Currently resident in Cape Town, Nuruddin Farah has been described as one of the most sophisticated writers in contemporary world literature. Farah was born on 24th November 1945 in the southern Somali city of Baidoa, then under Italian control. The country’s colonial history is peculiarly intense, having been carved up into British, French, Italian and, latterly, Kenyan and Ethiopian spheres of interest. Somalia gained independence from the European powers in 1960. Farah’s own story is necessarily informed by elements of this contested national narrative.
In 1947, his family moved to Kallafo in the Ogaden region soon to be ceded to Ethiopia by the British. Farah’s most critically and commercially acclaimed novel, Maps (1986), is set against the backdrop of the Ogaden War (1977-1978) between Somalia and Ethiopia (see below). Following an earlier conflict in the region at the beginning of the 60s, Farah’s family were compelled to move to the capital, Mogadiscio. Thus, in personal, political and professional contexts, Farah has long been preoccupied with disputed cartographic as well as conceptual borders.
Whilst something of a linguistic shape-shifter (he is fluent in Arabic, Amharic and Cusmanniya, the forerunner to the official Somali orthography established in 1972, as well as a host of European languages including Italian), Farah’s chosen medium of written expression is English. To date, he has published ten novels, as well as numerous essays, plays and a significant piece of journalism entitled Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora (2000). Also, while adept in various genres and languages, it is arguably the complex notion of being ‘at home’ that casts the longest shadow over Farah’s own story and, by extension, those of his fictional characters. After receiving his BA in Literature and Philosophy from Punjab University, India in 1969, Farah returned to his native Somalia following the military coup that brought Siyad Barre to power. For Salman Rushdie, a noted admirer of Farah’s work, writers and politicians are natural antagonists, doing battle to determine whose vision and version of ‘truth’ will win out. This could be applied to the Somali writer’s fractious relationship with Barre’s regime and resultant exile from his homeland.
It was during his teaching period at the National University of Somalia, as well as Mogadiscio’s secondary schools, that Farah published his first novel, From A Crooked Rib (1970). Focussing on the trials and tribulations of its stoic female protagonist Ebla, who moves from rural village to the metropolis, the book can be seen as establishing some of Farah’s most enduring authorial and political concerns. From this early depiction of Ebla to that of Cambara in Knots (2007), Farah has been heralded for his sensitive attention to and counter-hegemonic belief in strong female figures. As commentators have suggested, this corresponds with his underlying critique of the use and abuse of power in patriarchal societies. This is particularly significant in relation to the author’s own identity as a Muslim from a predominantly Islamic country. In Somalia, questions of identity, history and the relationship with the rest of Africa and the Arab world remain prominent and oftentimes problematic. It would be Farah’s specifically literary activities in the mid to late 70s, however, that would prove particularly unpalatable to Barre’s censors.
Following the suspension of his Somali-language novel Tallow Waa Telee Ma, which was serialised in a national newspaper in 1973, Farah was awarded a UNESCO grant to pursue his postgraduate studies. He left for England the following year. This departure would prove pivotal in more ways than one. 1976 saw the publication of his second English language novel, A Naked Needle. A satirically incisive portrait of an increasingly authoritarian and dystopian society, the book met with the inevitable disapproval of Barre’s regime. It was only a fortuitous phone-call home to his brother, who warned him of the controversy the book had caused, that spared him a return to incarceration or worse. That this conversation took place whilst Farah was en route to Somalia in Rome is significant. He would effectively remain in transit for much of his life, not returning to Somalia until 1996, over twenty years after his initial departure.
Even while this separation has exacted a great personal toll, Farah has suggested that such a distance has refined his writerly and political vision, and increased his productivity. It is therefore notable that, whilst his novels regularly feature protagonists whose routes take in former colonial centres, whether British or Italian, or neo-colonial hubs such as the U.S. or Canada, his fictions remain rooted, however precariously, in contested Somali soil. Farah’s oft-cited comment to this effect (“I have tried to keep my country alive by writing about it”) is resonant in both intimately personal and intensely political terms, particularly when considering Somalia’s turbulent postcolonial narrative.
