Nuruddin Farah by Kwame Anthony Appiah

BOMB 87 Spring 2004
087 Spring 2004 1024X1024

This interview is featured, along with thirty-four others, in our anthology BOMB: The Author Interviews.

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Nuruddin Farah. Photo by Giovanni Giovannetti. Courtesy of Effigie agenzia fotogiornalistica.

I can’t remember where I first met Nuruddin Farah, but it was at some sort of conference. He told stories as we walked from one building to another—they were mostly about the South African writer Bessie Head—and by the time he had really gotten going, I had to beg him to stop because I was laughing so much it hurt. I knew his work already, of course, and admired it. 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.

He’s a writer who has written largely about one place—Somalia—yet manages to sustain a cosmopolitan vision. He’s a feminist novelist in a part of the world where that’s almost unknown among male writers. And even when he’s following a big story—about what dictatorship does to a society—he tells it through the lives of fully imagined women and men, and their families, their friendships, their vices and virtues; he tells it through what makes them individual, unique, special, and through what makes them like the rest of us, human. In 1974 he left Somalia to begin a period of peregrination of a sort that would have made sense to his nomadic Somali ancestors, though he has ranged over a wider territory, living in Europe, North America, and Africa. Two years later, he published A Naked Needle, catching the unfriendly eye of Siad Barre, Somalia’s dictator, and bringing about a 22-year exile that only ended five years after Siad Barre’s departure had plunged Somalia into a crisis from which it has still not emerged.

Farah and I often meet at conferences and keep in touch by email, and when we’re going to be in the same region of the world, we try to meet—he’s much in demand in the Somali diaspora and generously shares himself with his compatriots. His latest home is in South Africa, where he lives with his Anglo-Nigerian wife, Amina, who is a professor at the University of Cape Town, and their two kids. His most recent novel, Links (which promises to be the first novel of his third trilogy), was first published there last year and is forthcoming in April in the US from Riverhead Books.

When he visited New York last year, he came to our apartment in Manhattan and we talked (as you might expect two people raised in Anglo-colonial Africa to do) over a few cups of tea.

Kwame Anthony Appiah It’s Nuruddin Farah and Anthony Appiah talking on…the 22nd?

Nuruddin Farah Eighth. (laughter)

KAA Well, let’s start by talking about what you’re doing now.

NF I’m at a residency program in upstate New York, Art Omi, enjoying the quiet and rewriting a novel. I work in a very concentrated manner on a rewrite, working 18 hours a day, sleeping very little. This way I see where the weaknesses of the story are. I rewrite the novel as many as four or five times. I always start from the beginning and go through it without stopping, then put that draft away and three or four or six months later go back and rewrite it again more or less from memory.

KAA And you keep all these drafts?

NF I keep the drafts, some very bad, some not so bad, until I’m done with them all.

KAA There will be lots of literary archaeologists who would love to get their hands on the whole process.

NF I don’t think the drafts would be of much use to anyone. If you saw some of the earlier drafts, you would think I didn’t know how to write—and maybe I don’t. I write fast and then rewrite just as fast. For the first time, though, I’ve done a novel of about 570 pages and am cutting it down to 300-plus pages. Normally I work the other way around: I write a book of 100 pages and then make it much longer. What I hate most is to publish a novel very similar to my earlier ones. To make sure that that doesn’t happen, I convince myself that I’m new to writing, that I am doing it for the first time, in the hopes of producing something completely, absolutely different. To me anyway. I do that each time I write an article or a novel or a play.

KAA So the writing process doesn’t change depending on what the novel is about?

NF It is the method that is important. I approach writing as though it were a game that I play alone, in a room by myself. It’s not the most pleasant profession—how can it be? You lock yourself away in a room and face an empty page, daily. Writing, as a profession, is tedious, not very enjoyable. Nor is it highly appreciated, nor understood.

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Nuruddin Farah. Photo by Brigitte Friedrich. Courtesy of the photographer.

KAA So how did you come to be in this unpleasant business of writing?

NF (laughter) My interest in writing started long before I knew how one went about it. You could say it started as soon as I learned the first few letters of the Arabic alphabet, which I found most fascinating, as Arabic calligraphy decorated the walls of our houses. I was so enthralled that I kept copying them. And because many of our townspeople were illiterate, a large number of them believed that I was engaged in an activity that was rewarding. Even my parents linked my busyness to the sacredness of Arabic as a language, the tongue of the Koran—unaware that I was only taken with the script’s decorative quality, not its holiness. Somalis tend to be very religious but have no deep knowledge about the Koran or about Islam. Reading and copying became my means of escape.

