Biography  |  Bibliography  |  Articles  |  Lectures  |  Photos  |  Videos  |  Quotes  |  Links  

Nuruddin Farah - Biography

Nuruddin Farah is a prominent Somalian writer. He is the author of over 10 books. Farah did his studies mostly in both India and England. He was born in 1945 in Baidoa in southern Somalia, what is currently known as the Republic of Somalia. However, he grew up in Ogaden, a province of Ethiopia near Somalia. He was the first writer to break with the Somali oral tradition, and his work, which he does in English, is translated into a dozen languages. Today still, Farah is considered one of the most important writers in Africa. He taught an intensive summer seminar at the European Graduate School (EGS).

During his youth, he would learn quite a few languages: naturally Somali (more precisely Cushitic, which is the official language of Somalia), but also Amharic, Arabic, as well as English and Italian. Between 1969 and 1972, Farah helped set up the first transliteration of the Somali language into the western, Latin alphabet. Indeed, up until then the Somali idiom had existed only as a spoken language.

Farah published his first novel, From a Crooked Rib, in 1970, one year after his native country was taken over by General Mohamed Siad Barre. This one would later become his nemesis whose dictatorial and autocratic policies served as a backdrop to his first trilogy novel, published between 1979 and 1983, and with the overall project title of "Variations on the Theme of An African Dictatorship." These are Sweet and Sour Milk (1979), Sardines (1981) and Close Sesame (1983). They depict a clandestine group fighting against the military dictatorship of Siad Barre.

Nuruddin Farah has a most interesting way of going about his writing. In a 2004 interview, he explained:

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. [...] 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.

From a Crooked Rib would earn Farah the 1998 prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature, which is an American literary award that started in 1969, and is intended to honor novelists, poets and playwrights. This prize for literature is issued by the journal World Literature Today at the American University of Oklahoma and it has also been held in high esteem by his fellow writers such as Salman Rushdie, Chinua Achebe and Nadine Gordimer. In fact, these three have highly praised Farah in the past. Gordimer has written that "Nuruddin Farah is one of the real interpreters of experience on our troubled continent. His insight goes deep, beyond events, into the sorrows and joys, the frustrations and achievements of our lives. His prose finds the poetry that is there." Achebe wrote "Nuruddin Farah takes us deep into territory he has charted and mapped and made uniquely his own [...] He excels in giving voice to tragedy in remote places of the world that speak directly and familiarly to our own hearts." While Rushdie called Farah "one of the finest contemporary African novelists."

The Neustadt International Prize for Literature is a biennial award and it is a serious competitor to the Nobel Prize. 1998 was the first time that it rewarded a black African writer. That year Nuruddin Farah was competing for the prize against the American Philip Roth, the English novelist Doris Lessing and the American poets John Ashbery and Adrienne Rich to name just a few.

In the book From a Crooked Rib Farah shares with us a Somalian proverb: "God created woman from a crooked rib and anyone who trieth to straighten it, breaketh it." From a Crooked Rid is an account of Ebla’s experience, a girl who fled from her rural family, moved to the capital, Mogadishu, and married an educated man, with unfortunate results. The story is told from the standpoint of women. It is a celebration of the human spirit and an opposition to sexism.

After several years spent studying in India, England and Italy, he published in 1975, a second novel, A Naked Needle, which earned him the wrath of the Somalian dictatorial regime and he was finally forced into exile after receiving death threats. At that point Farah decided to begin a lifelong literary pursuit, which in his own words he described as follows: "To keep my country alive by writing about it." Between 1975 and 1992, he wandered quite a bit, settling in turn into several African countries (Kenya, Ethiopia, Gambia, Nigeria) and refusing, as some of his colleagues, to move to the United States, where many universities were inviting him. After the fall of dictator Barre in 1991 and the collapse of the Somali State that ensued, Farah returned twice to Somalia, but still at great personal risk every time.

