Farah, Nuruddin

born 1945, Baidoa, Italian Somaliland

Somali writer, Somalia's first novelist and first English-language author.

His first published novel, From a Crooked Rib (1970), describes a woman's determination to maintain her dignity in a sexist society. His other works include a trilogy
Sweet and Sour Milk (1979), Sardines (1981), and Close Sesame (1983)
about life under an African dictatorship. Maps (1986) examines identity and boundaries. The political nature of his fiction forced him into exile, and he taught in Europe, North America, and elsewhere in Africa.

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▪ 1999

      In 1998 the Somali writer Nuruddin Farah won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Although his primary languages were Somali, Amharic, and Arabic, Farah chose to write in English. By his own admission, this decision was a practical one: "Because I could find a typewriter in English"; nevertheless, his choice gave him an international audience. The Neustadt—awarded every two years by the University of Oklahoma and its literary publication, World Literature Today—entailed an award of $40,000 and a cast silver replica of an eagle feather. Farah was the second African writer to receive the prize; Algeria's Assia Djebar was the first in 1996.

      The son of a merchant and the well-known Somali poet Aleeli Faduma, Farah was born in 1945 in the city of Baidoa in what was then Italian Somaliland. He was educated in Ethiopia and at the colonial-era Institutio Magistrale in Mogadishu, where he learned English as well as Italian and published an apprentice novella, Why Die So Soon? (1965). After working for the Somali Ministry of Education, he studied literature and philosophy at Panjab University, Chandigarh, India. While there, he wrote his first full-fledged novel, the feminist From a Crooked Rib (1970). The novel portrayed the determination of one woman to maintain her dignity in a society that believed "God created Woman from a crooked rib; and anyone who trieth to straighten it, breaketh it"; it would not be the last of Farah's feminist works.

      In his next novel, A Naked Needle (1976), Farah used a slight tale of interracial and cross-cultural love to reveal a lurid picture of postrevolutionary Somali life in the mid-1970s. He next wrote a trilogy—Sweet and Sour Milk (1979), Sardines (1981), and Close Sesame (1983)—about life under a particularly African dictatorship in which ideological slogans barely disguise an almost surreal society and human ties have been severed by dread and terror. His unblinking portrayal of life under the dictator Muhammad Siad Barre eventually forced him into exile. During this period he taught for a time in Europe, North America, and elsewhere in Africa, writing in 1998, "My novels are about states of exile; about women shivering in the cruel cold in a world ruled by men; about the commoner denied justice; about a torturer tortured by guilt, his own conscience; about a traitor betrayed." Secrets, the third novel of his second trilogy—which includes the novels Maps (1986) and Gifts (1992)—was published in 1998. Farah's rich imagination and his refreshing and often fortuitous use of his adopted language made him the most significant Somali writer in any European language.

KATHLEEN KUIPER

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▪ Somalian writer
born 1945, Baidoa, Italian Somaliland [now in Somalia]

      Somali writer whose rich imagination and refreshing and often fortuitous use of his adopted language made him the most significant Somali writer in any European language.

      The son of a merchant and the well-known Somali poet Aleeli Faduma, Farah was educated in Ethiopia and at the colonial-era Institutio Magistrale in Mogadishu. Although his primary languages were Somali, Amharic, and Arabic, he also learned English and some Italian. His decision to write in English, chiefly a matter of the typewriter available to him, eventually gave him an international audience. After working for the Ministry of Education, he studied literature and philosophy at Panjab University in Chandigarh, India. There he wrote his first full-fledged novel, From a Crooked Rib (1970). It portrayed the determination of one woman to maintain her dignity in a society that believes “God created Woman from a crooked rib; and anyone who trieth to straighten it, breaketh it”; it was the first of Farah's feminist works.

      In his next novel, A Naked Needle (1976), Farah used a slight tale of interracial and cross-cultural love to reveal a lurid picture of postrevolutionary Somali life in the mid-1970s. He next wrote a trilogy—Sweet and Sour Milk (1979), Sardines (1981), and Close Sesame (1983)—about life under a particularly African dictatorship, in which ideological slogans barely disguise an almost surreal society and human ties have been severed by dread and terror.

      This unblinking portrayal of life under the dictator Maxamed Siyaad Barre (Muhammad Siad Barre) eventually forced Farah into exile. He taught for a time in Europe, North America, and elsewhere in Africa, writing in 1998: “My novels are about states of exile; about women shivering in the cruel cold in a world ruled by men; about the commoner denied justice; about a torturer tortured by guilt, his own conscience; about a traitor betrayed.” Secrets, the third novel of his second trilogy—which includes the novels Maps (1986) and Gifts (1992)—was published in 1998. For his thoughts about his country at the turn of the new millennium, see Sidebar: Somalia at the Turn of the 21st Century.

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Universalium. 2010.

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