Then I came into contact with secular writing in Arabic and was equally fascinated, in fact more so when I discovered that my name, Nuruddin, happened to be that of a prince’s in A Thousand and One Nights. Mischievous, I would cut Nuruddin out of every Thousand and One Nights copy that I got hold of (laughter) and tape them in my exercise books. Then I would boast to my playmates, “Look, I am a writer.” Later I showed similar interest in the English-language textbooks at the school I went to, which was set up by an American evangelical mission dedicated to converting us to Christianity. I would say that my first attempt at writing occurred when I was 15 and tried to recast a folktale in which rats plot against the cat that has been attacking them one at a time. In my desire to make the story mine, I replaced the names of the rat and cat characters of the folktale with the names of my classmates.

KAA (laughter)

NF I gave the good lines to the ones I liked and the bad lines to the ones I didn’t like.

KAA So you were retelling a folktale?

NF Reshaping it and imposing my own likes and dislikes upon it. By then, at any rate, my brother had given me books to read, Dostoyevsky and Victor Hugo in Arabic. He also gave me books in English that I was unable to read, let alone understand, because I had to underline every word, go to the dictionary and look it up. My brother then suggested that perhaps I should read the dictionary from cover to cover once a year, which I did for several years.

KAA So you had two languages as a child, Somali and Arabic, and then your brother got you into English. But you were quite serious about the Koran, weren’t you? And you know it very well.

NF My father was very serious about my learning the Koran. I was the fourth son. A tradition followed by families with many male children is to devote one of them to the study of the Koran and religion. I was the one chosen, assigned to the spiritual side of things. I had an excellent memory and could recite the Koran from beginning to end at an early age, so my father assumed that I would be good material. Unfortunately, though, my memory became unreliable the older I grew, especially when I started fooling around with some of the texts. You see, I was born toward the end of 1945, when a lot of the old traditions were being rejected or challenged, as was the case everywhere in the world. The world was changing from what it used to be to something that had never been known. All this was affecting our lives and our way of looking at the world.

KAA You were born when the Ogaden was under British control.

NF Yes, and my father was in the British civil service as an interpreter for the British governor. He was transferred from the town in which I was born, Baidoa, which had been Italian and then taken over by the British when the Italians lost the war, to the Ogaden. Then the British handed over the Ogaden to Ethiopia as compensation to Haile Selassie. By 1948, my father had saved enough from his interpreting job to start farming. He grew sesame, maize, lettuce, lemon, papaya.

KAA So your first memories were of the farm?

NF The farm was ten miles away from where we lived in town. I remember being taken there as a small child—carried on somebody’s back or shoulders. When I got bigger I walked, and helped on the farm.

KAA Since then you have lived in many places: India, Gambia, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, Germany, the United States.

NF Yes, but I have remained loyal to the idea of Somalia. I say that all the things I know about all the other places I’ve lived can be put into an article of about a thousand words, no more than that. Of course, I can set novels in these countries, but when you think about them seriously, such books will be of small literary value.

KAA It’s because of Somalia’s political history that you had to leave Somalia. You didn’t choose to be in all these other places, you were an exile. Isn’t that true?

NF Yes, I didn’t choose to leave Somalia.

KAA You had left, but then you couldn’t go back. What happened?

NF In the early ‘70s I started writing my second novel in Somalia. I had published my first novel, From a Crooked Rib, in 1970, and it became very popular, very well liked, a cult book, especially among women—incidentally, it’s just been reissued by Penguin Classics in the UK. I wrote Crooked as a student in India. I began work on my second novel—

KAA You wrote your first novel in English?

NF Yes.

KAA I’m sure that people have asked you this often, but it is an interesting question for someone who could have written in Arabic or Somali or English: How did you make that decision, or did you just find yourself writing?

NF 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. I was reduced to a non-person. I was teaching literature at the university in Somalia, but in order to avoid further complications with the regime, I left, in 1974, on a British Council scholarship for England, to do a master’s in theater at the University of Essex. Two years later I published A Naked Needle, a month prior to my expected return to Somalia. Several favorable reviews in the British press described the novel as satirical—in a way hostile to the regime of Siad Barre. So when I rang one of my brothers to pick me up at the Mogadishu airport, he said, “Apparently you haven’t heard—you are enemy #1 now. We suggest you find something else to do, and that you forget about Somalia.” And I became an exile.

