Somali writer Nuruddin Farah (born 1945) is one of Africa's most acclaimed contemporary writers, as well as the sole Somali author whose works have achieved international renown. Farah has lived in exile from his homeland since 1976, when the content of his second novel was deemed treasonous by Somalia's ruling dictatorship. After learning that he was persona non grata that day in Rome in 1976, he vowed that “if I couldn't go back home then I would systematically make the rest of Africa my country,” he explained in a Publishers Weekly interview with Stephen Gray.
Farah was born on November 24, 1945, in the southcentral Somali city of Baidoa. At the time of his birth, the area was under British jurisdiction in the months just following World War II; prior to this, Somalia had been a colonial possession of Italy, along with neighboring Ethiopia and, beyond that, the nation of Eritrea. The alliances and animosities in this region, known as the Horn of Africa, along with decisions made by foreign powers in this postwar era, would play a large role in shaping the long and deadly descent into chaos that marked Somalia's late twentieth-century history.
Studied in India
In addition to his first language, Somali, Farah became fluent in English, Italian, Arabic, and Amharic—the predominant tongue of Ethiopia—reflecting the cosmopolitan, multicultural nature of the region. Somalia's capital was Mogadishu, which had been a trading port connected to the Indian subcontinent since the first century C.E. Farah's father, Hassan, was a merchant, and his mother, Aleeli, was a poet whose work was presented orally, according to the literary tradition of Somalia at the time. The Somali tongue, part of the Cushitic family of languages spoken in the Horn of Africa, was not codified into a written language until the early 1970s, just when Farah was beginning his career as a writer.
Farah attended school in Kallafo, a city located in Ogaden, which was a largely Somali-populated region that bordered Ethiopia and figured prominently in a long-running dispute between the two nations. His family had settled there when he was a toddler, but when the border war flared up once again, they were forced to flee to Mogadishu. As a young man, he took a job as a clerk-typist with Somalia's Ministry of Education in 1964, but two years later went to Punjab University in Chandigarh, India, to spend the next three years studying philosophy, literature, and sociology.
Farah returned to Somalia in 1969, the same year that a military coup led by a Somali army officer, General Siad Barre (1919-1995), ousted the regime which had administered the country since the World War II era, installed when the area achieved independence from Britain. Initially Marxist in fervor and progressive in outlook, the new Barre regime was greeted with enthusiasm by many young Somalis, Farah among them, for its revolutionary goals. One of Barre's first official acts, for example, was to end the reliance on colonial languages in Somalia's educational system, and he ordered linguists to rush a written form of the Somali language into development.
Published First Novel
Though Farah initially took a job as a secondary school teacher when he returned from India, he was also aiming for a literary career, and in 1970 his first novel, From a CrookedRib, was published in English by the Heinemann publishing house in London as part of its influential African Writers Series. Farah's story centers on Ebla, a young Somali woman who struggles to break free of the constraints that keep her from an independent life and will force her into an arranged marriage. He took the title of the novel from a well-known Somali proverb, “God created woman from a crooked rib; and any one who trieth to straighten it, breaketh it,” according to an article that appeared in London's Independent in 2005.”
In the early 1970s, Farah taught comparative literature at the university level in Mogadishu while working on his second novel, which for a time was serialized in a new Somalilanguage newspaper but then halted. This would be the sole work that he wrote in the Somali language. The Barre regime, now firmly allied with the Soviet Union, was becoming an increasingly repressive one, and Farah decided to leave for a time in order to study playwriting in England. He spent time at the University of London and the University of Essex, and in 1976 served a stint at London's acclaimed Royal Court Theatre. His next book, A Naked Needle, appeared that same year under the Heinemann imprint. Its plot centers around a marriage discussed between a teacher in Mogadishu and an English girl he meets while studying abroad. When she arrives in Somalia, the young, idealistic Somali has second thoughts about the interracial match.
Forced into Exile
A Naked Needle contained descriptions of life in contemporary Somalia that the Barre regime deemed unacceptable, and this precipitated the events that would change Farah's life in a major way. In 1976 he was at the Fiumicino airport in Rome awaiting a flight home to Somalia, and he phoned his brother in Mogadishu to arrange an airport pickup. His brother warned him not to board the plane, telling him that the authorities were so incensed about his novel that it was advisable to instead “forget Somalia,” and to “think of it as if it no longer exists for you,” Farah recalled during an interview with Maya Jaggi in the London Guardian. From that point forward, Farah lived in several African nations, including Uganda, the Gambia, and Nigeria. Freed from the fear of political reprisals, he began writing a trilogy called “Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship.” The first novel was Sweet and Sour Milk, published in Britain in 1979. The story centers on Loyaan, a dentist who learns that the recent death of his twin brother was tied to the latter's underground political activities in opposition to an authoritarian regime of a ruler known only as “the General.”
Maps Lauded by Academia
Farah's next novel in the trilogy was Sardines, published in 1981. Its protagonist is Medina, a former journalist who finds herself in trouble with the General's regime. In the third and final work, Close Sesame, a man is released from prison after decades of political dissent under various regimes. When he learns that his son is now involved in a coup plot, he attempts to halt the ill-conceived plan. Close Sesame appeared in 1982, the same year that all three works in the first trilogy first appeared in print in the United States. By this point Farah had become well-known in European literary circles, and he emerged as an important new discovery among American academics in 1986 with Maps, the first in his “Blood in the Sun” trilogy. The work attracted major attention in academia, and immediately became part of the standard reading list for courses on postcolonial literature.
Maps focuses on the coming of age of Askar, who is a boy in Ogaden before moving to Mogadishu during his teens. “At the same time as he discovers the ‘territory of pain’ connected with the necessary separations that lead to manhood, he becomes aware of the border conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia,” explained Jacqueline Bardolph in an essay on Farah that appeared in Research in African Literatures. “The two themes, the personal and the political, are woven in a complex manner, all the more striking as the narrative sequences follow one another in the first-, second-, and third-person pronouns, ‘I,’ ‘you,’ ‘he.’ ”
Won Neustadt Prize
In 1996 Farah was finally able to return to Somalia for the first time in 22 years, when he made a brief visit to family members who had remained there. Barre had finally been ousted in January of 1991, but the country had erupted into civil war in the interim. In 1998 Farah won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, a highly prestigious literary award given by the University of Oklahoma and its journal, World Literature Today. With its $40,000 prize purse, the Neustadt is considered the literary world's second most coveted honor after the Nobel Prize. Farah joined an impressive list of past Neustadt recipients, including Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez (born 1927) and Poland's Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004).
Later in 1998 Farah moved to Capetown, South Africa, with his wife, Nigerian academic Amina Mama, with whom he has a son. Secrets, the second work in his “Blood in the Sun” trilogy, also appeared that year. Again, the story features a powerful female protagonist, in this case Sholoongo, who is abandoned by her mother and raised by lions, later moves to New York City, and returns to Somalia in the early 1990s, just as Barre's dictatorship is winding down. The third work in Farah's trilogy was Gifts, which appeared in 1999. Its protagonist is Duniya, a nurse who worries about her family as Somalia's civil war looms. She also recalls her own struggle for independence as a young woman, when a marriage to an elderly blind man was arranged by her family.
Farah began a new trilogy in 2004 with Links, the story of Jeebleh, a Somali immigrant to the United States who returns to his homeland after two decades' absence. He becomes enmeshed in the terror experienced by the family of his longtime friend, whose young daughter appears to have been kidnapped by the local warlord. The next work in the trilogy was 2007's Knots. Its heroine is Cambara, a Somali immigrant to Canada whose young son has drowned in a swimming pool because of the negligence of her adulterous husband. Griefstricken, she returns to Mogadishu determined to retake possession of her family's former home, now the lair of one of the notorious warlords who dominated Somali politics until just before the novel's actual publication.
Briefly Ventured into Diplomacy
The author himself reluctantly returned once again to Somalia when he was asked to serve as go-between to settle a conflict between the transitional government and an Islamic fundamentalist group. His mission was unsuccessful, but he wrote of it in a 2007 New York Times article titled “My Life as a Diplomat,” in which he concluded that “the only way out of the current impasse is to resume dialogue between the two principal parties to the conflict. I now know from personal experience how difficult this is.”
Farah also spoke about the experience in an interview with Jeffrey Brown of News Hour, a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) news program. Brown asked Farah about an oft-repeated quote the author had made many years before, when he asserted that his mission was “to keep my country alive by writing about it.” Farah replied, “When I said that, I was a young man. You could say that, being young, I was also ambitious. I dreamt that this is what I was going to do. And now that I am older, the only thing I can say is that I have tried my best to keep my country alive by writing about it, and the reason is because nothing good comes out of a country until the artists of that country turn to writing about it in a truthful way.”
Guardian (London, England), April 3, 1993; May 3, 1996.
Independent (London, England), March 11, 2005.
New York Times, July 19, 1998; May 19, 2004; April 8, 2007; May 26, 2007.
Publishers Weekly, August 23, 1999.
Research in African Literatures, Spring 1998.
“Somali Author Reflects on Conflict in Native Country,” PBS, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/africa/jan-june07/farah_02-27.html (January 10, 2008).
"Farah, Nuruddin." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/farah-nuruddin
"Farah, Nuruddin." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved July 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/farah-nuruddin
Nationality: Somali. Born: Baidoa, 24 November 1945. Education: Istituto di Magistrale, Mogadiscio, Somalia, 1964; Panjab University, Chindigarh, India, 1966-70; University of London, 1974-75; University of Essex, Colchester, 1975-76. Family: Divorced, one son; remarried in 1992, one daughter. Career: Clerk-typist, Ministry of Education, and secondary school teacher, 1969-71, Mogadiscio; teacher, Wardhiigley Secondary School, 1970-71; lecturer, Somali National University, Mogadiscio, 1971-74; guest professor, Bayreuth University, Germany, 1981; associate professor, University of Jos, Nigeria, 1981-83; visiting professor, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Autumn 1988, State University of New York, Stony Brook, Spring 1989, and Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, Autumn 1991. Since 1990 professor, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda. Awards: Unesco fellowship, 1974; English-Speaking Union award, 1980; Corman Artists fellowship, 1990; Tucholsky award for literary exiles (Sweden), 1993; Cavour prize (Italy), 1993; Neustadt International Prize for Literature, 1998. Agent: Curtis Brown, 162-168 Regent Street, London W1R 5TB, England.
From a Crooked Rib. London, Heinemann, 1970.
A Naked Needle. London, Heinemann, 1976. Variations in African Dictatorship:
Sweet and Sour Milk. London, Allison and Busby, 1979; St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf Press, 1992.
