Somalia's state of tectonic shifts is at a particularly pivotal point right now, with a new president and constitution standing on shaky ground, and author Nuruddin Farah has only his stories to offer. This is both powerful and -- not. The Somali author, compelled into exile years ago and now living in Cape Town, told the Guardian: "No matter how the characters struggle, how can you reconstruct a country that's self-destructing continuously?"
Farah is a prolific chronicler of the Horn of Africa, hinging his fiction at the point where power shapes relationships. The 66-year-old man is also a winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and he is frequently cited as a Nobel contender. Crossbones is the recent novel that completes his Past Imperfect trilogy. (Here's news on its release in South Africa.) Secrets opens in Mogadishu just before Somalia's civil war breaks open like a wound, while Gifts scours a wounded family history while taking its title from developed nations' aid to Somalia. Farah hasn't lived in Somalia in decades, though he traveled there often to serve as a sort of mediator between the transitional government and Islamists. But, according to the Guardian profile, "The country died inside me, and I carried it, for a long time, like a woman with a dead baby. It became the neurosis from which I write."
Somalia, he says, is "full of stories. We say, 'one sick person; a hundred doctors'. Somalia is a sick country and everyone has an opinion. Mine is one version; in a civil war, there are millions."
Kwame Anthony Appiah interviewed Farah in 2004 for Bomb Magazine. Appiah writes, by way of introduction:
He published his first novel From a Crooked Rib in London in 1970, at the age of 25, becoming, with that work, Somalia’s first novelist (though of course by no means her first great literary figure, since he was raised within a tradition of brilliant oral literature that can now circulate as audio recordings). Farah speaks not only Somali but also Italian, Arabic, Amharic, and, of course, the wonderful English of his nine novels.
Farah laughs a great deal in his conversation with Appiah. And it is with good humor that he discusses why, for all his agility with language, he has written in English for nearly all of his career. (Paragraph break added by me.)
I chose to write in English because Somali, my mother tongue, had no orthography in those days. Now why did I not write in Arabic, Amharic, or Italian? The way it happened, a good, solid American typewriter decided that I would write in English. It was a Royal, and I adored it. I liked hearing the sound of it when I typed. And I couldn’t find a good enough typewriter in any of the other languages that I might have written in. There is another important factor: I’ve received much of my intellectual makeup in English.
Also, being a very practical person, I was aware that Amharic has far too many letters for a typewriter—it’s too complicated. Arabic was out of the question because Arabic typewriters weren’t common in our peninsula—and anyhow, Arabic was foreign to me too. Somali had no script until the fall of 1972. And soon enough, I started to write a novel in Somali, which was published serially, a chapter a week, in the only Mogadishu daily. The publication was discontinued because the censorship board people didn’t like a couple of chapters, and, silly as I am, I insisted, when asked to explain, that I would not allow the text to be cut. Fancy that! “This is art,” I argued. “You don’t explain art; you take it or leave it." So not only was the publication of my novel in Somali discontinued, but the censorship board also banned From a Crooked Rib, at that time my only published novel.
Image Credit: The Guardian