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The Quintessential Cosmopolitan: Interview with distinguished professor of literature Nuruddin Farah

Thursday April 23, 2020

Acclaimed Somali writer and Bard professor Nuruddin Farah talks to the Johannesburg Review of Books about family, tradition, and life in exile: “I roamed the world, made the world my small village.”

‘The majority of writers in Africa, of us, confine ourselves, rather than having great ambition’—An interview with Nuruddin Farah, by Lebohang Mojapelo

Internationally renowned Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah is well known for his politically conscious writing, which led him into exile as a young man, after standing up to the military regime of Siad Barre. His work closely follows the history of Somalia through three trilogies, in which he dissects the interweaving strands of Somali life: dictatorship, family, tradition and religion. Published in the famous Heinemann African Writers Series at the beginning of his career, Farah is considered to have led the Second Generation of African writers.

Lebohang Mojapelo had the pleasure of attending a recent event in Farah’s honour, commemorating fifty years of his debut novel From a Crooked Rib (1970), and sat down with the writer to talk about language, tradition, fame and infamy.

Lebohang Mojapelo for the JRB: I attended the event recently at Cheche Bookshop in Nairobi celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of your novel From a Crooked Rib. Congratulations. You said by the time you wrote this novel you were living in India as a student. Did you get in trouble with the Somali government because of the novel?

Nuruddin Farah: I got into trouble when I wrote the second novel, A Naked Needle, and in even more trouble, in fact, worse trouble when I published Sweet and Sour Milk. I was threatened with death if I ever returned to Somalia and therefore chose not to return. That was in 1976 and I did not return until 1996. I roamed the world, made the world my small village. Because of being away I thought I could better write about Somalia.

The JRB: How?

Nuruddin Farah: There’s a lot of things that you internalise when something is happening right in front of you. Your emotion is raw. If you live in Mogadishu and your best friends are being locked up you begin to worry for yourself. And even if you don’t worry for yourself, you worry for your mother, your father, your wife, if you have one, and therefore everything becomes emotional. You can’t think clearly in a way you can when you are waking up in a place that you feel is safe, despite the difference between the country you are in and Somalia.

The JRB: You say that the distance from Somalia offered you some clarity. But that was in 1976. After some time did you feel like you may be becoming out of touch?

Nuruddin Farah: No, because I was living in Africa. And whatever was happening in Somalia was equally happening in many other countries. I remember in 1983 going to Zimbabwe and I was given negative press for the simple reason that I told some of my Zimbabwean writer colleagues that the country was heading in the direction of a dictatorship. I was shouted down by some writers, including Chenjerai Hove. He described me as a disgruntled writer who was unhappy and therefore spreading unhappiness among Zimbabwean writers because President Mugabe was the greatest man in the country. That I was foretelling doom when there was no such thing on the horizon. So I had made enemies in Somalia and was thrown out of other countries because of my outspokenness.

The JRB: So your writing about dictatorship is not limited to Somalia? You have found it in other places and have spoken about it?

Nuruddin Farah: Studying dictatorship and writing about it and analysing it is something that requires either madness or bravery. I do not know whether I can think of any other writer who doggedly pursued the history of their country. In other words, if one reads my books one after the other, each book concerns itself with the major history of Somalia.

I was also thrown out of The Gambia because I dared to express that the then-president fancied playing golf more than his people. In Uganda I ran into a confrontation with the head of state, [Yoweri] Museveni, in 1991, who said at a press conference when he landed—because I had said something when he had been out of the country—‘There is a man named Farah, Professor Farah, who is a guest and doesn’t know what’s good for him and if he doesn’t know what’s good for him, we’ll tell him.’

Of course, I don’t do it any more because I have been thrown out of enough countries. Now I take a grandfatherly attitude: I look after my health and work and let the younger ones take over from me.

The JRB: An aspect of From a Crooked Rib that comes up often, and was mentioned several times at the commemoration, is that it is a feminist book. You do speak about how at the time you were writing about girlhood and African womanhood, most African male writers were writing consistently about boyhood. Can books be feminist?

Nuruddin Farah: I have never called my books feminist. All I can say is that I had had enough experience of how society was dealing with my mother, how society was dealing with my sisters. How we, men, were being given privileges that girls were being given no chances to entertain. How the sister who follows me was kept in the kitchen whereas the boy that came after her was immediately sent to school. How my father and I had a great fight about whether or not I would spend a great amount of money on my sister’s education, because my father said, give me the money instead of spending it on a girl. Now, I wasn’t doing it because I was feminist but because fair is fair. Now do you become feminist because you believe fair is fair? You’d have to ask someone else.