Sardines. London, Allison and Busby, 1981; St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf Press, 1992.
Close Sesame. London, Allison and Busby, 1983; St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf Press, 1992.
Maps. London, Pan, 1986; New York, Pantheon, 1987.
Gifts. London, Serif, 1992; New York, Arcade, 1999.
Secrets. New York, Arcade, 1998.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Why Dead So Soon?" in Somali News (Mogadiscio), 1965.
A Dagger in Vacuum (produced Mogadiscio, 1970).
The Offering (produced Colchester, Essex, 1975).
Yussuf and His Brothers (produced Jos, Nigeria, 1982).
Tartar Delight, 1980 (Germany); A Spread of Butter. n.d.
Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora. London andNew York, Cassell, 2000.*
The Novels of Nuruddin Farah by Derek Wright. Bayreuth, Germany, Bayreuth University, 1994; Nuruddin Farah by Patricia Alden and Louis Tremaine. New York, Twayne, 1999.* * *
When Nuruddin Farah's first novel in English, From a Crooked Rib, appeared in the Heinemann African Writers' Series (1970), the book was well received by critics, and Farah was immediately classified as a leading figure among the "second generation" of African writers. While Sweet and Sour Milk was about to appear, Farah stayed on a writer's fellowship in Italy and was warned not to return to Somalia, since the dictatorial regime of Siyad Barre had taken offense with his second novel, A Naked Needle. Farah decided "not to return home for the time being" and for more than thirty years now, he has been living in different African countries (Sudan, Gambia, Nigeria, Uganda) and has held a number of writer-in-residence positions in Europe and the United States. Since 1998 he has been living in Capetown, South Africa. Apart from his several published novels, Farah has written both stage and radio plays. He is also the author of a nonfiction book on the Somali refugee diaspora.
Since the publication of From a Crooked Rib with its first-person narration and simple diction, Farah's narrative style has become more complex. But he has remained faithful to Somalia as the space of his literary imagination and also to the predominant themes of the role of women, the psychology of power relations among men and women and between the generations, and the fragmentation of social structures from the family to the nation state in Africa.
From a Crooked Rib deals with the modern quest of Ebla, who escapes the supression of women in rural Somalia to achieve limited self-determination in the city, thus revolting against a male-dominated society. But Farah retains the structure and the idiom of an oral tale. We first meet Ebla in a community of camel nomads, where everything is determined by outside forces: the seasonal changes from drought to spring rains determine the annual life cycle, the needs of the camels determine the daily cycle of life, and the grandfather who heads the clan determines the social relations within his community. When he arranges a marriage with a husband 40 years her senior, Ebla escapes to a cousin in a small town, only to go through the same experience again, until she finally arrives in Mogadiscio. Ebla's quest unfolds in three stations—country, town, city. Following the typical structure of orality, she has to pass a test and prove herself at each of these stations. However, Ebla proves herself by rejecting female submission to social conformity, in clear contrast to oral morals. Parallel to Ebla's individual life cycle, Farah unfolds in exemplary fashion the life cycle of women from initiation to circumcision, marriage, and births. On the one hand Ebla accepts what seems to her the inescapable demands on women, on the other she learns to transform her traditional gender role into a source of empowerment in that she can exert control over men with her sexuality. She thus arrives at a delicate equilibrum between her individual sexual and moral responsibilties and her social conditioning. Ebla's quest leads her from a simplistic revolt against the domination by her grandfather to mature womanhood with an elaborate set of behavioral codes that allow her to evade male domination. From a Crooked Rib reveals two persistent features of Farah's writing: the ambigious tension between formal tradition and intended meaning—in this case the oral structure that carries an emancipatory message—and an ending that precludes unambigous moral conclusions.
After the publication of A Naked Needle, Farah designed a novel trilogy titled Variations in African Dictatorship. The first novel in this series, Sweet and Sour Milk, sets the tone for the following novels, Sardines —in which a journalist and her daughter, a national sports champion, decline popularity as puppets in the regime's propaganda machinery—and Close Sesame, which deals with the regimes tactics of whipping up clan rivalries to ensure the maintenance of power. As in Crooked Rib Farah uses an established literary form, the analytical detective novel, which he infuses with stylistic and structural elements of orality, thus achieving a complexity of form that subverts the simplicity of the "pure" form of the detective novel and the oral tale with contradictions and ambiguities. Loyaan, a dentist, is confronted with the mysterious death of his twin brother Soyaan, a journalist and top government official. Trying to unravel the deadly mysteries, Loyaan delves deeper and deeper into the life of his twin brother. He relives the same experiences as his brother. In a symbolic sequence of two cycles of seven days (death-wake-burial-final obsequities as prescribed in Somali tradition), Loyaan completes his double quest, at the end of which he practically becomes the double, the reincarnation of his own brother. His brother was appointed ambassador to Yugoslavia but died before assuming office. Now Loyaan is appointed to the very same position, and the novel ends with a government limousine picking him up. Just as with his brother, it is left open whether he is really taken to the airport, or rather to a prison cell or an execution chamber of the secret police. Farah bends the narrative form of the analytical detective novel, with its linear plot leading to a definite closure of demystification and the unravelling of the murder mystery, and brings it back in full circle to its beginning—as in an oral tale. Instead of unravelling the mysteries about Soyaan's death, he adds another mystery: whether Loyaan awaits the same fate as his double—his twin brother.