The 80s saw Farah living and working in locations ranging from Los Angeles to Khartoum and Bayreuth to Kampala, and it would also signal one of his richest periods of literary creativity. A gifted exponent of the trilogy format, he published the first instalment of his Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship cycle in 1979. Sweet and Sour Milk has been compared to novels by Orwell and Kafka. It depicts a dystopian world in which the central protagonist, Loyaan, attempts to unlock the riddle surrounding the mysterious death of his activist twin brother Soyaan. He describes the differences between the two brothers thus:
Soyaan: a man of intrigue, rhetoric, polemic and politics. Loyaan: a man of melodramatic scenes, mundanities and lost tempers. Loyaan would insist, for instance, in removing all inverted commas from phrases like “revolution in Africa,” “socialism in Africa,” “radical governments,” whereas Soyaan was fond of dressing them with these and other punctuational accessories; he was fond of opening a parenthesis he had no intention of closing. (Sweet and Sour Milk, p.14)
Whilst Barre is never directly named in the Variations texts, Farah creates an authoritarian counterpart in the guise of “the General”. A shadowy presence in the trilogy, “the General” remains somewhat off-stage. By focussing on the exploits of a fictional cadre of anti-government intellectuals, the “Group of 10” of which Soyaan was a member, Farah consciously resists the temptation to produce a caricatured portrait of despotic power.
In Sweet and Sour Milk, the reader is drawn into a murky world where surveillance, paranoia and latent violence are the order of the day, at both the national level and within the domestic sphere. Accordingly, Farah invites his reader to consider the disturbing affinities between the twins’ despotic father, Keynaan, an incompetent ex-stooge in the General’s regime, and the “Grand Warden” himself. Farah deliberately plays with these carceral motifs throughout the Variations trilogy, suggesting that, whilst “the General” might be the ultimate guard, it is those broader networks and more specific sites that permit the use and abuse of power in the first place. As such, Sweet and Sour Milk can be read as a more sophisticated extension and exploration of those concerns with patriarchal violence and autocratic rule central to From a Crooked Rib and A Naked Needle. This was acknowledged when the book won the English-Speaking Union Literary Award in 1980. It was to be the first of several prizes Farah would receive over the course of his career.
As one of the Group’s principal architects, Soyaan’s death is a significant blow to their insurgent aspirations. Yet it falls to the protagonist of the next instalment, Sardines (1981), to keep the resistant flame burning. Medina is the Group’s only female member and, as one of the few who survives in the trilogy, she plays a pivotal role. Once again, however, Farah’s focus remains on relationships between micro and macro acts of autocratic abuse and oppositional responses to them. Whilst Medina is part of an intellectual elite educated in the former colonial centres, her real fight shifts from the inflated rhetoric directed against an increasingly authoritarian General, towards her attempts to safeguard daughter Ubax from the pain of circumcision.
Significant portions of the novel concern the ways in which power is inscribed on the female body, either through rape or female genital mutilation. Accordingly, the critical controversy it has stirred touches on debates from the anthropological and the biological to the ethical and beyond. Like Sweet and Sour Milk, however, Farah urges his reader to consider connections and complicities between the use and abuse of power within the home and at the level of the individual body, as well as within government and on the national body politic. With eclectic citations, ranging from Derek Walcott to Virginia Woolf, Sardines explores Medina’s attempts to get her own house in some kind of order before attempting to topple the General’s punitive regime.
Following a period as Visiting Reader at the University of Jos, Nigeria, which also saw the production of a play, Yussuf and His Brothers, Farah published Close Sesame, the final instalment of his trilogy, in 1983. If Sweet and Sour Milk can be read as a nuanced experiment in dystopian detective fiction and Sardines as a provocative exploration of the relationship between individual body politics and the wider body politic, this third novel has been heralded as a peculiarly sensitive portrait of Islam. Close Sesame follows the struggles of Deeriye, the recently widowed father of another member of the “Group of 10”, Mursal. Having experienced detention under colonial and post-Independence regimes, Deeriye is uniquely placed to offer a longer perspective on some unexpected connections between seemingly distinct regimes. He thus evolves into one of Farah’s most nuanced mouthpieces for exploring familiar preoccupations with the use/abuse of power.
As the following citation shows, the novel offers a careful consideration of the ways in which the values of Islam, and the communal traditions of Somali society more widely, have been corrupted to serve the nepotistic ends of various elites, be they in the guise of clan or government.
Information, Deeriye was thinking to himself, is the garden the common man in Somalia or anywhere else is not allowed to enter … information, or the access to that power and knowledge: power prepared to protect power; keep the populace underinformed so you can rule them; keep them apart by informing them separately; build bars of ignorance around them, imprison them with shackles of uninformedness and they are easy to govern … tell them the little that will misguide them, inform them wrongly, make them suspect one another so that they tell on one another. (Close Sesame, p.74)
Following a botched assassination attempt on “the General” to avenge Mursal’s death, Deeriye is murdered by military guards. Yet, as during his time in Italian incarceration, it is the way he transgresses the hegemonic order of things, coupled with his inclusive, compassionate and historically nuanced vision that endures and inspires hope. It is revealing that, of all his novels, Farah has repeatedly insisted this is his favourite. Belated acknowledgement of its quality came in 1994, when its Italian translation won the Premio Cavour.