The JRB: My favourite of your novels is Sardines, and my favourite character Medina. That book speaks more directly to feminism than your other work. Medina is very insistent about how she raises her daughter and how she lives the practice of feminism. However, it seems as if she practices her ideas in as extreme a manner as the General (who resembles Siad Barre) and you pit them against each other as equals, who at the end of a chess game are left merely with their ideology, no matter the consequences.

Nuruddin Farah: Well, I would like to preface this by saying that I generally do not like to justify a text, a text speaks for itself. But I would have questioned the statement you just made because the General does not have the slightest speech in the text, the power of speech is with Medina. What he does, however, is interfere with the thoughts of the other characters, who speak for him without acknowledging that they are more loyal to him than they are conscious of.  Now, Medina’s mother-in-law represents everything about tradition and wants to circumcise her daughter, which Medina refuses. Is that to be compared to the dictatorship? The absence of the patriarch creates a matriarch who then represents that traditional oppressive system. And I’m saying to you the entire Somali family system is authoritarian. And that Somalis as a general rule and their families are authoritarian. You would be isolated, kicked out, excommunicated from the faith, from the family, unless you toe the line of the clan, the family and the faith.

The JRB: Which then represents what you do say: that the family and the state mirror each other. That the existence of the state enables the existence of the authoritarian patriarchal family. And what happens in the patriarchal family enables the existence of the dictatorial state.

Nuruddin Farah: Yes, exactly. Now what did Siad Barre do when I wrote Sweet and Sour Milk and he couldn’t get me? Siad Barre called my father and he said to my father, ‘This is a young uncircumcised boy (in harsher words than this) and him and I have no platform on which we can discuss the subject of Somalia. I will give you whatever financial means you like, you’ve got to talk to your son.’ And when my father sent a message I said to him, ‘You have nothing to say to me.’ Now, was I fighting patriarchy? I don’t know, but I do know I was fighting against interference with my thoughts. It wasn’t given the name ‘patriarchy’ when I was fighting that interference. I just knew this thing took a physical form and an ideological form, therefore I had to fight both. Fighting my father who represented the authoritarian regime and thereby fighting against patriarchy, against dictatorship, and authoritarianism.

The JRB: Similarly in Sardines, when the young woman is kidnapped and forcibly circumcised as a message to her father, there are very personal and intimate crimes that happen on women’s bodies to prove a political goal. Which also speaks to the gendered nature of oppression.

Nuruddin Farah: All three of the books in the Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship trilogy, Sweet and Sour Milk, Sardines and Close Sesame, are all body novels. Because you cannot torture the mind of a person, they torture the body. They kidnap girls and do terrible things to them thinking that this particular person will then kowtow to authority. Which is the most important thing.

If I can tell you, because I often write trilogies, the first part of the trilogy is often male with a male centred consciousness. The second part is usually female and the third part you can’t actually determine. These roles are swapped in Maps, Gifts and Secrets, [though] in Secrets there is no determination whether the central consciousness is male or female. And these are things that make it easier for me to write trilogies.

The JRB: Speaking of language, there was a question posed at the commemoration event about your choice to write in English as opposed to Somali. In your response you invoked Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s ideas around language and I would like to hear it again.

Nuruddin Farah: You see, Somalia is a country with one language and Kenya is a country with twenty to thirty languages. My view is if you’re a Kenyan you have to write in a language, whichever language that is, that represents nearly everyone and everyone can access. There is no such language. So there is no difference between choosing an elite language, which is a colonial language, and an ethnic language such as Kikuyu.

Ultimately, we should pay attention to the content of the book, whether it has progressive ideas and is ideologically sound, rather than bother ourselves with the language in which it was written. Now because English is my fourth language I could have written in any of the other three languages but I did not. Why did I not write in Somali? I started writing in English before Somali had an orthography. You could not write in Somali when I began writing, and From a Crooked Rib came out before Somali became a written language [the Somali Latin alphabet was officially adopted in 1972]. So when am I supposed to have written my books in Somali? So the question wasn’t, do I write in English or Somali, it becomes, do you choose to write or not?