Farah essentially maintains a uniform narrative stance, but his narrator never seems to know more than his characters, and he never enters into complicity with his readers, as is common in detective novels. On the other hand, Farah arranges his characters in pairs, either as supportive doubles (Soyaan and Loyaan) or as Manichean opposites, e.g. the twins and their father, the twins and the regime—an oedipal conflict between the generations but also between modernism and fundamentalist dogmatism. This is exemplified when the twins play with a ball and run enthusiastically to their father, presenting him the ball as the globe. The father rudely denies this heretical idea, pronounces the earth to be flat, and strictly forbids any further games of that nature. He reveals himself as an unenlightened ideologue who acts as a third-rate informer for the secret police.
The trilogy Variations of African Dictatorships dealt with the relation of the individual to political power. Farah's second trilogy investigates the impact of international organizations and norms with Maps (on colonial boundaries), Gifts (on foreign aid), and Secrets (on ethical norms). Maps foregrounds Somalia's aspiration to true nation-statehood and the ensuing anxieties by neighboring states about Somali irredentism. The Somali people were divided among four different imperial powers, the British, the Italians, the French, and Imperial Ethiopia. At independence, only British and Italian Somali land were joined together as the Republic of Somalia. The five-pointed star in the national flag always reminds Somalis of the other three territories still under foreign domination: Northern Kenya, the Ogaden, and Djibuti.
Farah thematizes all these facets of national identity in Maps by focusing on the Ogaden war of 1977. He concentrates on the internal conflict, but the international involvement of the United States and the Soviet Union makes itself felt as an implied issue. The global conflict between capitalism and communism and the vicarious wars, together with the love of many African potentates for self-aggrandizement by playing the Russian-American rivalry card, constitutes the background to Maps.
Farah tells the life story of Askar, son of an Ogaden freedom fighter. Askar, an orphan and foundling, is brought up by Misra of mixed Oromo and Ethiopian/Amharic descent. Askar develops an intense relationship to his foster mother Misra, wavering between filial attachment, incestuous admiration, and machoistic urge for domination. For his future, Askar hovers between a career as an academic and poet and that of a freedom fighter. Eventually, he joins the West Somali Liberation Army. In the Ogaden war area, he meets Misra, who is accused of betraying the freedom fighters to the Ethiopian army. She falls victim to a gang rape and a nationalist-motivated ritual murder. Askar is arrested and accused of having participated in the crime.
This plot summary is misleading, since Farah no longer follows a linear narrative pattern. The time sequence and narrative perspective are disrupted—time and space, events and characters present themselves with a variety of contradictory associations. Meanings become ambiguous, multi-layered, inconclusive. Farah presents his reader with bits and pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that is deliberately left incomplete. The reader can never arrive at a complete reading of the novel, he can only formulate hypotheses or speculations; the author doesn't guide the reader, on the contrary he lures him into blind narrative alleys or traps him with deceiving images.
The plurality of meanings and voices manifest themselves through the three narrators: Askar appears as a first-person narrator, a self-centered egotistic chatter-box persona. His narrative stance is contrasted by a third-person authorial narrator with an uninvolved, condensed narrative voice. A dialogic narrative voice addresses his/her counterpart with a familial "you." This could be Misra, the mother, addressing Askar and the children of the nation. The family, highlighted as the central institution in the socio-political fabric in the dictatorship novels, now falls victim to fragmentation: all the major characters are fatherless, motherless, or childless. Social organization is not based on the Somali extended family, nor the nuclear family, but on an amputated dual or triangular personal relationship. Farah even expands the image of amputation and fragmentation: Misra suffers amputation of one of her breasts due to cancer; Aw-Adan, teacher of the Quoran, loses one of his legs; Uncle Qorrax's fingers are hacked off. All these images are revealed as illustrations of different readings of the Somali national mythology, as it was passed on in the oral poetry of "The Sayyid." Sayyid and Farah celebrate Somalia as a beautiful and liberal woman who has affairs with five suitors. Three of the affairs end in miscarriages—a parable for the aborted dreams of "Great Somalia." When Farah retells this story from the oral tradition, he injects relativistic or divergent connotations on two levels. First, it is Misra, the Oromo-Amharic bastard who educates Askar about his national heritage. Secondly, he likens Misra to the mother Somalia of the oral tradition. Misra, too, has affairs with five different men, representing the various ethnic, social, and religious groups at the Horn of Africa. It is not Misra who betrays her suitors, but the suitors who betray her, enslave her, rape her, force her into abortion. Through Farah's retelling, the national epic acquires a new unheroic dimension. The moving story of the nation that has to forego the perfection of national unity is turned into a tale about intrigues, betrayal, and blackmail, where national pride is whipped up and strangers are prosecuted. Farah elaborates the metaphor of the nation as mother when he parallels the events and recurring cycles in Somalia's history with the pregnancies, miscarriages, and menstruation cycles of Misra. Farah even embarks on a gender-oriented interpretation of history.
With Askar's circumcision and initiation into adulthood, another set of images is imported into the narration that provided the title of the novel: maps. The prominent gift for his initiation is a globe, a map of the world. Maps are perceived as particularly reliable replicas of reality, and yet maps too are only reconstructions of reality. Farah emphasizes this aspect of maps as reconstructed reality. He shows us Askar and his freedom fighters plugging flags onto the map pretending to document the progress of the Ogaden war while they are really indulging in nationalist wishful thinking. Farah uses the one-dimensional medium of the map to inscribe broader dimensions by mapping out social, cultural, and mental spaces.
