"Are You Borg Now?" written by Said Shaiye (right) will be released May 22. The book was published through Really Serious Literature, a publication house based in Seattle. Credit: Said Shaiye

Growing up, Said Shaiye found safety in the science fiction show “Star Trek: Voyager.” The series didn’t just strike a chord with him because it was an action-packed story that took place in space. Star Trek spoke to Said about assimilation, family, and endless journeys in a way that nothing else did.

“This crew that’s lost, millions and millions of lightyears from Earth, they have to try to make their way back,” Said said. “They become a strong family unit as they’re lost and fighting all these battles, just trying to get back home.”

In their journey, the Voyager crew find that their home is the spaceship they live on. For Said, his family, which went through the deeply traumatic process of displacement together, was his spaceship. Writing became his tool of understanding that trauma. Said is a Minneapolis-based Somali writer and MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota.

In his debut book, “Are You Borg Now?” Said creates a new space, somewhere beyond reality and also embedded deep within it, where he warily treads around his childhood trauma with the one other person who lived through it—his younger self.  The experimental book, which blends nonfiction and poetry in an interview Said has with a younger version of himself, is being released May 22. The Borg are a type of alien in Star Trek whose goal is to forcibly create an assimilated species. Unlike the Star Trek antagonists the book is named after, Said’s work shows his struggle against assimilating as a Black Muslim, an immigrant, and the only Somali writer in his graduate courses. 

“Are You Borg Now?” isn’t Said’s memoir. Instead, it’s a rejection of the expectations readers have of immigrant writers. 

“I always thought that I would write a big giant book about all my painful memories,” Said said. “I’ve learned over the years that as multiple minorities we’re always expected to perform our trauma, perform our pain for mass audiences, regardless of the cost it has on us.”

Writing around trauma versus writing about it

Said started writing “Are You Borg Now?” in 2019 as an assignment at the University of Minnesota, where he is the first Somali student to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. Particularly during his first semester, Said struggled with writing about his trauma. At first, he tried to confront it head on—it was what his peers expected him to write about, anyway. Even when he wasn’t trying to write about trauma, growing up in Somali during a war and living in a refugee camp were things that inevitably came up. 

Eventually, Said said he didn’t want to write about his trauma anymore, but there wasn’t a great genre or framework that would allow him to write only what he wanted to share. On top of that, there wasn’t a space where he felt comfortable sharing his work with classmates who had no understanding of where he came from.

“I just felt like I was drowning. The last thing I wanted to do was write about more trauma while I was facing trauma,” Said said. The experimental nature of the book came up as a way for him to get around detailing his traumatic experiences instead, he added.

Said shared little about his time immigrating from Somalia as a refugee. In fact, he said he doesn’t like to call himself a refugee in the first place. In the book, readers get disjointed details through copies of immigration records that he’s included in the text. These include letters from relatives attesting to Said’s family history, photos, and stamped approval forms. 

“We left a place and never landed anywhere,” Said said. “Even as an adult, I went back home and it didn’t feel like home.”

When he visited Somalia, Said remembered people telling him he wasn’t Somali—he was American. But in America, Said said he had trouble fitting in. He writes in his book about feeling isolated, as well as his struggles with addiction, his commitment to his faith, and more.

‘He didn’t have a lot of people in the classroom that shared his experiences’

Said first started talking about the cross-genre concept in Douglas Kearney’s class. Kearney is a writer and professor at the University of Minnesota.

“He was oftentimes trying to find a way to be in the complex space of an MFA program, where he didn’t have a lot of people in the classroom that shared his experiences,” Kearney said. “It was difficult to come to a space where the requirement is to be very vulnerable.”

That made it difficult for Said to participate in workshops where students would give each other feedback on their work. “It’s one of the most traumatizing processes,” Said said. “All it can do is put other people’s subjectivities on top of your writing, and confuse you about your own voice.”

Still, Kearney said Said worked really hard. “He wants most of all to operate in a space where traumatic violences won’t be reenacted in the name of pedagogy.” 

