A new graphic novel set in Yellowknife tells the story of a Somali family separated by thousands of kilometres as they face loneliness, workplace dangers and a few fearsome monsters that lurk under the ice of a great frozen lake.
King Warrior, released on Dec. 23, 2020 joins a very short but growing list of NWT-focused graphic novels that mix facts of Yellowknife life with swirling cinematic fiction, courtesy of its authors Erika Nyyssonen and Jay Bulckaert, who is also one of the founders of the Dead North film festival.
The novel centres around the family of Awale, a taxi driver in Yellowknife who is saving money so he can bring his wife Warsan and son Afrah over from Somalia.
When he isn’t busy driving around a cast of colourful characters – some of whom have hostile intentions – he’s drawing parts of his own fantastical graphic novel that he sends to his son.
The stories Awale sketches mirror Afrah’s struggles with loneliness and his temper that gets him into trouble at school. In that alternate Yellowknife universe, he becomes Prince Afrah, heir to the frozen Kingdom of Jayrikas. He trains under the master ninja warrior Kosugi, who teaches him to shun anger and “fight with a quiet heart.”
That training is in preparation for Afrah’s inevitable battle with the Water Dog and White Bahaals (“monster” in Somali), hideous creatures bent on dominating the kingdom and who guard the secret of what happened to King Awale.
The origins of the novel are as varied and diverse as the characters inside it. Bulckaert and Nyyssonnen combined multiple inspirations when Bulckaert initially wrote the general outline five years ago for a script competition.
“It was an issue of being aware of the cab driving scene in town – often the folks are coming from very far away from here – and thinking about that reality,” said Bulckaert.
The story of Somali-Canadian rapper K’naan, whose father is a taxi driver in Yellowknife, was also in Bulckaert’s mind when he drafted the original concept.
“For me, when I was growing up my father worked overseas a lot. He was often gone from the house. That was also sort of an inspiration. That all tied together. For the rest of it, who knows man, that’s the creative process. Once you start writing, other things start to magically appear, I guess.”
The character of master Kosugi is a nod to Japanese actor and martial artist Sho Kosugi, a star in the ninja movies Bulckaert grew up watching.
Local and European influences are in the book too. The plucky “ptarmigan army” helps Prince Afrah confront the Water Dog as they summon their “sisu,” a Finnish word for bravery.
“My wife (Nyyssonen) is Finnish. Sisu is a big part of Finnish culture. We thought it would be cool if the ptarmigan army saved the day. The hat they wear is a traditional Sami hat that the Indigenous Sami people (of northern Finland) wear,” Bulckaert said.
“I think the story celebrates multiculturalism. This town is full of amazing cultures that often we don’t think about too much,” he said. “I don’t see so much talk about Filipino culture or Somalian culture. We just wanted to take what we knew and saw and what we thought was interesting and celebrate that.”
Lucas Green was the illustrator and Halima Mahamud was the project’s Somali cultural consultant.
Green’s role in the project “kicked off” when he visited Yellowknife in early 2019 for the Dead North festival and could see for himself the scenery he would illustrate in the book,
“I went to the Snowking festival. I spent a week doing research and taking photos. I just love it up North,” he said.
Dark realities of Yellowknife
One scene in the novel that has a chilling resemblance to reality involves Awale being assaulted by a violent and vindictive customer.
While that has echoes with the case of Ahmed Mahamud Ali, a Somali taxi driver who was beaten to death in 2018, Bulckaert said that part was written three years previously.
“That was a part of the book that I had held off on drawing because it was a difficult part of the story,” said Green.
After Ali’s killing, Bulckaert and Nyyssonen asked Mahamud if the assault scene should be taken out of the novel.
“She was adamant that it stay in,” Bulckaert said. “We also consulted with Savannah Perna at Savannah’s Restaurant. She also said to keep it in because it’s worth knowing the truth of the situation of cab drivers in the North.”
Accurate picture of Somali-Canadian life
Mahamud gave the writers creative advice on the Somali character names, their physical appearances and clothing and even the layout of Warsan and Afrah’s home in Somalia. That depiction was based on a photograph of Mahamud’s friend’s apartment in Gaalkacyo, a city in north-central Somalia.
Many aspects of the plot and characters are true to the lives of Somali-Canadians, said Mahamud, who is originally from Somalia and spent several years in London, England before coming to Canada.
“My kids can relate to the story a lot. My husband was here and we were in London for about eight years and then we came here and joined him. I have four kids. And my son was in a similar position as the boy Afrah when he was separated from his father. When he’s reading it, it’s almost him in the novel.
“My husband is a cab driver. He can relate. It’s a struggle being a cab driver. There are good and not so good times. He sometimes comes home and talks about people refusing to pay and sometimes they try to damage the car, or they leave the car and don’t come back to pay. There is a lot of verbal abuse and racism. He’s never been assaulted, thank God.”
Mahamud is also glad her children appreciate the book.
“I think this is the first book they get to read where their culture is represented in a positive way,” she said.
Two-hundred and fifty copies of the novel have been printed so far, which Bulckaert sees as “phase one” of a larger printing drive.
“I think this novel is world-class work. I want to have a wide distribution. We’re slowly ramping up to that,” he said.
King Warrior is sold at Down to Earth Gallery and the Book Cellar.