Farah's postmodern narrative stance leaves it to Askarto to unveil his naive enthusiasm for a national awakening of Somalia and ethno-fundamentalist attitudes. Farah also provides us with an insight into the rifts and cracks within Somalian society that resulted in the balcanization of the country and is the topic of Secrets.
Against the backdrop of the Ogaden war and the nationalist craze, Farah took up the issue of ethnic purity with Oromo-Amharic mongrel Misra and the pure-bred Somali Askar in Maps. With Secrets and the imminent clan wars of the rival warlords, Farah raises the issue of genealogical purity. Secrets, in spite of its title, is the only Farah novel where the major mystery is actually resolved, namely the parentage of Kalaman, a computer specialist and enterpreneur in Mogadiscio. What the very first line suggests, "My name Kalaman conjures up memories of childhood," with its ambiguities about parentage inherent in the name, and what later continuously surfaces with the saying "Mothers matter a lot, fathers matter not," points to the calamities of a Somali in Mogadiscio with its clan segregation. When he learns that he is the result of a gang rape committed by members of a rival clan, Kalaman has to accept that those people who were most influentual in his life—his grandfather Nonno, and his father Yaqut, who taught him everything—are in the terminology of the clan fanatics only strangers to him. And he also realizes that, contrary to the ideas of the clan fundamentalists, social and moral parenthood can matter more than biological parenthood. "Certainty" is a key word in Secrets, first as an opposite concept to secrets, but mainly as the biological certainty of motherhood. In the end, the social parenthoods of Nonno and Yaqut are the real certainties in Kalaman's life, while the biological certainty of motherhood loses in importance. Thus, the children's rhyme of "Mothers matter a lot, Fathers matter not" is a statement of social fact tranformed into a riddle, one that can be true or false. Secrets reflects the fragmentation, fluidity, and instability of life on the eve of the civil war through the multiple narrative voices and the fragmented flow of narrative continuity.
"Farah, Nuruddin." Contemporary Novelists. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/farah-nuruddin
"Farah, Nuruddin." Contemporary Novelists. . Retrieved July 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/farah-nuruddin
Farah, Nuruddin 1945–
Nuruddin Farah 1945–
Before the 1991 collapse of the dictatorship in his country, Somalia, novelist and playwright Nuruddin Farah was forced to live in exile. Still, Farah became one of Africa’s most influential authors. Although the multilingual, nomadic writer has admitted that he feels at home “everywhere,” he also believes he feels closer to Somalia the longer he is away from it. In “In Praise of Exile,” an essay he wrote in 1998, Farah described his work in this way: “My novels are about states of exile; about women shivering in the cruel cold in a world ruled by men; about the commoner denied justice; about a torturer tortured by guilt, his own conscience; about a traitor betrayed.” These words come from a man who has lived in Europe, the U.S., and particularly in African countries other then his own. While in exile, Farah began what became a lifelong literary project—keeping his country alive by writing about it.
Farah’s fictional works reflect his deep sympathy towards women in Somali society and explore feminist themes. Several of his novels are told from a woman’s point of view. Many of his tales focus on the history and politics of Somalia, the role of the privileged intelligentsia, the corruption of the political elite, and the repressive quality of the Somali Revolution. In his works he is especially critical of the regime of Siyad Barre, the iron-fisted dictator who ruled Somalia for 21 years. But Farah is a writer who has been widely influenced by international culture. Farah himself has said that his work probably has more in common with works by writers from South Asia with Islamic backgrounds—Salman Rushdie, 11 for instance, who called Farah “one of the finest contemporary African novelists”—than with African writers like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. Farah’s parents’ linguistic and temperamental differences ultimately contributed to the shaping of one of his primary literary themes. As he told his audience during his lecture upon receiving the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1998, “...Language, and what uses we make of it, is the longest distance between two persons, the one a poet, sensitive, committed to ideas larger than herself, the other despondently despotic, a patriarch willing to submit the world to the authority of his whim.”
Farah’s eight novels, which include two trilogies, have been translated into twelve languages. Starting in 1990 Farah received various fellowships, prizes, and honors. He was awarded the German Academic Exchange
Born in 1945 in Baidoa, Somalia; son of Hassan (a merchant) and Aleeli (a poet); married Chitra Muliyil, 1970, (divorced in 1972); children: Koschin (son); remarried in 1992; children: Abyan (daughter) and Kaahiye (son). Education: Graduated from Punjab University in Chandigarh, India, 1970; postgraduate studies in theater at the University of London, attached to the Royal Court Theater, 1974-75; continued studies at the University of Essex.
Career: Associate professor at the University of lbadan in Jos, Nigeria; first short story printed, 1965; wrote play, A Dagger in Vacuum, 1969; published first novel, From a Crooked Rib, 1970; novel, Tallow Waa Talee Ma, serialized in a government newspaper, 1973; produced play, The Offering, in Essex; novel, A Naked Needle, 1976; novel Sweet and Sour Milk, 1979; wrote film scripts; novel Sardines, 1981; taught at the University of Bayreuth in West Germany; play, Yussuf and His Brothers, produced in Jos, Nigeria, 1982; novel, Close Sesame, 1983; novel, Maps, 1986; novel, Secrets, 1998; novels translated into 12 languages.