As I have said, having written my first novel I ran into trouble for my writing. So then I could not write in Somali because I became a known person in Somalia—my name could not be mentioned in the newspaper and I could not be quoted in the newspaper in Somali. So I was left with no choice but to continue writing in English.

The JRB: You don’t agree with the idea that in Kenya, Kikuyu can be considered an elite language?

Nuruddin Farah: No, it is an ethnic language. A group of people who believe they have a language and culture in common and therefore it excludes those who speak Luo and Kalenjin and so on. If he [Ngũgĩ] had written in Swahili, or promoted Swahili as a national language, that would be a different story, his ideas would have been effective. But I don’t want to get too involved, you know, Ngũgĩ is a friend!

The JRB: You mentioned earlier that you have not encountered writers now that pursue the history of their countries, especially dictatorship, as you did …

Nuruddin Farah: There was Dambudzo Marechera in Zimbabwe and I think if he had lived on and written about the authoritarian regime, his books would have been very, very interesting. I have not recently read Zimbabwean writing and I therefore do not know what Zimbabwean writers have written about dictatorship. The majority of writers in Africa, of us, confine ourselves, rather than having great ambition. And then it’s a matter of generation, perhaps it was my generation interested in dictatorship and not the younger ones.

The JRB: What is your generation?

Nuruddin Farah: There is nothing great about me, I should stress that. I do not belong to the Ngũgĩ, Achebe, Soyinka generation. Neither do I belong to the Chenjerai Hove and others generation, so I’m in, if you wish, a standalone generation. What makes me different is that I knew what the others had done. They thought very often about tradition and the place that tradition has in people’s lives. I come from a place where I question tradition. I come from a place where I say the elders have mucked up everything. I’m an aberration.

The other thing that sets me apart from the other writers is that I have been in exile for most of my life, while the majority of African writers belong to a narrow definition of European history and their national origins. So a Nigerian would speak English and be Yoruba. Whereas I come from a multicultural and multilingual background. Because I speak English and Italian or English and Somali. Because I have Arabic and I have Ethiopian Amharic. I bring a number of things into the mix. Achebe had Igbo and English, Ngũgĩ had Kikuyu and English, Soyinka had Yoruba and English. I borrow from a lot of these things but I also challenge our own normal traditions, which makes me an aberration.

This is one of the reasons the books I write are more appreciated in the North African tradition. Because none of my books have been reviewed in Southern Africa until recently. From a Crooked Rib had never been reviewed in its life history until after my name became a thing.

The JRB: It is interesting that you mention that. Having studied in the African literature department at Wits University I was only introduced to your work at postgraduate level in a ‘Nuruddin Farah’ course. Whereas for other writers we were taught one book at a time under different themes all through the coursework.

Nuruddin Farah: Because they don’t know what to do with my work. Do you know who taught my books at Makerere University? The department of religion. And in West Africa? The  department of philosophy. That is part of the aberration. There was the question of where I would fit because of the mix I bring. It is this mix that disturbs them. I could quote a Muslim philosopher, a Hindu philosopher, a German philosopher, and the majority of people felt uncomfortable because they had to look for the sources and they did not know where to find the sources. In a number of African countries there is only one person who deals with and teaches my work. It is not a general thing. And when people mention my name, it is respected, but not many people have any idea what my work is really about.

I can’t complain. The books are respected but not popular. Some would say, ‘Is he really African?’ This is because there is a dual lineage to which Africans belong and that makes it easy: if you know African tradition you know Christianity. Because Ngũgĩ and Achebe deal with very specific ‘grounded’ traditional African cultures and ideas. But when it comes to Farah you have to know so much more than that.

The JRB: At the commemoration event in Nairobi there were some Somalis who expressed that they find your work dismissive of religion in Somalia. That you are too critical of their experiences with religion.

Nuruddin Farah: My real true feeling is that Somalis are the least religious people on earth. How could anyone manage the destructiveness of Somalis towards one another? The killings that have been committed, the massacres within the country. If they believed in God, as truly as they should, they would not commit such atrocities among each other, especially among fellow Muslims. Therefore I question their honesty when they talk about religion, it is lip service that they pay to the faith.

It is also interesting because the most religious novel I have ever written is Close Sesame—why do people only remember the characters who question the faith and forget those who don’t?

My final disclaimer is: If a character said something, I am not the one who said it!


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