Nuruddin Farah in Conversation: Good Fiction is never Far From the Truth

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Farah and Ajibade

Farah and Ajibade at the event

Nuruddin Farah is a visiting Professor of Literature at the Bard College, upstate New York. Highly gifted and hardworking novelist and playwright, he has won major international prizes including Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Born 73 years ago in Baidoa, Somalia, his father was a merchant and a translator for colonial masters while his mother was an oral poet. He had his primary and secondary education in Somalia and Ethiopia. He then went to Panjab University in India where he studied Philosophy and Literature and later to the University of Sussex in the UK where he studied playwriting. He wrote his first novel, From the Crooked Rib, which was published in 1970, in Panjab University. Since then, he has published many other novels, short stories, several stage plays, screenplays and essays. His new novel, North of Dawn, was published 4 December 2018. Many of his novels have been translated into more than twenty languages.

Medina, one of Nuruddin Farah’s strong female characters, an editor and a translator, says in Sardines: “Good writing is like a bomb. It explodes in the face of the reader”. Nuruddin Farah has been exploding in our faces all these many years of peace and war on the continent of Africa and in the world, with his novels. He places truth at the centre of fiction, and fiction at the centre of truth. There is a great deal of anguish in his fiction, and also a great deal of tenderness. Farah knows how to write about women: the voices of women in his novels are eloquent. He also knows how to capture effectively the tension between the strong and the vulnerable. To Nuruddin Farah when a country loses its way in a dense smoke, only writers with wonderfully crafted arguments, deep insights, provocative, devastating, transformative stories can redeem that country. In From a Crooked Rib, A Naked Needle, Sweet and Sour Milk, Sardines, Close Sesame, Maps, Gifts, Secrets, Links, Knots, Crossbones, Hiding in Plain Sight,and North of Dawn he commands his subjects and language with impressive brilliance.

Readers, who are trying to make sense of a stateless anarchy called Somalia, will find the fiction of Nuruddin Farah very helpful. It is very reassuring that he waves the flag of redemption and new possibilities in many of his novels as the dragon of menace charges at the reader.Clearly, Farah shows us in his novels, most often set in Mogadishu, that, although Somalia is still chaotic but the tragic turns can be overcome if people get themselves organised around great ideas that will save that country. Right now, as a character says in Links: ‘’There are too many people fighting over matters of no great consequences’’. Searching for a higher purpose, Cambara, a clear-headed female character in Knots, leaves Canada to join forces with other women who are struggling to make Somalia whole again. Their power and dignity show in their steady perseverance and stubborn hope as they move and point in several progressive directions.You will also notice in Crossbones that the narrator argues against all manner of wrong stories and views about Somalia, about Africa, published in the Western media. With the choice of Malik, the patriotic, courageous and resilient Somali journalist in the diaspora, as the lead character in the novel, Farah is simply saying that Africans should step forward, more than ever before, to tell their stories authentically, lustily, truthfully and gracefully.In the evening of Saturday 27 October 2018, as the guest of the Ake Art and Books Festival in Lagos, he had a conversation with KUNLE AJIBADE, Executive Editor/Director of TheNEWS and PM NEWS:

Your narrator in Links says that “friends are forever linked through the chains of the stories they share”. I presume that we’re all friends now, so let’s share your stories. What kind of childhood did you have?

I had a very interesting childhood, protected by my mother not because I was the only child that she gave birth to—she gave birth to eleven children. But I was the only one in the family that looked like her family, so I had a very special place in her heart. And because I had a very special place in her heart, I was often protected from my father’s wrath – my father had temper. I think because I was introduced to the written tradition early on in my life, at the age of four I was sent to a proper school because my mother was pregnant with another child. She couldn’t cope with me, a very demanding child. I had at the same time, in the same space, two traditions that supplemented one another. One was the oral tradition, and the other one was the written tradition and by the time I reached the age eight or nine, I was expected to read, write in and speak three foreign languages: Arabic, because I was born a Muslim; Amharic, which is the official language in Ethiopia where I was going to school; and English. With these languages, I began to show interest in writing, and I also began to know that the world was unfair to women and children.