Continuing his itinerant journey across Africa, Farah moved to Gambia in 1984 and then Sudan following the 1986 publication of Maps. Labelled “the first African novel of the body” by Derek Wright, it would become the first instalment of his second trilogy, Blood in the Sun. Taking the Ogaden conflict as its backdrop, Maps intensifies the body politics/body politic focus of earlier novels by attending to the trials and tribulations of its unreliable adolescent narrator, Askar. Whilst having obvious intertextual debts to Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum (1959) and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), Maps is a singularly complex work that shifts between first, third and speculative second pronouns in innovative, deliberately disorientating ways.
If it is primarily concerned with interrogating the geo-political borders separating Somalia and Ethiopia, it is similarly preoccupied with how the conceptual process of drawing lines (self/other, friend/foe, native/alien) has often violent consequences, both psychologically and politically. With its disruption of linear narrative and voice, Maps has been described as a postmodern text. Yet, with its unremitting focus on contested bodies, both individual and collective, the novel disavows some of the more playfully parodic gestures often associated with works grouped under this heading. As shown below, by attending to the undulating, always intense relationship between Askar and his adoptive, Ethiopian-born mother Misra, Maps engages the reader in, rather than detaches them from, much wider political questions and discourses.
‘I am an Ethiopian,’ [Misra] said. But how was I to know what species an “Ethiopian” is? I asked the appropriate questions and got the appropriate answers. The image which has remained with me, is that of a country made up of patchworks – like a poor man’s mantle. She wasn’t decided to go back to the Highlands or stay, she repeated. Although she no longer spoke the language of the area of Ethiopia in which she was born. (Maps, pp.98-99)
In the early 90s, Farah once again fell foul of the political powers-that-be when teaching at Uganda’s Makerere University. After the Swedish-language publication of Blood in the Sun’s second instalment Gavor (Gifts) in 1990, Farah resigned his position following criticism by President Museveni. 1991 also saw Siyad Barre’s fall from power and Farah’s receipt of the Tucholsky Literary Award in Stockholm. In the post-Barre power vacuum, uncertainty about Somalia’s political future mounted, culminating in the failed U.S.-led intervention “Operation Restore Hope”. Farah would return to these events in Links (2004). 1992 also saw his relocation to Nigeria and the English-language translation of Gifts.
This prize-winning text (it collected the Best Novel Award in Zimbabwe in 1993 and the St. Malo Literary Festival Award for its French translation in 1998) constitutes a notable departure from Maps, as it is largely concerned with the loves and losses of its central female protagonist Duniya. As with all of Farah’s novels, however, the title is multiply significant. Whilst the gifts of love and children assume even greater importance against a backdrop of escalating civil unrest following defeat in the Ogaden, Gifts also provocatively engages with debates concerning the complexities and complicities of humanitarian aid. Farah is typically considered when it comes to apportioning commendation and condemnation, suggesting that both domestic elites and transnational bodies are culpable for misappropriating resources and perpetuating variously debilitating cycles of dependence. As with his other work, therefore, judgements about its comparative success or failure will hinge on how effectively the reader feels this micro/macro narration of nation balance is maintained.
Having found comparative stability in Nigeria following the birth of a daughter and son, Farah’s next journey would prove to be one of his most decisive, both personally and in terms of his writing. Following Barre’s death in Abuja in 1995, Farah returned to Somalia after twenty two years in exile. An emotional homecoming, the 1996 trip allowed him to witness firsthand how much his country had changed and its people suffered since his own departure in the 70s. These experiences fed into the writing and publication of Blood in the Sun’s final instalment.
Secrets (1998) takes events in the late 80s as its narrative backdrop and it is notable that Barre’s regime is referred to directly in relation to increasingly punitive strikes against anti-government strongholds in Northern Somalia. The novel focuses on questions of identity and origin in relation to its protagonist Kalaman. As such, it can be read as a fitting intensification of some of the personal, political and existential preoccupations of preceding novels in the cycle. Whilst Kalaman’s struggles to determine who he is take centre stage, Farah introduces a Deeriye-esque figure in the shape of “grandfather” Nonno. As with many of Farah’s elderly sages, he emerges as a critical – because considered – voice in the text. Like Deeriye, he enables Farah to provide a more nuanced sense of context in individual, familial and national terms. As in other works, Farah is acutely aware of the audience of and market for his books, with the oblique history lessons that pepper Secrets proving particularly instructive for his largely non-Somali readership. Such questions of audience assume peculiar burdens of significance here.
