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Nuruddin Farah (1945-)

 

Somali novelist, writing in English and Somali. Farah has ofted dealt the history of his country throught the fates of his characters. The central theme is the women's liberation in postcolonial Somaliland, which he sees as a precondition for political and individual freedom. The majority of his essays, novels, short stories, plays, and film scripts are written in English, but he has also translated children's stories from Arabic, Italian, French, and English into Somali. Farah received in 1998 the Neustadt Award.

"You exist, you think, the way the heavenly bodies exist, for although one does extend one's finger and point at the heavens, one knows, yes that's the word, one knows that that is not the heavens. Unless . . . unless there are, in a sense, as many heavens as there are thinking beings; unless there are as many heavens as there are pointing fingers." (in Maps, 1981)

Nuruddin Farah was born in Baidoa, a city in Italian Somaliland, which was at the time under British control. His father worked as a translator for the British. Soon after Nuruddin's birth he was transferred to work for the governor in the Ogaden (the Ethiopian West). In 1948 the British restored the Ogaden to Ethiopian rule, and a year later the recently formed United Nations returned the south to Italy. Farah received his primary education at schools in Kallafo, Ogden. He spoke English, Arabic, and Amharic, the official Ethiopian language.

Somalia was granted independence by the British and Italians in 1960. Three years later Farah moved to the southern region to flee from border conflicts in the Ogaden. While in hospital Farah wrote his first longish short story, 'Why Dead So Soon?', which was published in 1965 in Somali News. After studying literature and philosophy in India at the University of Chandigarh, he returned to Somalia with his Indian wife, Chitra Muliyil. They settled in Mogadishu, where Farah worked first as a secondary school teacher and then as a lecturer at the Somali National University. His first novel, From a Crooked Rib (1970), Farah wrote in less than a month-and-a-half. It appeared in the famous Heinemann African Writers' Series. The central character is a nomad girl, Ebla, who flees her family's camp because she has been promised in marriage to an old man, 40 years her senior. Ebla's quest takes her first to a small town, and eventually she arrives in Mogadiscio. Farah's novel reveals the authoritarian role of the patriarchal clan system, in which women are exploited and denied individual rights.

A few chapters of Farah's second novel appeared in Somali in serialized form in a local newspaper in 1973, but when the government found his work politically objectionable, it was was discontinued. His writings were described as "a selection of untruths". In 1974 Farah escaped from Somalia after authorities had condemned his second novel, A Naked Needle, which eventually came out in 1976. Siyad Barre's regime banned all of his works in Somalia and ordered that the author be killed. "Somalia was a badly written play," Farah though, "and Siyad Barre was its author." (in Emerging Perspectives on Nuruddin Farah by Derek Wright, 2002, p. 10) For a period he lived in England, where he studied at the University of London and the University of Essex. Between 1971 and 1980, Farah wrote four books on Barre's dictatorship, "for posterity's sake, the true history of a nation", as he said.

A Naked Needle explores the relationships of Somali men and women with Westerners. The protagonist, Koschin, is a Mogadisho teacher, whose favorite novel is Wole Soyinka's The Interpreters. He has promised to marry an English girl while studying overseas. The girl arrives in Somalia and expects Koschin to keep his promise. Farah studies the crisis of Somali identity allegorically, and suggests that women's lives are even more dominated by male authority since the achievement of political independence.

Farah's trilogy, Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship (1980-1983) draws parallels between the colonial practices and authoritarian regimes in postcolonial Somalia. The first part, Sweet and Sour Milk (1979), is a novel about political terror and two twins, Loyaan, a dentist, and Soyaan, a journalist, who dies mysteriously. In his inquiry about his brother's death Loyaan finds out the Soyaan was a member of an organization that aimed at overthrowing the regime. At the end Loyaan is appointed ambassador of Yugoslavia, like his brother, and his fate is left open. The book received the English-Speaking Union Literary Award. Sardines (1981) was praised for its consciousness of style. In the story an editor of a national newspaper is sacked. Her husband is lured to become a minister by false promises. He rules his house with the iron hand of traditional Islam and she fears that her daughter will be forced to submit to the horrors of female circumcision.

