Nuruddin Farah Essay - Critical Essays

Farah, Nuruddin


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.”

Principal Works

Why Dead So Soon? (short stories) 1965

A Dagger in Vacuum (play) 1970

From a Crooked Rib (novel) 1970

The Offering (play) 1975

A Naked Needle (novel) 1976

A Spread of Butter (radio play) 1978

*Sweet and Sour Milk (novel) 1979

Tartar Delight (radio play) 1980

*Sardines (novel) 1981

*Close Sesame (novel) 1982

Yussuf and His Brothers (play) 1982

Maps (novel) 1986

Gifts (novel) 1990

Secrets (novel) 1998

*These works form the trilogy Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship, which was published in 1992.

†These works form a trilogy.


Salman Rushdie (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Nuruddin Farah,” in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981–1991, Granta Books, 1991, pp. 201–02.

[Rushdie is the author of The Satanic Verses. In the following brief essay, written in 1986, he traces the divisions central to Farah's Maps.]

Here is a starving child, there is a mad dog; feed her, bomb him … information about Africa reaches us, most of the time, through a series of filters which, by reducing the vast continent to a cluster of emotive slogans, succeed in denying us any sense of complexity, context, truth. But then, as Nuruddin Farah reminds us in his new novel [, Maps,] (his sixth), the West was always rather arbitrary about the names it pinned to Africa: Nigeria was named for an imperialist's mistress, Ethiopia lazily derived from the Greek for ‘a person with a black face’.

For many years Farah, one of the finest of contemporary African novelists, has been bringing us a very different world. His Africa, most particularly his native Somalia, is in revolt against the long hegemony of cartographers and bestowers of names. To be a Somali is to be a people united by a language and divided by maps. Maps is a book about such political divisions, and the wars they cause (the conflict in the Ogaden is central to the story); but what makes it a true and rich work of art is Farah's knowledge that the deepest divisions are...

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Simon Gikandi (essay date Autumn 1988)

SOURCE: “Nuruddin Farah and Postcolonial Textuality,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 72, No. 4, Autumn, 1988, pp. 753–58.

[Gikandi is a professor of English at the University of Michigan. In the following essay, he discusses how Somali oral tradition and modernism have both influenced Farah's work.]

Nuruddin Farah emerged as an important writer at a time when the African literary tradition had overcome the euphoria of the early days of independence (the late 1950s and early 1960s) but had not fully come to terms with the disenchantment of postcolonial politics in the 1970s. While the primary subject of his novels has consistently been the process by which...

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J. I. Okonkwo (essay date Spring 1992)

SOURCE: “The Novelist as Artist: The Case of Nuruddin Farah,” in Commonwealth Novel in English, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 46–58.

[In the following essay, Okonkwo compares Farah's work to that of other African writers and asserts that Farah is unique in his artistry.]

The novels of Nuruddin Farah have been difficult to absorb into the recognized categories of African fiction. They exhibit none of the nostalgia for Africa's traditional past which characterizes the first set of novels of the Cultural Nationalism school. The exultation of the past, which has persisted in the novels of the 1970's, particularly in Armah's Two Thousand Seasons and The...

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Derek Wright (essay date October 1992)

SOURCE: “Parenting the Nation: Some Observations on Nuruddin Farah's Maps,” in College Literature, Vol. 19, No. 3, October, 1992, pp. 176–84.

[Wright is a senior lecturer in English at Northern Territory University, Darwin, Australia. In the following essay, he analyzes the cultural and ethnic implications of Farah's Maps.]

Perhaps the most startling and unforeseen consequences of the recent breakup of Central and Eastern Europe have been the release of resurgent micronationalisms and a reversion to absolutist ideas of the “ethnic nation”: ideas that have habitually taken uncharitable views of “migrant” or “minority” cultures. No doubt, as the...

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Grace Sullivan (review date January-February 1993)

SOURCE: “Variations on the Theme of Somalia,” in San Francisco Review of Books, Vol. 18, No. 1, January–February, 1993, p. 39.

[In the following review, Sullivan discusses the disparity between the images of Somalis presented in the media and the characters fleshed out in Farah's latest trilogy of novels, Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship.]

First published more than a decade ago in Great Britain, Somali writer Nuruddin Farah's Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship has recently appeared in print for the first time in the United States. Meanwhile, the American media indicates connections between the West's former lack of...

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Derek Wright (review date Winter 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Gifts, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 195–96.

[In the following review, Wright lauds Farah's Gifts as “a poetically evocative as well as (politically) a mildly provocative work.”]

The Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah announced the imminent arrival of his novel Gifts in 1986, shortly after the publication of his extraordinary novel of the Ogaden War, Maps (1986). However, readers then had to wait (surprisingly, for this prolific novelist who had published six novels in fifteen years) until 1992 for the book's African publication, by a Zimbabwean press, and until 1993 for its...

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Alamin Mazrui (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Mapping Islam in Farah's Maps,” in The Marabout and the Muse: New Approaches to Islam in African Literature, edited by Kenneth W. Harrow, Heinemann, 1996, pp. 205–19.

[In the following essay, Mazrui uses Farah's Maps to trace the author's attitude toward Islam.]

If Africa were to produce its own Salman Rushdie—the writer who became the subject of Ayatollah Khomeini's death fatwa after the publication of his controversial novel, The Satanic Verses (1988)1—it is likely to be the Somali novelist, Nuruddin Farah. It may be mere coincidence that Rushdie is one of the critics who praised Farah's Maps...

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John C. Hawley (essay date September 1996)

SOURCE: “Nuruddin Farah—Tribalism, Orality, and Postcolonial Ultimate Reality and Meaning in Contemporary Somalia,” in Ultimate Reality and Meaning, Vol. 19, No. 3, September, 1996, pp. 189–205.

[In the following essay, Hawley discusses the roles of politics, tribalism, and religion in Farah's novels and traces how the author portrays the search for an ultimate reality.]

‘Everybody had turned the foundling into what they thought they wanted, or lacked.’

—Nuruddin Farah, Gifts, 128.


Few would contest the observation of Matthew Horsman...

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Scott L. Malcomson (review date 15 June 1998)

SOURCE: “Family Plot,” in New Yorker, June 15, 1998, pp. 78–9.

[In the following review, Malcomson discusses how Secrets shows Farah's changing style and Somalia's changing political situation.]

The Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah specializes in strange and difficult births. Sholoongo, for example, in Farah's new novel, Secrets, is said to have been a duugan, a baby born to be buried. (Farah writes in English, but he seizes words from Somali, Italian, or Arabic when he needs them.) Abandoned by her mother, Sholoongo purportedly finds comfort in the maternal paws of a lioness. As a child, she is returned to her people; her mother responds...

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Jacqueline Bardolph (essay date Autumn 1998)

SOURCE: “Brothers and Sisters in Nuruddin Farah's Two Trilogies,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 72, No. 4, Autumn, 1998, pp. 727–32.

[Bardolph is Professor Emerita of postcolonial literatures at the University of Nice, France, and the editor of several collective studies. In the following essay, she analyzes Farah's use of family relationships in his novels.]

Nuruddin Farah's two trilogies are organized on the basis of political and historical themes. The title of the first set of novels, Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship, follows the gradual disillusionment with the regime of General Siyad Barre on the part of those who had set their...

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Claudio Gorlier (essay date Autumn 1998)

SOURCE: “Nuruddin Farah's Italian Domain,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 72, No. 4, Autumn, 1998, pp. 781–85.

[Gorlier is Professor of Literature of the English-Speaking Countries at the University of Turin, Italy, and is the author of numerous critical essays. In the following essay, he traces the use of Italian in several of Farah's novels.]

At one climactic point in Nuruddin Farah's novel Sardines, Medina asks her little daughter Ubax to read a note. Ubax picks it up and squints at an arrangement of the alphabet which makes her feel illiterate: “‘It's foreign.’ ‘It is not. It's Italian.’ ‘But that is foreign.’”1 The...

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Itala Vivan (essay date Autumn 1998)

SOURCE: “Nuruddin Farah's Beautiful Mat and Its Italian Plot,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 72, No. 4, Autumn, 1998, pp. 786–90.

[Vivan is Professor of Language, Culture, and Institutions of English-Speaking Countries at the University of Milan. In the following essay, she discusses the role of Italy and its relationship with Somalia in Farah's trilogy Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship.]

“I want to engrave the name of Somalia on the skin of the world,” announced Nuruddin Farah in the early eighties, while still working at his narrative trilogy Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship.1 In fact, the three novels...

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Abdourahman A. Waberi (essay date Autumn 1998)

SOURCE: “Organic Metaphor in Two Novels by Nuruddin Farah,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 72, No. 4, Autumn, 1998, pp. 775–80.

[Waberi is Professor of English at Caen, France, author, and recipient of the Grand Prix de l'Afrique Noire in 1996. In the following essay, he studies Farah's use of the organic metaphor in Close Sesame and Sweet and Sour Milk.]

Splintered into multiple possibles, Somalia—the Farah reference par excellence—is difficult to recount in its unity or totality at the present time.1 The narrator or singer, the scholar, and even the reader find themselves compelled to cut up their object of study and to opt for certain...

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