KAA You have this place that you say is the only place you want to write about. And not only are you cut off from it in the most direct way, but you don’t know how long your exile is going to last. Siad Barre’s legacy might be there for the rest of your life. So you have to travel the world. You can go everywhere except Somalia—and yet you go on writing only about Somalia.

NF Siad Barre is now dead and buried, but what he left behind continues to haunt us—because dictatorships always leave behind deranged minds, lots and lots of unaccounted-for evil. The Somali civil wars result from his dictatorship. I can go back whenever I please—I’ve been there three times this year alone. But there is an additional complication: I have a young family, and they are happy in Cape Town, where we’ve bought a house. My wife has a wonderful job, and the children are contentedly settled. And even though I wish I could relocate and live permanently in Somalia, I’m not likely to insist on this, as it will mean uprooting them. Moreover, as things stand, Somalia is not a workable proposition: no functioning schools, no job for my wife, and so on. Who knows, South Africa may turn out to be an unworkable proposition, and then we’ll rethink. In the meantime, I continue having faith in the world I know as an exile, and I will continue writing about a country in which I cannot live, in a language that’s not my first tongue—

KAA Or your second.

NF —or my second, or my third. (laughter) These contradictions help me reassess my position. And in a way, these discomforts help me visit in my imagination the very neurosis that is part of me, the neurosis that sharpens my focus on my subject matter, the land that I’m cut off from.

KAA In your first novels you wrote about Somalia as a place shaped by tension, but nevertheless a place where people have loves and lives and relations with their families. There were questions about how women would find their place in gender relations as the world changes. You actually didn’t go straight at Siad Barre all the time.

NF That’s what I would challenge my fellow Somalis to do: to talk not about Siad Barre but about the regime. It is not the man, it is the system that creates the man—the two are symbiotic. “Study the structure of the Somali family,” I would challenge, “and you will find mini-dictators imposing their will without regard to the sensitivities and sensibilities of the weaker members of the family unit.” The tyranny of tradition rules in Somalia; Islam is the only faith. I would then paraphrase Wilhelm Reich: Every half-schooled father is the principal representative within the family of the authoritarian structure of society. This is something I come back to often in my analysis of Somali society. We become replicas of the tyrant whom we hate. We hate these warlords, these dictators, and fight against them to the point that we become dictatorial. This is what has destroyed many of the great nationalists in Africa: they became authoritarian, just like the colonialists against whom they fought. A question: What happens when you rid yourself of the monster? You become a monster.

KAA What’s interesting, though, is that the women in your novels, both older and younger, are very strong people.

NF You wouldn’t survive in a place like Somalia—and I love Somalia, but I’m the first to admit what a terrible place it can prove to be—you couldn’t really and truly live there unless you were strong. I doubt there can be an interesting female character in a novel set in Somalia unless she is strong-headed. Let me generalize. A woman who is trampled on, who is unable to speak her mind is not worthy of becoming a character in a novel written by an ambitious writer who thinks he or she knows what he or she is doing. All societies are horrid to women, just awful. I’ve modeled my characters after women like my mother, who was strong. I am happily married to a strong woman. I love it when my wife holds her ground and says, “You are out of line.” One must be able to say that to one’s parents, one’s spouse, the president of one’s country. For me that is democracy.

KAA What you’re talking about is a kind of democratization of the whole of social life. Where does your strong commitment to that come from? Looking at Somalia, and for that matter at almost any country, you can see that the world is full of people who want to be heard themselves but are not necessarily interested in hearing other people. I’m curious whether you think it’s something in the Somali tradition, or in your family, or in your experience as a traveler, as a migrant—

NF That commitment comes from my mother, who was wiser and more articulate than my father. Unlike him—he couldn’t abide anyone who disagreed with him—my mother had the ability to listen. Listening is a faculty lacking in many people, more specifically among men and among dictators. When you listen, you arm yourself against your enemy. You must listen until the other party has finished speaking, then it is much easier to prick holes in their arguments. That’s how my mother used to do it. People don’t listen or have the patience or make the time. It is small-minded to be too arrogant or to think you know enough. I speak slowly, and usually before I finish what I’m going to say, a lot of my interlocutors lose interest in what I am saying, and then—

KAA This comes out in your writing, this sense of what can happen if people treat one another properly. Of course, one way to discover that is by seeing what happens when people don’ttreat one another properly. You are able to go back to Somalia now that Siad Barre has been chased out; it’s not a safe place, but at least you haven’t been sentenced to death by the president of the current administration.