Maps (1986) is the first novel of a second trilogy, Blood in the Sun, that studies the pain of cultural uncertainty in postcolonial reality. Gifts (1999) dealt with foreign aid. Duniya, a nurse at a maternity hospital, is once widowed and once divorced. She has no intentions getting entangled again – until she meets an American-educated economist Bosaano, driving his cousin's taxi. "Suddenly the two of them were exaggeratedly conscious of each other's presence, aware of their physical proximity for the first time. Disregarding a small crowd that out of curiosity had gathered around the car, Duniya and Bosaaso touched, marvelling at having shared a life-and-death experience, at having stopped in good time before crossing a threshold."

This novel offers the reader more optimistic view of the war-torn land than Maps, which focuses on the Ogaden war of 1977, and Secrets (1998), which mirrors Somalia's violent recent history and long-simmering tribal hatreds. In the story young successful businessman Kalaman learns the truth about himself and his family – he is the result of a gang rape committed by members of a rival clan. Kalaman lives in Mogadisho and one day his chidhood sweetheart, Sholoongo, visits him and tells that she wants to procreate a child with him. Sholoongo has strange powers, she stays at his apartment, and Kalaman suspects that she had an affair with his father. Farah's tells the story from different viewpoints within the family – they all have their own secrets and special relationship to Sholoongo and to forces she represents. "We say, in Somali, that you don't ask someone whom you know to tell you about themselves." Kalamen rejects her but she sleeps with his grandfather Nonno, who dies. "One body. Three secrets," ends Farah the story.

Farah has held teaching positions at universities in Europa, the United States, and Africa. He has lived also in Rome and Kaduna, Nigeria. When Farah met his sister and father in Mombasa's Utange refugee camp he asked himself in Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora (2000): "what would become of us without mitigation, the kindly interventions of our women?" Farah saw again his home country in 1996, first time after 22 years in exile. In 1998 Farah moved to Capetown, South Africa, with his second wife, the Nigerian writer and academic Amina Mama. Knots (2007), the second in a trilogy beginning with Links (2004), was about an exile's return to Mogadishu in the middle of a civil war. The final volume, Crossbones, came out in 2011. Farah wrote it while commuting between Cape Town, Minneapolis, the USA, where he is serving as 2010-2012 Winton Chair in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota, and Newcastle in England, where he was  awarded a Leverhulme Visiting Professorship.

After Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa against his friend Salman Rushdie for the novel The Satanic Verses, Farah offered to mediate with the Islamic intellectual Ali Mazrui as a way to break the deadlock. "OK," said Rushdie, "but I'm not apologising or withdrawing the book." Farah's attempt failed. "They want more than you're willing to give," he told. By the request of the Islamic Courts Union, Farah acted in August 2006 as an emissary between Somalia's two main warring factions, the transitional government army and the Islamists, supported by clan-based militiamen. His mission was cut short when Ethiopian troops invaded Mogadishu in December and expelled the Islamists. From his personal experience Farah drew the conclusion that both sides must give: "Most Somalis believe that the Islamists deserve a place at the table; they have been disempowered through invasion by an occupying force, which must withdraw, the sooner the better." ('My Life as a Diplomat', New York Times, May 26, 2007)

For further reading: Emerging Perspectives on Nuruddin Farah by Derek Wright (2002); Nuruddin Farah by Patricia Alden and Louis Tremaide (1999); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2, ed. Steven R. Serafin (1999); Postcolonial African Writers, ed. Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne (1998); The Novels of Nuruddin Farah by Derek Wright (1994); 'The Novels of Nuruddin Farah' by Florence Stratton in World Literature Written in English (1985 )

Selected works:

  • From a Crooked Rib, 1970
  • A Dagger in Vacuum, 1970 (play)
  • The Offering, 1975 (play)
  • A Naked Needle, 1976
  • Tartar Delight, 1980 (radio play)
  • Sweet and Sour Milk, 1980 (Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship)
  • Sardines, 1981 (Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship)
  • Yussuf and His Brothers, 1982 (play)
  • Close Sesame, 1983 (Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship)
  • Maps, 1986 (Blood in the Sun) - Karttoja (suom. Marja Haapio, 1988)
  • Secrets, 1998 (Blood in the Sun) - Perhesalaisuuksia (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1999)
  • Gifts, 1999 (Blood in the Sun) - Elämisen lahja (suom. Kimmo Rentola, 1990)
  • Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora, 2000
  • Links, 2004 (first in a trilogy)
  • Knots, 2007 (second in a trilogy)
  • Crossbones, 2011 (third in a trilogy)


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