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.”