Farah, Nuruddin (Writer)

(1945- ) novelist,playwright, essayist

When Nuruddin Farah was born, his section of what is now called Somalia, located on the eastern coast of Africa, was a colony of Italy. In 1960, the nation of Somalia was formed by the merger of this Italian colony with what had been known as British Somaliland. He is descended from nomadic peoples who wandered far to feed their herds. His father was a merchant, and his mother was a poet who spoke several languages. Today, Farah has married an exile’s nomadic life to a narrative style that wanders far from any conception of “traditional” realism. His travels throughout the world mirror his experiments in language use: His novels tend to use fantastic, improbable elements, what some critics refer to as magical realism.

Young Farah grew up speaking Somali, Arabic, and Amharic. English is his fourth language. From his mother, he gained a love of the sounds of words, of the power of language, and of the need to use the tapestry of cultures that language represents as a political tool. In many countries like Somalia that have a history of colonialism, the language one uses has political implications. Because English (and Italian and French) are reminders of a time when racism and oppression were the order of the day in such countries, many writers have chosen to avoid what they saw as the “language of the conqueror.” Unlike the Kenyan writer, ngugi wa thiong’o, however, Farah chooses to write in English for pragmatic reasons. As Charles Larson has observed in The Ordeal of the African Writer (2001), relatively few Africans in any country are able to read literary works in any language. Farah is not, however, unaware of the political implications of this choice. His novels often deal with political themes, including language usage.

For example, Farah’s third novel, A Naked Needle (1976), so infuriated Somali dictator Mohamed Siyad Barre that Farah has lived in exile for more than 20 years. Among other issues, A Naked Needle deals with the corruption of those who have ruled the country since independence.

Farah has continued to speak for his country and his people, most notably in his trilogy, Sweet and Sour Milk (1979), Sardines (1981), and Close Sesame (1983), known collectively as Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship. This trilogy is the fullest and most complex treatment that Farah has yet attempted on his most important theme: the oppression of Somalia’s various groups by a succession of despots.

Farah is Somalia’s first novelist and its most renowned international literary figure. In addition to his focus on racial inequality and the problems of postcolonialism, he has also focused extensively on gender inequities and the problems women face in the Third World. In 1998, he received the Neustadt Prize for literature, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world. The Neustadt Prize is awarded by the University of Oklahoma and its international quarterly journal World Literature Today. It carries a $50,000 award and is often seen as a precursor for consideration for the Nobel Prize.

Other Works by Nuruddin Farah

From a Crooked Rib. London: Heinemann, 1976. Maps. New York: Pantheon, 1986.

A Work about Nuruddin Farah

Alden, Patricio, and Louis Tremaine. Nuruddin Farah. New York: Twayne, 1999.

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