It is an often told story that when I was nine years of age, because my father wouldn’t give me enough pocket money, I set up some kind of letter writing office. I had no office, but I would sit in front of the post office and adults, my father’s age or older – men and women – would come and tell me their stories and then they would tell me what language they wanted the letter to be written in. I remember one particular day an old man came and he wanted a letter written to his wife who, despite promising him many times that she would get back, did not do so. So the man said I should tell her in the letter ‘’to come back and to come back quickly, in less than a month; because if she does not come back, I will go to the town where she is, 350km away. I will beat her up, break every bone and drag her all the way to the home that she has deserted”. Now, instead of writing what he told me, I wrote: “If you do not come back within a month, you may consider yourself divorced”. He used to beat her every time — he was very cruel to her. She took the letter as evidence and with the assistance of her older brother sought help from the Qadi, the judge in the town, and she was divorced.

Six months later, the man, having lost patience, went to the village and he discovered that she had gotten married to somebody else. And when he inquired, he was told that the letter said that she was entitled to divorce. He came back, reported me to my father. I was punished and was asked never ever to write another letter. The unfairness was clear to me from early age. It was clear to me that my father who was always very sweet to other people was not as sweet to my mother or to his daughters and I always felt that there was something lacking, something absent from the relationships between husband and wife, or the relationships between father and daughter. And that is when the idea came to me that one way or the other one must deal with these social injustices for society to become developed, healthy and forward-moving.

That was in primary school, right?

I was nine or ten, yes.

In your secondary school before you left for Panjab University in India, did you engage in any creative writing? Have these early writings survived?What do you think of them now?

I don’t know if they survived. What I can tell you is that my first two short stories, in fact, instead of making me happy with what I felt I had achieved, created anxiety in me. And the reason?My second short story was translated into Greek, my first short story was translated into Italian and Arabic and I became self-conscious and began to doubt my ability to write the kind of books that would be translated into English and other languages. And then on top of that,

Farah at the event

I wrote two novels before From a Crooked Rib, neither of which was ever published. I know that one of them is in the basement of a publishing house in America because the editor wanted to publish it, but I was anxious and too arrogant to revise anything and, therefore, I don’t know what happened to it.

What would you consider as the best learning process for you at that time? This was when you were about to enter the university?

No, I was in my second year at university. I was about twenty one and I was always not interested in taking exams or studying, I was more interested in writing and so I wrote to avoid reading for exams.

How did you pass your exams then?

Well, they failed me at first and since I was very good in class, I was given the second opportunity to sit for the same exams as the other students and then I was allowed to pass.  In the years that I was at university, I must have written about three novels and that’s what my life was like. Up till today, it’s my habit. I live in Cape Town, South Africa, and, quite often, I work from about nine in the morning until five in the evening, thinking about writing or doing the writing because I’ve dedicated my life to writing.

What sort of books did you read at that time and did they influence you or your writing?

I’m quite sure they must have. They are not obvious in the books when you read them, but they did influence me, and one book – or one play rather – that I think influenced me greatly is A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, in which a woman who is miserable in her marriage walks off the stage, saying to her husband to go to hell. I found that very interesting, and I thought that many a woman married to many a cruel husband should be able to walk away and should be able to say:go to hell. Writing is like tilling the ground and preparing the earth to bear fruits. And unless you copy from something, inspiration usually comes through hard work, through sitting down and writing daily and revising it. Every novel that I write, I must revise it at least five times.

You are very critical of Al Shabaab and all forms of religious bigotry in Knots, Crossbones and North of Dawn – your latest novel. Was there any religious fundamentalism in Somalia when you were growing up? Who is to blame for religious excesses in Somalia now and how can the world get respite from the Al Shabaabs, the Boko Harams of this world and the Taliban terrorists who killed Basra Farah, your younger sister, in 2014?

Somalia was known for being a secular nation; we were all secularists, never fanatical in our homes, in the way we prayed. Society was modest in its expression of the faith until after the collapse of the state structures of Somalia in 1991. Two years after that, I actually arrived in Nigeria, married to a Nigerian woman who has since left me for better pastures.

That’s Amina Mama

Amina, yes

You were talking about religious bigotry in Somalia

And so when Somalia collapsed in 1991, I was actually in Uganda teaching at Makerere University. I tried to bring peace between the warring parties. I negotiated with the opposition groups and tried to get them to come and meetin Kampala where I was living at the time. And then after several attempts at talking to President Yoweri Museveni, who’s still in power in Uganda, I was rather impatient with the slow pace of the peace efforts that Museveni and I were involved in. And then the BBC at one point asked me what was happening to safari in Somalia:‘’Why isn’t somebody doing anything about it while it’s collapsing?’’ and then I said, stupidly,— because I was still a young man I suppose— “because Museveni was more interested in appearing on the world stage, moving from Kampala to New York, to Baghdad and back to Kampala, thinking that he would be able to stop the American juggernaut of war from attacking Saddam Hussein”. At which point, Museveni threatened me with detention and I had to leave in the middle of the night and leave my car, my apartment and books with friends of mine to sell when I was gone. And then I came to Nigeria where we had the displeasure of living under the dictatorship of General Ibrahim Babangida. But by then I had written three or four books on dictatorships. I have always been interested in social justice, democracy, and fighting against all forms of tyranny.

How did the killing of Basrah Farah, your sister, by the terrorists affect you?

It did affect me quite a lot. My sister was a nutritionist working in Afghanistan for UNICEF. She rang me a couple of days before she was killed. She was coming to America because she had become an American citizen and she and I were supposed to meet. One day she went to a restaurant to have lunch. And then eleven Taliban terrorists went into the restaurant where she was having a meal with some of her friends who had come to say goodbye to her, and she died in the attack. Now, at that very time during that week or month, I had submitted a new novel in which someone who worked for the United Nations was killed by a terrorist attack in Mogadishu. Since what happened to my sister was exactly the same sort of thing that had happened to the character that was killed in the book, I withdrew the book from publication, or at least I tried to withdraw the book from publication because I felt guilty that I had willed my sister’s death, that I had written about someone exactly like my sister. And that book eventually became the novel, Hiding in Plain Sight. Sometimes, a writer’s fiction could turn into truth, and that is why we say good fiction is never far from the truth, it tells a version of truth.

Who is to blame for religious madness from which many parts of the world are suffering?

Some groups of Arabs would not like it, but it would be very hard for you to find a rich Petro-Arab Dollar country being attacked by terrorists. This is my version: you know I can’t share my thoughts with you about it in an evidence-based way. But my feeling is that the Arabs pay some of these terrorists monthly stipends to keep them away from their countries and keep them in Muslim areas—Afghanistan, Somalia, Nigeria, etc., etc.— where they fight and kill their own people, or other people of other faith. They kill more Muslims than they kill Christians and they specialise in terrorising poor people while the Arabs who pay them monthly stipends have a comfortable existence wherever they are.

A cross section of participants at the event

The terrorists are not going to take over the world, what they are going to do is to destroy the faith so that they could take over the areas of the world in which they could propagate their distorted faith. Who is to blame? Society is to blame because people who are educated, who are employed, who are serving their countries well would not listen to these terrorists. It’s usually the unemployed, the underemployed; the frustrated masses, who usually fall victim to their machinations. And that, I think, is very important. They cannot convince someone like me to join them knowing, of course, that they are not telling the truth about Islam.

What truth about Islam are they not telling?

They are insisting that the only way of practising Islam is to go back to the 13th Century Islam, that’s number one. Number two, they insist that if they kill any number of people and then they die, they go straight to heaven. They’re not going to heaven, they’re going to hell. I can tell them, because if you kill one innocent person, you cannot present yourself to God, to Allah, and say that you are a good Muslim. And anyone who has killed one person can’t expect anything but hell, all forms of hell.

Your first novel, From a Crooked Rib, which is a critique of patriarchy and misogyny brought you instant love and fame and prestige among your compatriots – as a matter of fact, according to you, there were so many women friends you made as a result of that novel. But why did your second novel, A Naked Needle, bring you hatred from the Siad Barre government?

