Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah still has fire in the belly
Renowned Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah, a writer of more than 10 novels, enjoys universal critical acclaim as “one of the most sophisticated writers in contemporary world literature.”
Farah’s literary genius during a writing career spanning more than half a century has earned the 67-year-old author a place among the continent’s leading writers like Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiongo and Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe.
Yet, listening to Farah tell his story during a public lecture at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, he paints the picture of a born rabble-rouser at war with the conservative society he was born into.
That mischief might have helped hone Farah’s literary skills as he grew up, but the unlikely merger of the two conflicting circumstances to produce a celebrated writer eventually earned Farah several deaths threats and a life-time in exile.
A fourth son in a family of 11 children, Farah says that position proved beneficial to his intellectual growth to a degree because his brothers guided him, taught him and answered questions that his parents either could not or would not answer. However, the fact many adults did not have time for Farah’s questions in his childhood also prompted him to seek solace and answers in books. He began to read critically.
By the time he started formal schooling in birth place of Baidoa in Somalia, Farah was independent minded enough to challenge what he thought did not make sense to him. As was becoming the norm, such actions often got Farah into trouble – starting almost right from day one in school.
“I had failed to give my name to the teacher when he instructed me to stand up and say it,” he revealed. “I could not make sense of the fact that the teacher who lived in our house and knew my name was asking me the question, ‘Who are you?’ I refused to do so wilfully, asserting that I had forgotten, maybe because he placed emphasis on the word ‘who’ in his ‘Who are you?’"
Farah says looking back even now, he believes he did the right thing. Defending his position, Farah said, “It might never have occurred to my parents or my teachers that I would have gladly answered any other question but not that one because they were not aware of what the answer might be or where it would lead or whether I had the competence to deal with the question.
I was five going on six then; too inexperienced to voice my doubts. To date, I do not know how to answer the question ‘who are you?’ with the sauciness of a man in his 60s.”
That assertion launches Farah to the rather issue of growing up in a colonial setting, where children were expected to adapt to more than one culture at once as they grew up. Farah says they had to contend with learning Somali culture while at the same time grappling with Arabic and Italian culture.
The result, said Farah, was the development of individuals with no firm cultural heritage. To this day, he added, he is still “suffering the after-effects even as a grown up.”
"It was much later that I understood that my experience was the experience of many other children raised in a cultural, psychological, and historical post-colonial alienation in which one died at the moment of one’s birth, lived outside of oneself even when one lived within it. I felt I belonged to many worlds when truly I belonged to none,” he said.
The effects of reading books about cultures he did not understand, like reading about winter and spring from European novels when his country was a semi-desert, chanting the verses in the Qur’an “even though I couldn’t understand much of what I recited,” often left Farah at crossroads.
While, for instance, his mother was described as illiterate, he says she was “a minor poet” who had mastered oral poetry but had no time to write her poems “because she spent a lot of her time giving birth to children” and taking care of them.
“She might have become a great poet if she had lived a different life and been in the privileged position of honing her poetic abilities, sharpening and pursuing them with the same wholeheartedness a man might have done. The fire of her creativity died as she worked herself to daily exhaustion attending to our every need,” he said.
Farah says his mother “thought [that] one day one of her children would take after her and achieve what she could not achieve,” so she encouraged him to pursue his dream. Buoyed by his mother’s inspiration, Farah was already earning money from his writing talents by the time he was in his teens. But then again, Farah’s single-mindedness got him in trouble not just with his father, but with his father’s friends as well.
"As a restless teen with a lot of time on my hands, I decided to start a small business; writing letters in Arabic and English to illiterate husbands, most of them my father’s friends. I did this after school, secretly at first, then word spread eventually beyond town. People needing letters to be written came to me in droves; grown-ups who talked to me in confidence, trusting me with their intimate secrets,” he said.
One Friday, says Farah, a father’s friends came saying he needed a letter written to his estranged wife. Angered by her refusal to return from her father’s home, the father’s friend, who Farah says “was frothing at the mouth like a camel,” asked him to sound a warning to the estranged wife.
“He said tell her this; ‘If you do not return within 90 days, I will come to your father’s home and break every one of your bones and drag you all the way here bleeding, weeping and hurting.’” Farah declined to follow the man’s order, but didn’t tell him. Instead he wrote, “If you do not come back to me in 90 days, then you can consider yourself divorced.”
A year later, she had not come back. When the man went to find out why, he learnt that she was already married elsewhere. The words Farah had introduced into the letter had apparently served as sufficient legal notice for a divorce – and all the woman had to do was wait out the 90 days. The man returned and confronted Farah father, who promptly banned his son from writing letters for adults.
That was not the only time Farah and his father disagreed. While in his early 20s, Farah says he was disowned by his father. “My father, who we were supporting financially, opposed the idea of spending what he called precious money on educating girls,” he said. “We quarrelled on whether his daughters, my younger sisters, were as entitled as my younger brothers to education.”
Those early incidents seem to have shaped Farah’s life as a writer. As he himself put it, “If as a child I had a way of getting on the nerves of adults, then as an adult I have a way of challenging their actions and then writing about them. Because of this, I have been in trouble often; different troubles in different decades.”
“In my 30s and 40s, I was in trouble with the dictatorial regime and the dictator for writing satirical novels,” he added. “In my 50s, the warlords were quick off the mark to threaten me with death. Now that I am in my 60s, I am in interminable trouble with a group of religionists who view my kind with suspicion because I am a secularist; also because I oppose anyone who causes damage to a framework through which a society operates by imposing his dictatorial will on others.”
Farah’s first internationally acclaimed novel, A Crooked Rib, was published in 1970 while the second, A Naked Needle, came out in 1976. While touring Europe to promote the second book, Farah reportedly received a warning that the Somali government planned to arrest him over its contents. He chose to go into self-imposed exile. Since then, Farah has lived and taught in Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Sweden, Italy, Germany, South Africa and the United States.
Farah, who now owns homes in Cape Town, South Africa and Minnesota, USA, stuck to writing about Somalia even while in exile. Calling it his way of keeping his country alive by writing about it, Farah says despite the challenges of living in exile, it has afforded him the kind of flexibility he would otherwise not have enjoyed back him.
He said, “I would not have written the type of novels that I have written nor would I have written as many novels as I have written had I stayed in Somalia.”
Farah brushes off criticism that his books have not directly benefitted the Somali community, saying the circumstances in his war-torn country have not afforded him that opportunity yet time does not stand still.
“Let’s imagine that I was going to write in Somali. I started writing in 1955, what would you have wanted me to do? Would you have wanted me to hold my hand in mid-air waiting for 20, 30, or 40 years? You can’t stop a sneeze. You can’t hold your hand in mid-air for 55 years,” he said, adding, “The Somalis who read my books now are the Somalis in the diaspora. In Mogadishu, given the choice, no one would buy a book at $25 when you can buy three guns with the same money to protect your family.”
Farah, who said he would travel back to Somalia in April, however hopes that the situation changes for the better in his native country so that he can one day share one of his works at the National Theatre in Mogadishu. “I haven’t been able to produce any play [in Somalia] because of the terrible situation,” he said. “I am hoping one day when Somalia is in peace that I will be able to [produce a play in Mogadishu].”
Farah spoke before a suicide bomber blew herself up at the National Theatre, just weeks after it was re-opened. On that evidence, Farah may have to wait a lot longer to achieve his wish. But for a man who has kept his country at heart even from thousands of miles away, it is a wish he is likely to keep hold of for the rest of his life.
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