Nuruddin Farah Introduction - Essay

Introduction

Nuruddin Farah 1945–-

Somalian novelist, dramatist, short story writer, and translator.

The following entry presents an overview of Farah's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 53.

Nuruddin Farah is known as one of the most stimulating contemporary prose writers in Africa. His works typically address the theme of individual freedom in the face of arbitrary power that is relevant to Africans and non-Africans alike. Farah's novels demonstrate a facility with poetic language and great intellectual depth, and frequently focus on political and social issues in his homeland of Somalia, a nation in the Horn of Africa. While Farah's work contains an undeniable political element, he does not preach a particular political vision for his nation. Farah's experiences as a young person in Somalia give his writings an international appeal. The history of colonization and border conflicts in Somalia, coupled with Farah's travels and educational opportunities, gives him access to a wide variety of cultures and enables him to write about Somalia with a detached perspective. The rich oral culture in Somalia and Farah's command of several languages also make his writing unique. Farah's novels are noted for their poetic and symbolic nature, and for their epic and satirical elements as well.

Biographical Information

Farah was born in Baidoa in 1945, which at the time was known as the Italian territory of Somalia. The Italian and British territories were united to form the country of Somalia in 1960. Growing up, Farah learned Somali, Amharic, and Arabic, then Italian and English. He worked for the Somalian Department of Education and subsequently left for India, where he studied literature and philosophy at the University of Chandigarh. While in India, Farah wrote several plays in addition to his first novel, From a Crooked Rib (1970). Farah returned to Somalia in 1969, the same year that the Soviets backed General Siyad Barre in a bloodless coup to take over Somalia's government. Farah became critical of Siyad Barre's regime, a sentiment he expressed in several of his novels. In the mid-1970s, Farah moved to England to study theater. Upon the publication of A Naked Needle in 1976, he was warned not to return to Somalia or he would be jailed. He moved to Italy, where he continued writing plays, short stories, and novels. Farah's works have earned him the English Speaking Union Prize and the Neustadt Prize.

Major Works

From a Crooked Rib examines the plight of women in traditional Islamic societies through the eyes of a young village girl, Ebla, as she struggles with issues of female circumcision, arranged marriages, and polygamy. A Naked Needle, a more introspective novel, focuses on protagonist Koschin's search for self-fulfillment and freedom within the political and social upheaval of contemporary Somalia. Koschin, a teacher who studied in England, struggles to remain free from all social, political, and personal obligations. Farah's next three novels are more overtly political. This trilogy, later published as Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship (1992), presents a picture of life under a dictator, including the suspicion and fear that plagues those living in a fascist state. Sweet and Sour Milk (1979) recounts the repressive military regime of Somalia but does not assert a specific ideological position. In this novel, Loyaan tries to discover the truth behind his twin brother Soyaan's mysterious death. In addition to suffering the loss of his brother, he must watch as the government which may have murdered Soyaan usurps his image for propaganda. Sardines (1981) also looks at the problems of the military regime but again fails to promote an ideological stance. In addition, Farah again addresses women's struggles through his main character, Medina, and her suffering at the hands of the government, her husband, and her mother-in-law. The narrative of Close Sesame (1982) is told through the eyes of an aging tribal leader, Deeriye, who opposes Somalia's political dictator and who has visions of his dead wife and Allah. Farah's next trilogy is a more loosely related group of novels than Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship. Maps (1986) recounts the story of a Somali orphan, Askar, who is raised by a non-Somali woman named Misra. The first part of the book describes their relationship. The latter half describes their later meeting during the Ogaden War, when Askar must judge Misra's guilt or innocence on the charge of treason. The novel explores several types of conflict: the political divisions caused by maps; the divisions between men and women; and the internal divisions between different parts of the self. In Gifts (1990), Farah returns to the theme of subjugation in Somali society. The female protagonist, Duniya, has spent her life and three marriages at the mercy of men and their gifts. Duniya's story becomes a metaphor for the plight of Third World nations, which are at the mercy of gifts from the First World. Secrets (1998) is set during the end of General Siyad Barre's rule as Somalia begins to break into warring clans. The main character spends the novel searching for his origin and his true clan.

Critical Reception

Critics find roots of both traditionalism and modernism in Farah's works. In discussing the influences on Farah's writing, Simon Gikandi argues that Farah's “artistic sources are an eclectic mixture of Somali oral traditions, Italian culture, and Anglo-Irish modernism.” Reviewers praise Farah for his highly textured prose style and mythical imagination. In discussing the influence of Somalia's oral tradition on Farah's style, critics such as J. I. Okonkwo acknowledge the powerful imagery, exotic symbolism, and richly textured language, commenting that these traits evolved out of the rich poetic heritage of Somalia. Reviewers frequently explore the influence of Italy on Farah's works, concluding that both Italy's colonization of Somalia and the time that Farah spent living in Italy affected his writing style. Although there is a definite element of political commentary in Farah's work—especially in his Variations trilogy—critics are quick to point out that Farah does not espouse a particular ideology. Scott Malcomson states, “Farah has become something of a spokesman for his African generation, but as a political novelist he is noticeably oblique.” Many reviewers laud Farah for his stark portrayal of the effects of patriarchal subjugation of women, praising him as one of a select few male writers willing to critique a patriarchical system. Farah stands alone as a Somalian writer who has gained international recognition. Okonkwo explains Farah's universal appeal, asserting, “Although Farah's novels are essentially African, they are thematically relevant not only to the realities of African societies, but also to universal human conditions, in a manner which transcends the contemporary settings of his works.”