connect with really amazing photographers I didn’t know existed and models. I’m interested in putting more diverse images out there of Somali people, particularly women and youths.
Safy Hallan Farah | Photo by Nancy Musingguzi
Tell me a little about your personal journey. How did you reach the point where you decided to create 1991 and felt the need to boost the voices of other Somali writers and artists?
I always felt like it was in my best interest to keep my head down and do my work and not create anything of my own, and keep doing what I have been doing, which is publishing articles at different publications, mostly because I felt like I didn’t necessarily know if it was the right time in my life to helm a project like that. I was inspired by my friend Kinsi Abdulleh who runs an organization in London called NUMBI Arts. She started this amazing Somali zine in 2010 called Scarf and she gave me a bunch of issues when I met her in Wales in 2015. Had I not been introduced to her work, I would not be doing this kind of project. It really got me thinking about creating community and creating spaces for Somali people and through just thinking about that over the course of the last three, four years, it’s gotten to the point where I am now, where I can focus on a project like [ 1991].
Can you tell us about your upbringing as a Somali-American in Minnesota, your relationship with your ethnic identity throughout your life, and how it led you to creating this zine?
Fun fact: I didn’t really speak Somali until I was nine. That’s because I only spoke Somali as a kid and my parents didn’t teach me English, but they taught me how to read [in English] before I was four. When I started kindergarten, I actually realized, “Oh shit, people speak English, I’m a weirdo, I don’t know how to communicate with anyone.” So I learned English really quickly, and I graduated from ESL class after the first couple months of first grade, and then I didn’t speak Somali for years. I completely disassociated from speaking Somali. This is something that happens with a lot of immigrant kids. When I moved to Minneapolis [from San Jose] when I was nine-years-old, I learned Somali because Minneapolis has a huge Somali population. I was going to pretty much all-black, all-Somali schools, and then I learned how to speak and write in Somali. Now I speak pretty fluent Somali. I think my relationship with my culture changed when I started being around more Somali people.
Photo by Ikram Mohamed via 1991
Why did you gravitate toward the medium of collage?
There are going to be a lot of written pieces, but I just like the idea of having that DIY aesthetic that a lot of zines have with collage. But also being design-minded. I really love Apartmento Magazine and The Gentlewoman. I want to strike a balance between good design and DIY.
You’ve mentioned “Somali futurism” in your description of the project. Can you explain what that is?
I remember when I was a senior in high school—most of my friends were Somali and most of my classmates were Somali—and everyone would be like, “Well, I’m gonna study this because then I get to go back to Somalia and do this.” Everyone would say stuff like that. Even though a good chunk of those kids weren’t actually born in Somalia, but everyone was always thinking of Somalia’s future and what’s next for us and what we can do for Somalia. What really interests me is what kind of voices will emerge in the diaspora that will push toward more progressive politics, more interesting sounds and textures and visuals. I’m more interested in the ideas that are going to go back to Somalia, rather than the people and the jobs.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.