He has published two fiction trilogies which are, to date, the bulk of his literary work. The second one whose overall title is Blood in the Sun, includes the novels Maps (1986), Gifts (1992) and Secrets (1998). Gifts brings us to Mogadishu, the capital, before the outbreak of the Somali Civil in 1991. Farah tells us that in spite of the shortages and power cuts and such dire living conditions, the Somalis were making it work admirably well and in peace. They had invented a thousand ways to find the most basic foods, from milk powder for infants to gasoline for shared taxis. Most importantly, Farah describes their hopes, their dreams and their thirst for dignity as remaining intact in sprite of everything. In this novel as in other works, Farah intentionally avoids the pitfalls of self-pity, of a tendency of certain realism to dwell on the dark side, and he does so even if it is often considered to be a politically correct narrative when writing about such a subject matter as victims of history. On the contrary, in Farah’s books people grow both inside and outwardly. All throughout his prose we find warmth, compassion and irony in the way he treats all of his characters, from the most odious to the most virtuous.

Farah is also the author of a fundamental essay on the diaspora of the 1990s entitled Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora (2000) and several plays, all performed but most not yet published. Indeed, he confided in 2003 that he would not allow them to be published until they were performed in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. As of 2011 Farah’s only published play is The Offering (1975).

Farah’s work is largely considered to be one of the most important not only of the English-speaking African world, but even also of English literature at large. His approach to complex subjects through a language that feels alive, poetically rigorous, and yet clearly refusing romantic conventions, earned him the esteem of critics and readers in increasing numbers all around the world.

One of his latest novels published, Links (2003, South African edition; 2004, American edition), marks a kind of turning point since it is a story that borrows its forms and codes to a more western style of writing. Most surprising, perhaps at first, is the small part in Links of female voices, which had always been essential in his work up until then. So much so that the publishers of his first novel (From a Crooked Rib) thought that its author really was, as the narrator, a peasant girl. Incidentally, "Farah" in Arabic is a female given name that means "joy". Close enough investigation into his work, however, shows that Nuruddin Farah has often been very inventive in its approach to topics often tackled by Gender Studies theorists, going as far as criticizing, in Maps, the "phallogocentric" excesses of nationalism by inventing the metaphor of male menstruation. Phallogocentrism is a neologism coined by the father of Deconstruction, Jacques Derrida, who also taught at EGS. This analytical concept is used in critical theory and feminist thinking. The term combines the two ideas of a primacy accorded to the logos and a centering on the symbolism of the phallus or the masculine in the construction of meaning.

Nuruddin Farah is also the author of numerous articles. As an essayist he is a clever polemicist, adopting a style that is sometimes disconcerting and metaphorical, which however does not prevent him from often taking radical positions that effectively communicate the subtlety of his point to his foes. For over thirty years, this exiled cosmopolitan has taken refuge in literature and has enjoyed an international reputation, particularly in the English-speaking world. Indeed, Farah says of himself that he feels comfortable with the English language, and it is perhaps as paradoxical as it is remarkable for a writer who hardly has any readers of his work in his country of origin. To date, his latest novel is Knots (2007), which goes into the state of Somalia after the war.

Farah’s numerous essays include: "Do You Speak German?!" (1982). "Do Fences Have Sides?" (1983). "The Creative Writer and the Politician" (1984). "A Tale of Tyranny" (1987). "In Praise of Exile" (1988). "Why I Write" (1988). "Haunted Beauty of the New Uganda" (1989). "Fear Is a Goat" (1990). "The World as a Writer's Home" (1990). "Childhood of My Schizophrenia" (1990). "A Country in Exile" (1992). "Savaging the Soul of a Nation" (1992). "Homing in on the Pigeon" (1993). "False Accounting" (1994). "Travellers' Tales" (1994). "The Women of Kismayo: Power and Protest in Somalia" (1996). "People of a Half-Way House" (1996). "My Father, the Englishman, and I" (1997). "Country Cousins" (1998).



Nuruddin Farah was an assistant lecturer with Martin Hielscher at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland.