Nuruddin Farrah Interviewed.
ELEANOR WACHTEL: Nuruddin Farrah, you were born in 1945 in what had until then been Italian Somaliland. And your homeland has seen much change and much hardship since that time.
NURUDDIN FARRAH: Yes, just prior to my birth it became British Somaliland, after the Italians were so badly beaten by the Allies in northern Africa and lost their colonial possessions. My father was an interpreter to the British colonial governor, and was transferred to the Ogaden in Ethiopia. And there my mother gave birth to another child, and we ended up staying on in Ethiopia. I attended school there, and did not return to Somalia until 1963 as a consequence of war, skirmishes between Ethiopia and Somalia, over the Ogaden territory.
Somalia had become independent in 1960, and I went to school in Mogadishu. I had been educated in an English-speaking Ethiopia, and had to adjust to the Italian or Arabic exams in Mogadishu. When I graduated, I became a clerk-typist in the Ministry of Education. And then in 1965 I published my first novella, Why Debt So Soon, in English.
You had five languages to choose from: Amharic, Arabic, English, Italian, and Somali -- which at that time didn't have a written script.
Yes, and I chose English because a very good typewriter was available. I'm a very practical person. And then there was no turning back -- except in 1973, six months after Somali was given a written form, when I decided to write a novel in Somali. I serialized it in the newspaper, but before I could finish, publication was discontinued by the censorship board. I was accused of all manner of treacherous things. I used to spend the odd night in detention, having to explain what I meant when I wrote this or that, and I was too unbending in my responses. I'd say that I knew what I meant when I wrote it, but that I could no longer remember. So I spent some time in detention.
Now this was after 1969, when the military coup brought General Mahammad Siad Barre to power along with the Supreme Revolutionary Council.
Yes, this was after 1969, and during a period of much argument about how the Somali language should become a written language. Officials considered using Arabic, Latin, or one of the many indigenous scripts. They would finally settle on Latin characters in 1973.
Now how did you end up in India for four years, studying philosophy?
I won scholarships, and I was advised by my elder brother's teacher, an American, to go to the University of Wisconsin and study journalism. But I preferred to go to India. In those days, we had no university at home, so Somalis were sent to universities in Italy, Germany, France, and the United States. But they often came back with a rather uppity attitude -- including the notion that Africa was full of germs. Young students would return home and refuse to shake hands with their own mothers until the mothers had washed their hands in alcohol!
India seemed much more like home. But there was also an additional intellectual reason. It may not have worked out in the end, but the intellectual reason was that I had rather naively fallen in love with Somerset Maugham's novel The Razor's Edge, which was full of Indian philosophy. And I then read E.M. Forster's A Passage to India and fell in love again with the idea of that country. I decided that the intellectual, cultural, and communication gap between Somalia and India seemed far less daunting than that between Somalia and America. And during my stay I loved India; it was an extraordinary experience.
But when your parents sent you away to school, a division between you and them started to grow.
Yes, they meant well, but this is what happened. When I came back, I would read a book, and I found that I couldn't talk to my mother about it -- even though she was a poet. It was not that she wouldn't understand the stories, but that she didn't read. Many people in Somalia were not literate in the sense of the ability to read. They were extremely literate in all other ways because of their very strong oral tradition. But if you keep living in a world apart from the one you grew up in -- the one in which everyone from home has continued living -- you find it gets more and more difficult to maintain the connection.
Now, I was not alone in the sense of being lonely, because I kept company with all the characters in the books that I read, and I read everything I could find. I found myself living in a contradictory universe. I knew my parents loved me in their own way, which is why they sent me to school. But I suppose they didn't expect that the difference between us would become so great. The more I read, the more apart I felt, and this gap continued until it became unbridgeable. It wasn't just that I had spent so much time physically thousands of kilometres away, not being literally a neighbour to them. The more books I read, the more I became mentally a non-neighbour. If I was reading Hemingway and wanted to talk about Hemingway, I couldn't. I couldn't discuss it with my parents or with anybody else.
This is interesting, because it is a common phenomenon among immigrants, when children assimilate and learn the language, that drives a wedge between the children in the new country and the parents who are still mentally inhabiting the old country. But I've never thought of it in terms of literacy or the conflict between a written culture and an oral culture.
Yes, it became more evident to me after I read Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy at the age of about eleven or twelve. Naturally, I didn't understand everything I read, but I could perceive that there was something very substantial here. I was very fond of my mother, largely because she was a poet and I liked to sit very close to her when she was composing something in her mind, to watch the expressions on her face change from those of pain, when she was having difficulty with a verse, to those of great pleasure and openness when she had completed the poem and would rehearse it. My memory was very good, so she would occasionally ask me to memorize her poems if she had pressing chores to do. Then later I could repeat them for her and perhaps write them down.
