Safy-Hallan Farah wasn’t seeing the words and images that reflected the bright, beautiful Somali people she knew. So she created 124 pages of them.
Flipping through a digital proof of her new magazine, 1991, which launches Friday, Farah paused on the soft, richly hued photographs of Cherrie, a Somali-Swedish R&B singer whose “sound crosses and transcends borders, existing in the liminal spaces of the diaspora.”
“It was kismet,” Farah said of matching that cover story to its writer, Aamna Mohdin. “I had thought of the wrong people before her — who didn’t have her skills but also didn’t have her love.
“She’s just a very brilliant individual that I am indebted to so much.”
With each story and each photo spread, Farah heaped similar praise: “This is an amazing LGBTQI writer whose career I’ve been following for ages.” “She’s super, super generous with her time.” “I love this dude.” The dozens of Somali writers and artists who contributed to the inaugural issue reflect Farah’s growing global pull.
Farah, 28, has written trend pieces, profiles and personal essays for publications ranging from the local art-lit magazine Paper Darts to Vogue. In September, the New York Times published her essay “License to Not Drive,” about the complicated cultural reasons she hasn’t gotten her driver’s license. That piece is funny, too, with references to “Clueless” and the Milo Ventimiglia GeoCities fan page that, as a teenager, Farah faithfully maintained.
“I know the tightrope balance of chasing banal firsts in a quest to liberate myself from cultural FOMO,” she writes, “while keeping my sharaf — honor — passably intact.”
So when Farah announced last year that she was working on a zine celebrating Somali youth across the diaspora, her online and IRL communities buzzed, pitching ideas and contributing $5,000 to a crowdfunding campaign. The project swelled until, suddenly, it looked much more magazine than zine, and more designed than DIY.
“It’s a magazine on a zine budget,” Farah said. (She hopes to publish twice a year, but it’ll depend on funding.)
That budget has an uphill battle. When a trio of 20-something creatives published Paper Darts in 2009, “we got a lot of, ‘What are these crazy girls doing?’ ” said co-founder Meghan Lionel Murphy. “I think it’s worse now. I’m positive it’s worse now.”
A decade ago, publications big and small confronted a crumbling media landscape, effectively leveling the field, she said. Today, with Facebook requiring payment for eyeballs, it’s tough to get a reader’s attention. Murphy laughed, then downgraded her forecast: “I actually think that it’s the worst time ever to start something like this.”
But she knows that specificity helps, and that Farah’s audience is hungry for the kind of publication she’s creating. And she knows Safy, and that behind her shyness is fearlessness.
‘A lot of guts’
In middle school, a young Safy would eat her lunch in a bathroom stall. She knows that sounds like a teen movie.
“Not because I was bullied — but because I was terrified,” Farah said.
She was 9 when her family moved to Minneapolis, home to the country’s biggest Somali-American population. “It was really a culture shock,” she said. “It was the first time I was around other Somali kids — and other black kids in general.”
Farah felt tall (she’s 5 feet 10) and awkward, like the whole lunchroom was looking at her. So she immersed herself in books, reading Oprah’s Book Club picks with her mom, and websites, too.
“I did Neopets until I was, like, 17 years old,” she said with a laugh, referring to a virtual pet website.
Working as an intern at Paper Darts gave the Roosevelt High School grad confidence, experience and a place to start her writing career. With skill and wit, she married theories from her University of Minnesota classes with her “internet kid” ethos, Murphy said. “She can dial it up or down and be flip and funny.” In 2012, Farah wrote “A List of Greatness to Stop Denying,” recommending Issa Rae long before she created her HBO show “Insecure” and author Roxane Gay long before she wrote “Hunger.”
It revealed Farah’s taste, her ability to spot and to curate, Murphy said.
That ability is on full display with 1991, its first issue packed with profiles and fashion and fascinating arguments. Its editorial director is based in London, and several of its contributors live in Los Angeles. Actor and rapper Sadeeq Ali — who was born in London and now lives in L.A. — met Farah in Minneapolis when he was 9 years old, building a relationship from there “on years of mutual support of one another as artists.”
In 1991, Ali argues that Somali actors deserve a much broader range of roles than “pirate” or “terrorist.” “Somalis deserve to be seen as human beings rather than caricatures in Hollywood narratives,” he writes. Farah asked him to write the piece, he said by e-mail, noting her resilience and “absolute refusal of mediocrity.”
“I think that it takes a lot of guts to put yourself in the center of change for a community that often resists it,” he wrote. “I think that the publication’s aims and mission statements are the first of its kind for our community, and that REALLY excites me.”
Published for the future
The pair of high schoolers leading a recent event at the Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute in Minneapolis started by reading the bios of the five writers sitting beside them. Among them: Acclaimed novelist Marlon James. Poet Bao Phi. Author Tom Rademacher. Safy-Hallan Farah.
Farah looked up and away, biting her burgundy lip and tapping her black velvet sneaker as they listed the many accomplishments of the first panelist, Kelly Barnhill: four novels for children, 13 nonfiction books, 40 short stories. A Newbery Medal. Then they introduced Farah, “creator of 1991, a zine that will be released at the end of this month.”
The crowd cheered, and Farah finally smiled, revealing bright white teeth and a flash of charisma.
She told donors gathered in the nonprofit tutoring center’s new space in the Seward neighborhood that growing up, she didn’t know her identity, didn’t think about where her parents were from. “Nobody told me there was this horrific war that started the year after I was born.”
It’s a story Farah shared last year in the New York Times, in an essay called “A Deadly Year in My Family’s Homeland.” When she was 10, a cousin told her a dark story from the civil war, introducing her to the idea of clans. “As a child, I didn’t understand the extent to which clan ideology distorted many Somalis’ thinking.” In the piece, Farah dug into her family members’ history and thinking. She told how, in 2016, she worked with the Minnesota History Center to compile oral histories of Somali women.
One of those interviews pops up in 1991, its title a reference to the year the Somali Civil War started. (A Somali word wouldn’t have been as accessible, Farah said. Bonus: 1991 is an aesthetically pleasing palindrome.)
“As a writer, I want to pass down to future generations of Somali kids and to readers … the stories I didn’t get to hear as a kid,” she told the group.
Farah wants them looking forward and out, as well. She knows how writing opened her world, how getting paid to write gave her self-confidence. Sometimes she dreams of starting an incubator space that Somali artists could use for free or discounted rates.
As the night went on at the institute, the panelists got a little punchy, joking and laughing. Phi described himself as “a socially awkward refugee kid,” and Farah smiled and nodded knowingly. Then it was the other panelists’ turn to nod.
“I hope that youth, particularly youth in Minneapolis, can really learn to look outside of Minneapolis … and see that there’s a really big, wide world,” she said, “and that they can write themselves into any narrative they want to be a part of.”