NF (laughter) Not yet.

KAA Have you had a chance to talk about some of these ideas with people in Somalia?

NF One of the things I’ve said to many of the politicians and the warlords is to listen to what the other guys are saying. If you listen, you won’t need to pull out a gun. In short, let us take the gun out of Somali politics, even if someone says things that you don’t like. Just look at them after they’ve finished; don’t say anything. Listen some more, and they will have changed their mind. Last year I spent close to two months talking to as many of the warlords as I could with a view to making them “think peace and talk peace.” And I am planning to return and listen to the various interest groups, some of them armed and some not. When in Somalia, I gave public lectures at the universities and at other venues. I am hoping that peace will become more fashionable in my country, that the warlords who have looted, plundered and taken possession of other people’s properties will return some of these, having enjoyed the fruits of their plunder for some time now.

KAA So they now have an interest in the kind of ordinary, everyday stability of life that they destroyed. Is your next novel also set in Somalia?

NF Yes, I’m still writing about Somalia.

KAA What can one write about Somalia now?

NF The civil war, and how people live through a civil war; how they express themselves, gather their broken selves with a view to mending their damaged memories and cure their illnesses. More and more Somalis, especially from North America, are going back to Mogadishu to help in the reconstruction. And some of them are beginning to listen. You see, the problem with the American intervention was this: the Americans didn’t listen to the Somalis. They barricaded themselves in their fortresses in Mogadishu, raided this or that warlord’s redoubt and then quit the country. My new novel, Links, is about the Somali civil war between 1992 and 1996, including the period when Admiral Howe was fighting it out with General Aideed. In the novel, I try to view the city as the principal character, and the people living in it or visiting it become secondary characters.

KAA It’s the life of a city.

NF It is about a dog running into the dusty street with its tail between its legs; about a mini-tyrant turned beggar who was in the service of Siad Barre; about how the city is divided, and what role corruption plays. People living in the city become witnesses to the terror, or a casualty, or a cause.

KAA Does the fact that you have been able to go back to Somalia in the past few years make a big difference to the writing? Or had you been in touch through your contacts there?

NF There’s a cliché, isn’t there, that one never goes back to what one has left, as things will have changed. My writing has benefited in the six or seven years since I’ve been able to go back, becoming sharper where before it may have been dull around the edges. But I have lost the power to philosophize and mythologize. Previously, I was able to obfuscate matters, and thus sound more poetic. Years ago, if I wasn’t sure of the street names, I concentrated on an area of the city rather than a particular street. Now, because I know the names of the streets, there are other interferences, and so there are fewer abstractions in my writing. I don’t know if this is good.

KAA In a way, not being there all that time freed your imagination.

NF Yes. I made more art out of it. I ask myself if I am losing the art, if you see what I mean. Or perhaps my writing will have become dated in a few years.

KAA So specificity hinders your travel in the direction of abstraction.

NF Yes.

KAA This novel is being written in English. Are you tempted to write in Somali?

NF Well, I borrow from the day before yesterday, because I am working on lots of things at the same time—one of them is a novel in Somali in the shape of a film script. That I am in exile and that there is no fully functioning Somali state are disadvantages. I am like a one-man company, and nobody invests in the ideas of a one-man company—not lucratively. If there were a functioning state in Somalia, film and television companies in Italy or Germany might have expressed their interest in collaborating with me—country to country; you call this bilateral—but there you are.

KAA You mentioned that at the start of your career you published in Mogadishu. What is happening there for new writers?

NF There is little publishing happening in Mogadishu, though you can publish short stories in the newspapers. Incidentally, there are more newspapers now than there have ever been in the history of Somalia. In the days of Siad Barre there was only one government-run daily. Nowadays you have about 13 newspapers. The print quality is atrocious and the text is presented in four-page cyclostyled broadsides centered on the day’s happenings or the week’s—but they are very interesting.

KAA But Somalis are welcome to read fiction and poetry, assuming they want to.

NF Yes.

KAA What about the radio?

NF I do radio things quite a lot, programs for the BBC Somali Service and also for local radio stations. Somalis being oral, they take you seriously when you speak on the radio. Recently, in Mogadishu, I did an hour and a half of live radio and television call-in programs. Many listeners called in to tell me what they thought about my political interventions: promoting peace and dialogue and trying to silence the guns. This would not have been possible in the days of Siad Barre.