You have said, "If I am a writer, it's because of my mother."
Yes, that's where it all began. I might have become an oral poet, but instead I translated into the more modern form of written communication the very things that I might have done orally. But I understood early on the pains and pleasures of reading and writing because I understood that something opens in you. A door opens in your head, in your mind, something opens when you finally find the solution to a creative problem. And you can actually feel it. I am married for the second time now and have younger children, and you certainly can see the transformation in children when they come to understand that "one plus one is two," and how they change again when they understand that "one plus one" can be anything you wish it to be.
And you had a good balance, because you had your mother showing you an oral culture and then your brother introducing you to books.
Yes, and this could be difficult too. I loved both of them, and I wanted to be a poet like my mother. We were very close, and of all her children, I'm the one who looks exactly like her father. And of course there was the usual bribery that parents employ with children. I would be rewarded for memorizing her poems, and for other memorization tasks as well. At eight or nine, I was recruited to carry messages between a man and woman who were planning to elope. And I'm afraid I didn't always relay the correct messages -- it might depend on whether I liked the particular reward I had just received. So I understood early on in life that everyone has a little bit to contribute to the greater story.
The Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence played an interesting, somewhat ambiguous, role in your becoming a writer. How does she figure?
In a sense she became my guardian angel, opening the doors for me, even though I didn't completely understand it when it happened. I was living in Mogadishu, and she arrived as the guest of honour of the Somali government after she had written The Prophet's Camel Bell and had also published another book called A Tree for Poverty, of Somali poetry and prose that she had collected.
She read a couple of my stories, and liked one of them so much that that she offered to find a magazine to publish it -- but she wanted to cut two paragraphs. Now, I was only nineteen or twenty, and I told her she could publish the story but I would not want her to alter, cut, or tamper with it. Well, the next time I heard from her she was very, very angry with me. She was understandably angry because I had not even asked her what she had in mind. It turned out that they were very short paragraphs, and at the time she may have already committed the story to a magazine. But I was wrong-headedly obstinate in insisting that what I wrote should stand just the way I wrote it.
And then I left Somalia for India and wrote my first novel, and later on wrote to her asking what I ought to do after finishing the novel. In response, she wrote a most cantankerous missive containing a long spiel about truth and poetry and authenticity and things which -- at the time, and perhaps even now -- do not make much sense to me because I'm a very practical person. I didn't really know who to approach for advice after that. But a month after receiving the first cantankerous letter, a second one arrived. She must have reconsidered, because in the second letter she said "incidentally, if you have not found a publisher for your novel, might I suggest ..." and she mentioned the Heinemann African Writer Series. Now, being much older and perhaps wiser, and obviously having given much thought to all this, she was very good to me in the sense that she still took the time to point me in the right direction.
You published your first novel in 1970. Six years later, in 1976, you were forced into exile. What happened?
Two things, mainly. After publishing my first novel in English in 1970, I started writing in Somali and published the first few chapters of a novel in that language. And I soon ran into trouble with the authorities. I used to spend the odd night being interrogated over things I supposedly had done or not done. And even before this, in late 1969 or early '70, I tried to produce an English-language play in Mogadishu, and one of the characters was to be portrayed as drunk. The censorship board would not accept the idea of a Somali and a Muslim drunk on stage, and they asked me to alter it, and I said I wouldn't. So I wasn't allowed to do that.
And I ran into more and more problems with the authorities. I finished A Naked Needle in 1972 and sent it off to my Heinemann African Series publisher. But after reading it, he was so afraid for my life that he sat on it, not wanting to publish it while I was still in Somalia. He was so afraid that I would run into trouble that he held on to it until he was certain I was out of the country. When I had the opportunity to go to England to study theatre, and work with the Royal Court Theatre in London as director trainee, I jumped at that opportunity. And I remember this publisher, James Curry, calling me into his office and telling me, "Do not go back to Somalia. Didn't you realize when you were writing this book that you would not be able to go back?"
And I had not. I was so naive that I thought this is all literature, this is fiction.
Even though it was a political satire?
Yes, it was a political satire. It's a very naive novel, as I continue saying. And here I am in July of 1976 ringing my brother from Rome and telling him, "I'm coming home. Please send someone to meet my plane." And he replied, "You must be stupid, because you've just published a novel that has upset Siad in person." And from then on, it was a choice between exile and going home to face anything from detention to death.
What did you do?
