Risking his life for his writing

Somali writer Nuruddin Farah has faced numerous death threats since he first crossed his country’s regime. He tells Jo Kerrigan about life outside his homeland.

ONE of the star attractions at this year’s West Cork Literary Festival (July 7-13) will undoubtedly be Nuruddin Farah, the renowned Somali novelist.

Farah published his first novel, From A Crooked Rib, in 1970, just a year after his native country was taken over by General Barre, a man whose dictatorial and autocratic policies were to form the backdrop to later works. It is the story of a girl who flees from an arranged marriage to discover that male domination exists everywhere. Its intense perspective on life from the woman’s viewpoint is so convincing that the publishers at first could not accept a man had written it.

From a Crooked Rib earned Farah the Neustadt International Prize for Literature and became the start of his international reputation. In 1975 came A Naked Needle, which brought down the wrath of the then Somali regime, forcing him into exile and into the wandering lifestyle which he has maintained since. It was at this point that Nuruddin made the life decision to keep the culture and heart of his homeland alive by recreating it in his books. Since the fall of General Barre he has returned to Somalia on rare occasions, but always at great personal risk.

Two trilogies, Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship and Blood in the Sun, set Farah firmly among the topmost African writers. His most recent trilogy contains Links, Knots and Crossbones, and the writer, now in his 68th year, shows no signs of slowing down.

“I wrote in English first, because Somalia had no standarised orthography — not until 1972,” he explains. Farah himself helped to set up the first transliteration of the Somali language into the western, Latin alphabet. “By that time I had published several short stories, a couple of plays and a novel, in English. Then I wrote a novel which was serialised in the daily newspapers in Somali. However, that was discontinued, because it was thought to be controversial. After which I resumed writing in English.”

Well educated, with a degree in philosophy from Panjab University in India, did he always find that writing came easily, instinctively? A dry glance. “Writing sui generis is writing; seldom easy.”

When beginning a new book, Farah writes in longhand, letting the ideas evolve as he writes. “The brain is often led by the pen, I find. Recently I had a burglary in which my computers and back-ups were all stolen. The only thing that saved me was the fact that I had everything for the latest book, Crossbones, still in longhand. I always advise would-be writers to start with longhand manuscripts.” Too much can be lost too easily in the complex world of computers, he feels.

Once the first draft is done, he puts it away for some time, and then comes back and rewrites, working intensively as much as 18 hours a day, and sometimes rewriting the entire book four or five times. Once it’s published, though, he doesn’t re-read it. “And I don’t read the reviews.”

At the heart of all his work is Somalia, its people, its culture, its actuality. We have only to think of Ireland in comparison: how its events have been written about, discussed, analysed, for centuries, and then compare that with world awareness of Farah’s homeland, to see what he is working for.

“I suppose it is far away from people’s minds and also the world does not wish to be responsible for what the world does. Every now and again you have situations in which everyone is talking about, for example, Syria. The media creates these situations. The media can write about far away Somalia and things that do not happen, and everyone believes it, whereas if someone were to write something incorrect about a suburb of New York or London, then it would be challenged. This is how Naipaul got away with what he wrote, because nobody challenged him.”

So does he see himself as a writer or a changer of things that are wrong? “It is only when one writes that one hopes to change the view of things.”

From A Crooked Rib, he reveals, posed great challenges, “because my editor predicted that I would never write anything so good again”. How did he manage to put himself so completely into the mind of the woman in that book?

“My mother had a lot to do with it. She was a poet and the kind of person who inspired one to aim to do great things. She was very gentle and persuasive.”

So at least more independent than other Somali wives? “No, not at all. Despite her mind, her abilities, she was equally tied as other women were, worked herself to the bone, and had a very aggressive husband.”

It’s the family that creates the inferiority complex in women, says Farah. “Daily, they are being reminded, ‘Don’t speak that way, don’t behave like that’, while boys are encouraged to be themselves. Most established religions are male dominated. We have to liberate ourselves from servitude to belief systems.”

When things are tough, he points out, women show they are actually stronger than men. “This was proved in our civil war and I suspect in the Irish civil war too. They remained the backbone of the family. Men spent a great deal of time politicking, talking, while women made sure there was food on the table.”

Farah is still a wanderer. “I have been searching, but haven’t yet located where I belong. Somewhere in Africa, though. I am inspired by the continent and obsessed by it.”

Currently he lives in Cape Town. “Life here is enjoyably quiet. It is a very beautiful city, pleasant on the eye, comforting to the spirit of a restless soul such as mine.”

Does he think things will change with Mandela’s death? “I hope not, but I fear so. It has been in my mind for some time.”

Given the controversial topics which he tackles head-on, not to mention the death threats and exiling, does he never feel afraid? “Fear is not a thought that easily comes to mind when writing — I suppose one’s assumption that one is writing the truth emboldens one. Maybe when much younger, I worried if I would live long enough to do as much of the writing as I had hoped. That worry is now gone, given that I’ve made stands against all forms of injustices.”

* Nuruddin Farah, West Cork Literary Festival, Wed Jul 10, Maritime Hotel, Bantry, 8.30pm. www.westcorkmusic.ie/literaryfestival

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