With its oftentimes graphic depictions of sex and violence, Secrets caused a storm of controversy on its publication. Farah’s response to those who accused him of resorting to grotesque sensationalism to boost sales is multiply revealing: “if the members of a society can do unto each other such savageries, who are they to remain prudish?” With its deliberate intertwining of Kalaman’s own existential quest with that of Somalia itself, Secrets has proved unpalatable for some. As in other work, however, Farah remains unrepentant about both subject matter and its provocative presentation. The author may have felt a degree of vindication when the novel won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1998.
After years of uprooting, Farah and his family settled in Cape Town in 1999. That his next substantial piece would be a study of the Somali diaspora seemed particularly appropriate in this context. Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora (2000) is an exploration of some of the narratives of Somalis who left their homeland to seek refuge in the wake of the collapse of Barre’s regime and subsequent civil unrest. The result is a generic hybrid, mixing journalism, travel writing and autobiography as Farah travels from Kenyan refugee camps to Swedish detention centres interviewing his fellow countrymen and women. He describes the motivation behind it thus
if I haven’t let go [of this project], it is because I wish somehow to impose a certain order on Somalia’s anarchy … Here is a nation of narratives held to ransom. Here is an ocean of stories narrated by Somalis in a halfway house. (Yesterday, Tomorrow, p. viii)
Whilst of great interest to those concerned with human rights and always pertinent issues of transnational migration and asylum, Yesterday, Tomorrow also allows the author to reflect on the pains and gains of exile and the peculiarities of trying to come to terms with it. Allusions to modernist writers, including Joyce, litter the text, and there are several key moments where Farah and his readers are left in no doubt as to the differences between those caught up in violence during and after the Barre years and those who watched from a distance. Yesterday, Tomorrow is a poignant work, intermittently searing in its honesty and searching in its intensity.
Preoccupations with diasporic individuals and their struggles to come to terms with their identity and position are replayed and intensified in Farah’s next two novels, Links (2004) and Knots (2007). These will make up his next trilogy. Links is a fictional exploration of events popularly associated with the “Black Hawk Down” debacle of 1992/93. Whilst it was published the year after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq (2003), the events it explores are coterminous with another, earlier Gulf War. The U.S.-led intervention in Somalia was named “Operation Restore Hope”, yet Farah considers the extent to which its botched handling seriously damaged certain dreams of political regeneration.
The novel focuses on Jeebleh, a member of the Somali diaspora in the United States. He, like Farah some eight years earlier, returns to his country for the first time in many years following his mother’s death only to find himself sucked into an even more disturbing vortex of violence. Typically, Farah shares his critique between both U.S. and Somali actors, making the broader political point that colonial histories and postcolonial presents and futures are much more intertwined than certain representatives, either American or African, may be willing to admit. By attending to the challenges facing a diasporic Somali with painfully divided loyalties, Farah once again engages his reader in a series of prescient and broader geo-political debates.
The titular and thematic preoccupation with tangled narratives, individual and collective, national and international, is similarly pronounced in his latest novel, Knots. Canada has a significant Somali community and Farah takes his fictional protagonist, Cambara, from this imagined group. Knots thus emerges as a quasi-apocalyptic supplement to Links, with Farah writing of a scarred and shattered Somalia rife with clan conflict and teetering on the brink of political implosion. Yet, as he has done so often throughout his long literary career, he finds hope in small acts of human kindness often performed by women. These stand out in even sharper relief when set against such dehumanising backdrops.
In terms of critical reception, Farah has been the subject of single-author studies by Derek Wright (The Novels of Nuruddin Farah, originally published in 1994, with a second revised edition appearing in 2004) and Patricia Alden and Louis Tremain (Nuruddin Farah, 1999). Derek Wright was also responsible for editing the weighty 2002 compendium, Emerging Perspectives on Nuruddin Farah, which comprises essays from scholars across the globe. Whilst this critical anthology offers dedicated readings of Farah’s work, it also includes interviews with and speeches given by the author himself. As with the single-author studies, it is committed to placing him and his work in the socio-political, cultural and historical contexts out of which they arise.
Nuruddin Farah has long been touted as a potential winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, destined to join other African recipients including Wole Soyinka, Naguib Mahfouz, Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee. His work has been translated into many languages and reaches a truly global audience. He has emerged as an impassioned public intellectual, addressing topics ranging from the War on Terror to female genital mutilation in his fiction and elsewhere. Whilst he has lived beyond its borders for many years, Farah has drawn an international readership’s attention to the complexities and richness of his native Somalia. In so doing, he has given voice to a region often written off under those Conradian headlines that continue to haunt our historical present
Citation: Masterson, John Edward. "Nuruddin Farah". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 09 October 2009 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=1480, accessed 08 February 2023.]