KAA You’re very well known, of course, among Somalis in the diaspora. Because of the war and the dictatorship, there are Somali communities in many American and European cities. Do you travel among them to speak?

NF In my travels, I share with the Somalis in the diaspora my views about my visits to Somalia. Hundreds of thousands of Somalis are scattered throughout Europe and North America. And even though they have no intention of returning, they’ve brought the trauma of displacement, with which they are burdened. They’re not educated enough in their new language and they can’t pick up a job quite so easily. It’s as if they left their minds back in Somalia and brought only their bodies with them—it is because they’re still connected to Somalia. I tell them that if they do well where they are they’ll do well for Somalia; that if they don’t do well there, then Somalia will also suffer. I advise them to decide once and for all: either here or there. If they are going to live in America as Americans, then they should let their children go to school and participate in everything—fully. In other words, they can be Americans and yet keep their Somaliness, which is important to their psyche. I remind them that nobody is going to take their Somaliness away from them. But if they continue looking back, then they won’t look forward and they’re not going to go anywhere, they will not succeed here.

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Nuruddin Farah. Photo by Brigitte Friedrich. Courtesy of the photographer.

KAA Are there writers in the Somali diaspora?

NF Diasporic Somalis are writing in Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, French, but some have decided to continue writing in Somali even though they live in Europe or North America. They write more comfortably than those still living in Somalia, because they have the peace to write.

KAA The other reason you can go on writing is that you have a huge, worldwide audience. You’ve made Somalia a real place for people who otherwise would never have thought about Somalia except for what they hear on the news from time to time.

NF In my cynical way, I say that the world needs a Somali, a Ghanaian, a Frenchman, a Mexican, a Chinese and an Indian—to mention a few writers from these nationalities. There is a party to which the world invites one or two people from each place. I am the Somali invited to this party, and you are perhaps the Ghanaian. That’s why you and I are who we are—world writers.

KAA The difference between those countries and a country like, say, Germany is not so much the difference between a rich country and a poor one. In Germany perhaps they are too preoccupied with writing from other places. They’re not paying attention to their own.

NF Maybe the Germans and the French are genuinely interested in other people’s cultures. Maybe this is why almost all my novels have been translated into German and French. That the world is a marketplace is a not a bad thing. We, in Africa, buy manufactured goods from America, Germany, England, and France. And they buy and publish our writings. Even so, the fact that Somalis know more about America, Britain, or Germany than they know about Ghana is disturbing. Because the media and present-day technology is tilted that way. In another context, I’m reminded of a Somali poet who prayed, “Lord, either do not show me the things that I see or please make everyone else see them too.”

KAA I wonder if part of the reason you do have a wider audience with different types of people is that you’re discussing the question of how society is corrupted by dictatorship, and that’s not a specifically Somali question; and you’re discussing relationships between women and men across the generations. These are obviously questions that interest and engage people elsewhere.

NF I’m reminded of a meeting I once had with Friedrich Dürrenmatt—

KAA Really?

NF We were taking a flight together from someplace or other and he asked me if I had read some of his books. I said, “Yes, I have.” And he said, “I won’t ask you what you thought of them. But I haven’t read your books. So tell me, Mr. Farah, why should I read your books?”

KAA (laughter) Well, what’s the answer?

NF I said that if he read my books he would find a worldview that he couldn’t find in a book by a German, a Swiss, a Nigerian, an Arab and so on and so forth. He said, “What if I am not interested in discovering another worldview, because I am content with mine?” I responded that no matter how happy one is with one’s worldview, the truth is that our world—as Swiss, as American, as Somali—is incomplete without the additional worlds that will be brought to bear on that world, to make it richer and more fulfilling.


—Kwame Anthony Appiah, a renowned scholar of African and African American culture, is Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. A former president of the Society for African Philosophy in North America, Appiah has also been chairman of the Joint Committee on African Studies of the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies. The author of several award-winning books, including My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (Oxford Univerity Press, 1992), a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race (Princeton University Press, 1996; co-written with Amy Gutmann), which was named the 1998 Outstanding Book on the Subject of Human Rights in North America. Appiah recently published Thinking It Through: An Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2003) and is currently co-editing a new edition of Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

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BOMB 87, Spring 2004

Featuring interviews with John Waters, Shirley Jaffe, James Welling, Nuruddin Farah, Alma Guillermoprieto, Olu Oguibe, Hanif Kureishi, Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, and Howe Gelb.

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