I bummed around in Italy, worked as a translator. Worked at the Bank of Italy as an illegal substitute teacher. I did everything that I could in order to survive while I worked on a new project, a trilogy that I knew would take me a long time to finish. I had intended to go back to Somalia to do more research, but now I had no choice but to move into what I call the country of my imagination, in which I lived totally. It was very difficult even to find enough money to go back to any African country. I finally finished the first draft of the trilogy in 1978 and then began releasing the books, one every two years until I finished Close Sesame.
You gave your first trilogy the overall title Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship. So by this time you did know that would get you into trouble.
Yes, by this time I knew that if I ever returned home, I had already been sentenced to death there. And by this time I was playing with more than fire, since the third part of the trilogy has a plot in which there is an attempt to assassinate the general who has become head of state. This was based on a true incident that occurred in Mogadishu involving an assassination attempt on Siad Barre. Almost everything that I've written is based on some basic truth.
But you still find people - accomplices of the regime, now exiles themselves - who prefer untruths?
Yes, many people were happy to enrich themselves through connections to the Siad Barre regime, and these same people are now scattered all over the world, where they complain about their own political oppression. Three times, Somalian security agents tried to assassinate me - in Italy, in Nigeria, in London - and yet the very people who were part of that machine now complain about their own suffering, and refuse to admit their past complicity. They remain preoccupied with themselves, and give no thought to the harm they have done to others. They live in a world of lies, thinking only of what they might gain personally by repeating these untruths. Secrets is a novel about taking oneself so seriously in this way, and the interconnectedness of all these different facets of one's life.
Given that Somalis are by and large racially, ethnically, religiously, and linguistically fairly homogeneous, why are they still at war?
The absence of social justice, the absence of democracy, the absence of truthfulness, the absence of scientific reappraisal of one's own life - each of these plays a role. I find Somalis, now resettled in places like Toronto, living in a world of lies. They tell themselves lies all the time, exchange their lies with each other. Somalia has been run dictatorially for the past 100 years, first by the colonial state - be it Italy, France, or Britain - and subsequentiy by Siad Barre's dictatorship. Now, Siad Barre's government could not have continued, as I say in the trilogy on dictatorship, if it were not for the very many advocates of authoritarianism in each Somali family.
In Somali society the tradition has always been that one person gives the orders, and everybody else follows. And people have often made the mistake of thinking that as soon as you chase the dictator away you will have democracy - it is a mistake not just made in Somalia but in Nigeria, Sudan, and many other places. People don't understand that they must restructure their minds, which have been ruled by that dictatorship for years and years. Democracy starts within the family. You should not torture your daughter by having her infibulated. You should listen to your wife, instead of ordering her about, beating her up. In this way, people become more used to listening to each other, considering other opinions. If you have that sort of democracy in a family, when a crisis comes along, everyone is better able to deal with it, by working together and drawing on the strengths of every family member.
It is a very difficult thing, to retrain your mind to be more open, more understanding and democratic. I would be interested in studying Somali people here in Toronto -- to see, for example, how they retrain themselves in a different country, because I don't think they do retrain themselves. There may be some cosmetic changes, most importantly that the wife works outside the home -- in fact she may be the only breadwinner. The man often just waits at home for his wife to return, and then she'll give him money to spend while he sits around politicking with his friends. You need a lot more than that if you are to have real change. You need the men who do not go out to work to be the ones who look after the children, wash the dishes.
It interesting because even back in your first novel, From a Crooked Rib in 1970, you were engaging with the position of women in Somali society.
Yes, again thanks to my mother. Because whenever I argued with my mother, and I tried to tell her not to let my father dominate her, she would always say that I didn't know enough, that I needed to find out more. And it was this want, this desire to find out and to know more that has helped me a great deal. I'm not saying that I'm the ideal husband or father. But you work towards that.
But after that book you received letters addressed to you from people who thought you must be a woman.
Yes, and I still receive letters addressed to "Mrs Farrah." At one point there was a woman who had become my German publisher, who even came to a reading I gave in Berlin, and then afterwards wrote a letter to me starting out, "Dear Frau Farrah." So the humorous part is that I have grown a mustache now to make sure that nobody mistakes me for a woman. My wife is a university professor, and she goes away sometimes for a month or two, and our very small children -- one is three, the other is five -- live with me, and I'm both the mother and the father when my wife is away. I have no difficulties with that. I have no difficulties going into the kitchen, washing up the dishes, or doing any of these things -- because there is no woman's job, and there is no man's job, We have to retrain ourselves to live in a world in which such boundaries have been removed totally -- because even here in Canada, where the boundaries have been removed, the Somalis refuse to accept that the boundaries have been removed.
You've said that Somalia has been let down by its men and saved by its women. How so?