Awards: Received the Tucholsky Prize in Stockholm for his work as a literary exile, 1991; Gifts won Best Novel Award in Zimbabwe, 1993; selected as fifteenth Neustadt laureate, 1998; French edition of Cifts won the St. Malo Literary Festival award and was named Book of the Month for all French libraries; received Neustadt Prize at the University of Oklahoma.
Addresses: Office —c/o Arcade Publishing, 141 Fifth Avenue, New York City, 10010.
Service fellowship to Berlin, which enabled him to finish a first draft of Secrets. He received the Tucholsky Prize for work as a literary exile in Stockholm, Sweden. Gifts won the Best Novel Award in Zimbabwe, and the French edition won the St. Malo Literary Festival award and was named Book of the Month for all libraries in France. The Premio Cavour was awarded to the Italian edition of Close Sesame. He was chosen as the laureate of the 1998 Neustadt International Prize for Literature. This prize, according to The New York Times, is “widely regarded as the most prestigious international literary award after the Nobel.” Farah has been praised by other notable writers. South African novelist Nadine Gordimer described him as “one of the real interpreters of experience on our troubled continent,” while Chinua Achebe observed that Farah “excels in giving voice to tragedy in remote places of the world that speak directly and familiarly out to our own hearts.”
Nuruddin Farah was born in Baidoa, Somalia (what was then Italian Somaliland), to Hassan, a Muslim merchant, and Aleeli, a poet, in 1945. Two years later, his family resettled in Kallafo, in British-occupied Ogaden, which later came under Ethiopian control. In 1963, three years after Somalia gained its independence from Italy and the United Kingdom, Farah’s family moved to Mogadiscio (Mogadishu), Somalia, to avoid the war raging in Ogaden. Growing up in an ethnically and linguistically mixed area and listening to his self-assured, articulate mother who recited poems aloud, Farah quickly became fascinated with languages and literature. He spoke Somali with his family, but at school he learned Amharic, Italian, Arabic, and English.
In 1965, after finishing secondary school in Somalia, Farah wrote his first short story in English because Somali was not yet a written language. He also worked as a clerk-typist at the Ministry of Education. A year later he went to India to study literature and philosophy at Punjab University in Chandigarh. He lived in India for three or four years. He returned to Somalia for six months, where he wrote a play called A Dagger in Vacuum, but was denied a license to produce it. In 1970, after receiving his BA from Punjab University, he married Chitra Muliyil, an Indian student, and they soon had a son, Koschin. During the early 1970s Farah taught secondary school in Somalia and lectured on comparative literature at the Afgoi College of Education.
In 1970 his debut novel, From a Crooked Rib, was published in English. It was the first fictional work by a Somali writer to be printed in English. Because of its subject matter, Farah was hailed by essayist Kirsten Hoist Petersen in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature as “the first feminist writer to come out of Africa” who “describes and analyzes women as victims of male subjugation….” From a Crooked Rib empathetically portrayed a Somali woman trapped within a restraining, traditional Somali society. In the story, the main character, Ebla, flees an arranged marriage to an elderly man and forfeits her ties to her nomadic clan. She winds up living alone in the city, without legal protection, and becomes a prostitute. Farah’s book is highly critical of Islamic law and nomadic life as it pertains to the low position of women in traditional Somali society. Unfortunately for Farah, this novel was published at the time of the Somalian Revolution, of which he also was critical. The revolution brought the autocratic Major General Siyad Barre to power and swept away democracy in Somalia. This brought Farah face to face with the issue of censorship. In 1973, the serialization in a government newspaper of Tallow Waa Talee Ma, a novel by Farah written in Somali, which had just been made into an official written language, was cut short by government censors.
A year later Farah won a UNESCO fellowship and departed for England, leaving behind his ex-wife and son and beginning 22 years of exile from Somalia. In 1974 and 1975 Farah nourished his interest in theater by studying it as a postgraduate at the University of London, which was attached to Royal Court Theater, and at the University of Essex. One of his plays, The Offering, was produced at the University of Essex. While Farah was living in Italy in the late 1970s, another of his plays, A Spread of Butter, was broadcast by the BBC African Service.
In 1976, his second novel, A Naked Needle, was published, after being held by the publisher because of political uncertainty in Somalia. Farah eventually rejected the book, possibly because of this censorship, but he also was displeased with it because he felt it did not effectively expose the corruption and abuses of Siyad Barre’s regime. The novel dealt with a westernized intellectual young man, named after Farah’s son, whose search for a comfortable life in Somalia after the revolution is jeopardized by the arrival of a former girlfriend from England, who plans to marry him. It depicts the discussions among the educated elite in the capital, the “privilegentzia,” and the experimental hopes in the new “revolution.” As with his previous novel, it deals in part with the plight of women in a Muslim society, be they eastern or western. Critical reaction to the book was mixed. On a positive note, Reinhard W. Sander was quoted as saying in Black Literature Criticism that this novel was “perhaps the most self-searching to have come out of post-independence Africa.”