Since his first class with Kearney, Said continued to take classes with him as independent studies courses. That’s when Said started developing “Are You Borg Now?”

An interview with the self is the framework, Said said, but it’s not the entire book. He blends poetry, nonfiction, and rap verses in his conversation with himself.

“I try to honor both sides of that river, because I do feel drawn to both poetry and nonfiction. But sometimes I don’t have the energy to engage with nonfiction,” Said said. “You can write a poem and 60 percent of the way through you can be like, I don’t feel like explaining anything to you.” 

But he doesn’t switch between different genres randomly. For example, if the younger self in the book asks Said’s current self about something he doesn’t want to talk about, he’ll interrupt the format as a sort of distraction. He’ll often switch between format and subject matter to write around traumatic experiences in a way that’s transparent to the reader—he’ll just tell you he doesn’t want to write about something.

Here’s an example:

We call that Trauma, bro.

Believe me, I know. Hey.

What?

Let’s switch back, I’m hurting talking about this. I’m not as strong as you.

“If you take one mirror and break it, you end up with several mirrors,” Kearney said. “What happens over the course of the book is you’re watching somebody develop a form and arrive at the conclusion of that form’s usefulness.”

By the end, Kearney said Said allows the two voices in the story to become—not one voice, and not two contradictory voices—but a part of a singular space. It’s as if Said can hold both ideas in one hand, leaving another hand free for a different idea. 

“What we see there is an act of really radical self-care,” Kearney said. “To say, no one gets to extract from me that which I am not willing to give. And still, we have this book that tells us something. It is a book that directly, transparently refuses certain disclosures.”

Keeping his circle small

Really Serious Literature, a publication house based in Seattle, is publishing “Are You Borg Now?”. Barracuda Guarisco, the editor-in-chief and founder of Really Serious Literature, has known Said for more than a decade. He used to participate in readings Guarisco hosted when Said lived in Seattle.

“It’s the way it’s written. It’s a person going through all the trials and tribulations of not just modern-day society, but expressing what he’s going through as a Black Muslim,” Guarisco said.

Including Guarisco, Said keeps a small circle of trusted friends and mentors with whom he shares his work. Khadijo Abdi is a fellow writer based in Minneapolis and a friend of Said’s. She’s also a certified medical interpreter—that’s how the two first bonded.

Khadijo and Said met at an artist collective. At the time, he had questions for Khadijo about being a medical interpreter. Eventually, the two began exchanging work. She regularly reads an email thread he sends out about what he’s thinking and writing about. 

“It’s very emotionally honest,” Khadijo said of Said’s book. “The stuff that people, including myself, are hesitant to share. That’s why so many people love and relate to his work, because he’s speaking for us.”

Khadijo shares Said’s hesitancy to share her own work. “When I share it with people who are like me, people who are Somali, they really get it,” Khadijo said. “I don’t experience that with other people because I have to explain the culture.”

For Said, the very nature of those explanations were harmful. But in “Are You Borg Now?” he gives only what he wants to readers. On May 22, Said will open up that circle and allow a larger audience into his conversation, but just as observers.

“This book means a lot to me because it’s just an extension of my survival process,” Said said. “With all of the difficulty I was facing, writing came through to save me.”

“Are You Borg Now?” is scheduled to release May 22 and is available for pre-order here.

An excerpt from “Are You Borg Now?”:

A complete version of this excerpt can be found here.

I have so much love and respect for my brothers, sisters, cousins in this American struggle.

Wish all our people saw it that way, huh?

Wish they didn’t believe what the white man say.

Wish they didn’t read your writing and say: you sound like a white man, Said.

Some things just don’t leave you.

We call that Trauma, bro.

Believe me, I know. Hey.

What?

Let’s switch back, I’m hurting talking about this. I’m not as strong as you.

My bad lil bro. I’ll take over now. Or should we take a break?

I think I’d like that.

Alright. I’ll get up with you on the other side.

Say less.

Stay blessed.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.