After the civil war I visited Italy, Switzerland, England, and Sweden to do interviews with Somali refugees. I have a non-fiction book coming out on Somali refugees, and I have discovered that the majority of the families that have survived have done so because of their women. I have discovered that the men have been helpless and unable to pull their lives together. Many of them are so much in despair that they think of committing suicide, and another form of committing suicide is to refuse to liaise with their families, with their children and wives. They live instead in this make-believe world of expatriate politics. And, as I was saying to the Somali community that I recently addressed here in Toronto, one of the key reasons that these men drag Somalia around in their present lives is because they have been failures when it comes to retraining themselves for their new environment.
The women, on the other hand, have been able to reorient themselves for life in a different place, and have been determined that their families will survive -- and they work, day-in and day-out, to achieve this. In Italy, some of the women I interviewed were the only people in the family who worked. They were the ones who earned the money to buy tickets for the men to be brought out of Mogadishu. They would keep working to shelter them in Italy for as long as they could, and would then send them on to greener pastures, places like Canada. The women made sure there was food on the table. The women were the ones who set out early in the morning, worked all day, and then came home late to start cooking dinner. Where are the men? They're probably hanging around at some railway station or bus stop or cafe, talking politics. And that is why I say that the women have saved Somalia, and if there is some small bit of sanity among members of the expatriate Somali communities around the world, it's thanks to the women. The men have been great failures.
You 've been quoted a number of times saying, "I wish to keep my country alive by writing about it." But Secrets seems to chronicle the death of a country. One character, on his deathbed, says, "Our country is as good as gone."
Well, a new country is born when the old one goes, and the new one is one into which we will breathe life. We breathe life in the sense that all the Somalis who flee from Somalia bring out with them something of a dead country, bring carrion within themselves. So the country continues dying every time someone says, "I do not wish to go back to that country now. I do not wish to go back to that country ever."
The country is like a wall, and as each person leaves it they take away a brick with them. This is what has happened to Somalia. The educated, the professionals, they leave first, and then everybody else. My attempt at writing about it before, in the way that I had written about the dictatorship, and my attempt at writing about it now in the way that I have done with Secrets, Maps, and Gifts are very different insofar as the problems are also different.
The problems are different because the collapse of Somalia began in 1977. It didn't begin in 1991 as many people think. The collapse began when Somalia, under the leadership - or the misleadership -- of Siad Barre, invaded Ethiopia, with no apparent thought about the consequences of this invasion. In other words, what we Somalis did was to export tension. We didn't want tension within our own borders, and so Siad Barre invaded Ethiopia as a kind of tension release, without thinking about what would happen as a result. And of course by the time the defeated Somalian army returned to Mogadishu, the nation was ready for an implosive war, because the external war had been the explosive part of the equation. Defeat, you see, is the mother of strife, and whenever you have this sort of catastrophic defeat, embittered people split into different factions, splinter into hostile groupings. If Siad Barre had been out of power by 1977 or '78, we wouldn't have had to suffer through the desperate situation that continues to this day.
Maps, of course, is about the war between Somalia and Ethiopia, while Gifts deals with the aftermath, the implosive war that occurred within Somalia when people were so much in despair and the country's economy was so much in ruin after a senseless external war. The country became dependent on foreign aid - and here is where the Gifts come into the picture. The book is about a government that can't feed its people. It's about Oxfam really running the country. It's about Save the Children and Care USA running the country. In other words, ministers within the government retained their titles but no longer had any real authority or power - the important decisions were all being made somewhere else. After the explosive war and the ruin of the country's economy, all people had left was Somalia's internal strife, and Secrets is about that. This is the story of that strife becoming so severe that people simply flee from the country, each taking a little bit of Somalia with him or her. And all that is left is a coun try of ghosts.
You went back, you went back to Mogadishu after more than twenty years in exile.
Yes, in 1996, I finally went back. Mogadishu was a ghost town. It was horrible, quite frightening. You never saw anything as frightening as the sights that I saw, the destruction there. And the reason for all this destruction is that the people didn't like themselves. They didn't like what they had become. They had to destroy everything in order to level the field before starting all over again. But the starting over is the most difficult part, much harder than the destruction.
Do you think you could ever live there again?
Oh ... yes. Things are becoming more complicated for me personally because my wife has just been offered a very good position at the University of Capetown as director of the African Gender Institute there. So I shall be going to Capetown, principally I think to look after the children and to look after her needs, for the time being anyway. After she's settled, I'm thinking of going to Somalia again, to visit for as long as I can. I feel I should continue the contact and continue writing about it - to keep the contact, to keep me alive, and to keep the memory of the country alive.
ELEANOR WACHTEL is the host of CBC Radio's Writers & Company and The Arts Today. A version of this interview was broadcast on Writers & Company and initially prepared in collaboration with Hal Wake.