In 1979 Farah published Sweet and Sour Milk, the first novel of a trilogy known as Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship. The book, which later won the English-Speaking Union Literary Award, made its author persona non grata in his native Somalia. It centers around a political activist who tries to uncover the reason for his twin brother’s mysterious death and is prevented from doing so by his father, a former government interrogator and torturer. The repressive nature of the Somali revolution is apparent in this novel. Reviewers have noted that it is reminiscent of Franz Kafka in its view of a totalitarianism that depends on silence and betrayal for its survival. About Sweet and Sour Milk Robert McDowell wrote in African Writers, “This story of institutional hardship and personal betrayal is heavy with symbolism. Each chapter, for instance, begins with a poetic description of the natural workL… that wraps characters and circumstances in a shroud of dramatic hostility.” McDowell added, “In Sweet and Sour Milk, the most artfully constructed novel in his first completed trilogy, Farah has created a major political novel of lasting value.”
Farah’s next novel in the trilogy, Sardines, published in 1981, paints a portrait of life under “the General’s” regime. The story depicts a world dominated by the tyrant; his secret police are everywhere, security goons dog the innocent, and people disappear. The novel centers around a new breed of westernized Somali woman who fights to make her way in a male, hierarchically-dominated world in order to find “a room of one’s own, a country of one’s own, a century in which one [is] not a guest.” Farah’s heroine, Medina, is a journalist who is fired from her editorial job at Somalia’s sole newspaper because she refuses to publish the speeches of the General. At the same time she flees from the home of her husband because she is terrified that his mother, who upholds traditions laid down by males, is going to have their daughter circumcised.
In Sardines Farah’s female characters discuss female circumcision with surprising candor. Medina, who has endured circumcision, tells a friend: “If they mutilate you at eight or nine, they open you up with a rusty knife the night they marry you off.Life for a circumcised woman is a series of de-flowering pains, delivery pains, and re-stitching pains.” Wrote Charles R. Larson in World Literature Today, “No novelist has written as profoundly about the African woman’s struggle for equality as has Nuruddin Farah.” Other critics noted Farah’s creative use of language. “Farah [sic] is a disturbing writer whose linguistic inventiveness sometimes overpowers author and reader alike,”Faith Pullin wrote in British Book News. “But, in terms of vitality, compassion and the ability to take literary risks, his talent demands recognition.” While working on a draft of the last novel in the trilogy, Farah taught and lived in West Germany. He later moved to Jos in Nigeria, where he was an instructor at the University of Ibadan. His play, Yussuf and His Brothers, was staged in Jos.
Farah published the last novel of the trilogy, Close Sesame, in 1983. In this book Farah again focuses on themes of crushed political idealism and tyranny, but from a man’s viewpoint, while using the English language in a way that is uniquely his own. The novel focuses on an elderly nationalist and political idealist who has spent years in jail for opposing the British and Italian colonial governments. The hero also has been imprisoned for his opposition to the Somalian, dictatorial-style, post-revolutionary government. After getting out of jail he leaves the protection of his children and tries to do away with the ruling General. For this he is shot to death by the Presidential Guard.
Peter Lewis wrote in the London Magazine, “Close Sesame analyses the betrayal of African aspirations in the postcolonial period: the appalling abuse of power, the breakdown of national unity in the face of tribal rivalry, and the systematic violation of language itself, so that such words as ‘democratic’ and ’socialist’ are as perverted as ‘pacification’, for example, was in the colonial era.” As for Farah’s place among other African writers and his literary gifts, J.P. Durix commented in The Times Literary Supplement, “Close Sesame confirms Farah’s reputation as one of Africa’s major writers, and as the creator of a new language, strong, poetic, and possessing great rhythmic qualities, which, like the author himself, is cosmopolitan yet rooted in the Somali tradition.…”
Farah’s Variations trilogy was followed by his Blood in the Sun trilogy, which is made up of the novels, Maps (1986), Gifts (1992), and Secrets (1998). Each of the three novels has been recognized individually as a masterpiece in its own right. Taken together, as the story of civil conflict that has dominated Somalia for over two decades, their beauty and power increase exponentially. They are extraordinary portrayals of a besieged people who manage to retain their humanity.
Maps takes place during Somalia’s war with Ethiopia in the late 1970s. The book portrays the agony of people who live in a country whose borders have been haphazardly created by colonialists and, although the colonizers are gone, their successors have inherited their leadership roles and their maps. Here, Farah explores the conflict between nationalism and personal commitment through the story of the Somali orphan, Askar, who is brought up by an Ethiopian woman, Misra, with whom he is extremely close. As Askar nears adulthood, he must choose between joining the Somalian Liberation Front and looking after his ill adoptive mother, who is suspected of being a spy. About Maps Robert McDowell wrote in African Writers that it was “a marvelous account of an orphaned child’s discovery of maternal love. United by circumstance amid the brutality of war along the Ethiopia-Somalia border, Misra and Askar represent the backbone of the community—the stay-at-homes and the workers, the young and abandoned, the feminine and abused—who suffer oppression yet ultimately survive their oppressors. These two characters also represent the child and woman in all of us.”
While some reviewers criticized Farah for writing a belabored sociopolitical character study with too many stylistic and thematic layers, others admired him for his narrative skill and persuasiveness. Publishers Weekly observed that “he constructs a deft narrative that reflects an oral tradition.” Christopher Hope wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “It is always the sincerity of the emotions and his ability to make them palpable that distinguish this tantalizing and original novel, and make it a journey into what Mr. Farah calls the ’territory of pain’ and what we, rather loosely perhaps, call Africa.”