Let me tell you how it happened. When I published From a Crooked Rib – I wrote it in 1968 and it was published in 1970. Patriarchy was not a buzzword – you didn’t use words like that but I was interested in the nature of subjugation, of the male gender dominating the life and soul of women. So, having written From a Crooked Rib which is sympathetic to the woes and tribulations of women, I then wrote another novel called A Naked Needle, which is about a misogynist – a self-hating, women-hating character.And my problem with A Naked Needle was that it became the bible of misogynists, which is the total opposite of my initial intentions. So I pleaded with my publishers once I discovered that the book had become a bible for the misogynists to take it out of print. And the editor wrote to me a letter in which he said they had never received a letter from an author saying “I want this book taken out of print,” because usually people say, “I want my book to be reprinted and reprinted and reprinted,” and then we agreed that it would be allowed to sell, and there would be no reprint, which pleased me entirely because I could not face the thought of having written a book for misogynists. Now if you want to buy A Naked Needle, you will have to pay $750 for one copy – only very rich misogynists can afford that.There were very few people who saw what I was trying to do and, therefore, I think I failed in my attempt to write a book, a book which was successful on the surface but structurally weak. And it was structurally weak because the entire novel is based on one chapter from Ulysses by James Joyce. I thought I was a clever young man, you see. I was twenty seven or twenty eight when I wrote it,but I’ve regretted writing that book.

Was there any attempt to censor the book by the state?

I also ran into trouble with the state and I was given thirty years in prison if I return to Somalia. And because at the time I was twenty nine, I thought if I went into prison I would never be able to write another novel, misogynist or not. So I decided that voluntary exile was better.

Now, for twenty two years you couldn’t return to Somalia.

First, it was thirty years for a novel called A Naked Needle, and then I was sentenced to death for a novel called Sweet and Sour Milk. I thought there was nothing left.

So you went into exile?

So I went into exile and I continued writing. I usually say to young African writers, that if you live in the same household as your mother or your older brother, you may not be able to do much writing. But if you go away from their domination and go somewhere else where nobody knows you and work very, very hard daily, you may be able to do excellent writing because distance (in other words, exile) allows you the possibility of seeing things from a distance and therefore evaluating things for what they are. Whereas if I were in Somalia and I was writing the kind of books I was writing, my mother, my older brother, my father, somebody would always say to me: “We love you, but you are stupid risking your life”. The only thing that happened immediately to the members of my family was that eight of my brothers and sisters lost their jobs. They couldn’t work for the state so they had to find other means.

Would you say that writing about imaginary homelands is more creatively pleasing and rewarding?

It is. There is a Somali folktale which is one of my favourite folktales. There is a man, a traveller. This particular traveller travels, and travels, and travels and then comes to a road with two forks. And he knows that if he follows one fork of the road he will go east. If he follows the other one, he will go west. And he knows that he doesn’t have the time to do both journeys and yet he wants to be able to do it. So what he does is: he imagines folding up one of the forks of the road and wearing that as a belt, and walks on the fork of the road in front of him and walks, and walks, and walks until he comes to the end of it. And then he unfolds the one that is around his belt.

In Sweet and Sour Milk after General Siad Barrehas just murdered all the Muslim clerics who were critical of him, Soyaan,your progressive character who works in the presidency, accuses the president of violating the constitution. The president is so surprised that Soyaan doesn’t know that he has become the constitution itself. Not long after that Soyaan dies, having been poisoned by the KGB operatives. In view of your criticism of Siad Barre and other dictators in Africa, how did you survive your tormentors? Would you say that the dictatorship you criticise so much retarded the growth of Africa in a lot of ways?

Some participants raise hands to ask Farah questions

Let me say this in a very simple way. I don’t see dictatorship, or a dictator, as someone who comes out of the blue and for whom we are unprepared. I usually see very many mini-dictators in very many households in Nigeria, in Somalia, in Africa and in most other places and it’s because we tolerate the father who’s the tyrant or the mother who is a matriarch and a tyrant. We enable these tyrants in every household to invest their authority in the Dictator Supreme. In other words, Siad Barre would not have existed if it hadn’t been for the fact that my father was also there terrorising the family. If there weren’t many other Nigerian husbands who were treating their wives badly, their children badly, and so on and so forth in many households, there would be no Babangida, there would be no General Sani Abacha, because this is a hierarchy and the hierarchy leads to the president. We only see the president because we all suffer from the president.

And in our offices too?

Exactly. You see when Siad Barre was very unhappy with me, one of the things he did was calling my father.

And lastly, an 18-year-old aspiring writer,Aatish Taseer, once visited the late V.S. Naipaul with his journalist mother. The excited Taseer told Naipaul that he just got an admission offer from Amherst College in the US. “Don’t go,” Naipaul told the young man. “What should he do?” Taseer’s journalist mother asked. Naipaul paused and then said, “Go out boldly into the world, and find out what the world is like”. What would you have said to that young aspiring writer?

I would have said the very opposite of what Naipaul had said.