In Gifts Farah weaves dreams, memories, and folklore into a contemporary tale of ordinary people attempting to live dignified lives in the midst of lack of food, colonialism, and age-old ethnic divisions. The book chronicles the life of Duniya, one of Somalia’s embattled populace, a widowed nurse and simple village woman attempting to bring up three children alone in the city of Mogadishu. When she resolves to take in an abandoned baby, she must confront the patriarchs of her family and by extension, Somalia’s male-dominated society. She also learns for the first time what it means to fall in love and the obligations, expectations, and dependence the “gift” of love can bring. The resilient Duniya represents, through her strength and bravery, the type of woman who helps Somalia to survive its worst times. “The different facets of her personality that emerge when she is dealing with the different men in her life,” wrote Chitra Divakaruni in the Wall Street Journal, “are quite amazing and illustrate Mr. Farah’s deep understanding of the female psyche.”
Farah’s last book in this trilogy, Secrets, which won the prestigious 1998 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, has been described by some critics as a lyrical enigma. Wrote Kwame Dawes in Emerge,“Secrets takes the reader on a mammoth journey of profound mystery, bizarre happenings, magical reckonings and deeply philosophical musings in the hope of unearthing the secrets of a Somali family.” Like Gifts, Secrets is also set in Mogadishu, just before the outbreak of the civil war in Somalia. The novel’s central character, Kalaman, broods about his confusing childhood with its unexplained secrets, among them his ancestry. One day he receives a surprise house guest, his childhood lover, Sholoongo, who asks Kalaman to get her pregnant. Victimized by colonialism, Sholoongo uses the exploitive tactics that were used against her to seek her own gain and precipitates a family civil war that resembles Somali clan warfare. Helpless and tyrannized—”Sholoongo was so domineering I could never say my own name in her presence”—Kalaman is sucked into a voyage of self-discovery. When Kalaman eventually finds out about his origins, he discovers many possible parents, impossible to trace, a situation which resembles the colonial history of Somalia and of all Africa. Interestingly, unlike the women in Farah’s other novels, Sholoongo is not struggling against the restraints of traditional Somali society, nor is she portrayed empathetically. She leaves readers with a riddle: Does she despise herself as a woman and use her sexuality as a weapon? Or is she a revolutionary who tries to castrate the very patriarchal society upon which Somalia’s dictatorship was founded? “Brilliantly elliptical as ever, Farah shrouds ’Secrets’ in ambiguity,” wrote Lisa Meyer in San Francisco’s Examiner, “keeping Sholoongo a mystery throughout.”
Farah wrote his novels about Somalia while living in Gambia, the Sudan, Uganda, Berlin, Ethiopia, and Nigeria. He returned to his native land for a visit in 1996, five years after strongman Siyad Barre was driven from power. In 1992 he married again, to Amina Mama, and their union has produced two children, a daughter, Abyan, and a son, Kaahiye. Farah continues to live abroad. He and his family are currently residing in Cape Town, South Africa.
From a Crooked Rib, Heinemann, 1970.
A Naked Needle, Heinemann, 1976.
Sweet and Sour Milk, Heinemann, 1980; Graywolf Press, 1992.
Sardines, Allison & Busby, 1981; Heinemann, 1982; Graywolf Press, 1992.
Close Sesame, Allison & Busby, 1983; Graywolf Press, 1992.
Maps, Picador, 1986; Pantheon, 1986.
Gifts, Baobab Books, 1992; Serif Publishers, 1992.
Secrets, Arcade, 1998.
The Offering, Lotus (Afro-Asian Writings), 1976, pp. 77-93; produced at the University of Essex, 1975.
African Writers, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1997, pp. 249-262.
Black Literature Criticism, Gale, 1992, pp. 757–770.
Contemporary Authors, Volume 106, Gale, 1982, p. 173.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, 1989, pp. 131–141.
Contemporary Novelists, St. James Press, 1986, pp. 312–313.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 125, Gale, 1993, pp. 35–40.
Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, St. James Press, 1999, pp. 88–89.
International Authors and Writers Who’s Who, 1993–1994, International Biographical Centre, 1993, p. 186.
Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World, edited by Feroza Jussawalla and Reed Way Dasenbrock, University Press of Mississippi, 1992, pp. 43–62.
Literary Exile in the Twentieth Century, edited by Martin Tucker, Greenwood Press, 1991, pp. 239–241.
Who’s Who in the World, 1996–1997, Marquis, 1995, p. 400.
Writers Directory, 1992-1994, St. James Press, 1991, p. 303.
Boston Globe, April 5, 2000, pp. C1,C4.
Emerge, September 1998, pp. 65–66; July/August 1999, p. 78.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 1999.
Library Journal, August 1999.
Los Angeles Times, March 15, 1999; August 9, 1999.
New Yorker, June 15, 1998.
New York Review of Books, March 4, 1999.
New York Times Book Review, July 19, 1998; September 12, 1999.
Philadelphia Inquirer, July 19, 1998.
Publishers Weekly, June 28, 1999; August 23, 1999, pp.28-29.
Wall Street Journal, September 10, 1999.
Washington Post Book World, September 26, 1999.
World Literature Today, Autumn 1998, pp. 701–786.
Additional information was provided by Arcade Publishing, “News.”
—Alison Carb Sussman
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